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The Road Map

Hey, everyone. Apologies for the late post; if I had known my morning was going to be as busy as it has been, I would have made sure and done this last night during the game.

Speaking of the game, wasn't that fun? I honestly don't remember the last time the Cardinals could boast of an offense this intimidating; I'm pretty sure you have to go back to the juggernaut of 2004. Even the 2005 team, the one I personally thought had the best chance of winning it all, had the occasional lineup struggle, mostly due to the fact Abraham Nunez made the vast majority of the starts at third base that year. This offense now, though, wow. Just wow.

There's been a lot of talk since Matt Holliday was acquired about extending him, about resigning DeRosa, about bringing back Pineiro; basically the sort of talk you hear when fans decide money does in fact grow on trees. Sadly, it does not, but the front office and ownership have also been very upfront about their desire to hang on to at least some of these guys; given the recent state of affairs in Cardinal Town, one must take their words at roughly face value.

By trading away such large chunks of their future, the Cardinals have done two things. One, they've proven their commitment to putting a winning product on the field to a portion of the fan base that had questioned said dedication, and two, they've removed several of their future avenues to continue with those winning ways. However, I do think the Cards currently have the pieces in place to build a team which will not only contend for the next few years, but should be a solid championship bet virtually every season for quite some time. Here's my own personal road map to ensuring at least the first part of the next decade looks more like the 2000s than the 1990s.

  • First things first: Bill DeWitt and Co. have to be willing to step up to the plate financially. They did so this season, taking on additional salary after attendance proved better than initial forecasts, but that isn't enough. By making the moves they've made this year, ownership has put themselves in a position where in order to compete, they're going to have to raise payroll. The only other option is to let all their arbitration-eligible players walk and hope Jeff Luhnow can blow the doors off the next draft with the resulting windfall, but I somehow doubt that's an avenue this group is looking to go down. If the Cardinals are serious about keeping Matt Holliday around while also resigning Pujols (and the resigning Pujols part really goes without saying; this organization stands to lose too much if Albert walks), they're going to have to be willing to bump payroll into the $100-110 million range. I don't know how feasible that really is from a financial standpoint, but I can tell you from a baseball standpoint, it's going to be an absolute necessity. 
  • Now for the actual baseball moves themselves. Sign Matt Holliday to a long-term deal, using the contract JD Drew received from the Red Sox a couple years ago as a guide. Holliday's numbers are better than Drew's, but that deal was signed in a very different world, plus the Coor's Field effect on Holliday's career stats. Something in the five year, $70-80 million range; if Holliday insists on a truly titanic deal, more the eight year, $100 million plus variety, thank him for his services and put a bunch of your free agent money into the drafting budget, because you're going to need it. You have to offer arbitration to Holliday at the very least; those picks are far too valuable to simply let them walk away. 
  • Offer Mark DeRosa arbitration. I know a lot of people are hoping to see DeRosa on a multi-year deal, and frankly, he probably deserves one based on his level of play the past few years. Nonetheless, facts is facts, and DeRosa is moving into his mid-30s, and handing out big money contracts for multiple years to guys firmly in their declining years is a losing proposition. I realise DeRosa has actually gotten better as he's moved past what would normally be a player's peak years, but that won't hold forever. If he accepts arbitration, you've got a great situation; a gifted offensive player on a one-year deal. But we've seen the Cardinals in the past get tied to long-term deals with players who are falling off the cliff, and brother, it ain't pretty. 
  • Arbitration for Joel Pineiro. Have I mentioned before how much the details of the Kyle Lohse deal hurt me? Funny that I would ever mourn the team's inability to at least consider a multi-year deal for Joel Pineiro, but such are the times we live in. Personally, I would be very hesitant to give Jo-El a longer deal, as we've heard this song before, but I also do honestly believe Pineiro has become a better pitcher. He won't maintain the level of success he's currently having, but I also don't expect to see El Pinata return any time soon, either. A guy with his mechanics and track record of durability, who can put up numbers even a step or two down from what he's accomplished this season is a remarkably valuable commodity. No way Joel accepts the arby offer; he'll get a three or four year deal from someone. There's also no way you can afford to give him that deal yourself, even with a sizable payroll bump. It would be possible in 2010, but look ahead a couple of years, when so many of your other young core players are getting expensive, and it simply isn't feasible. We'll always have 2009, Joel. 
  • After you get Holliday's contract done, extend Albert. I've said in the past that the chatter about Holliday proving something to Albert and changing the dynamic of those negotiations is mostly bullshit, but still, every little bit helps. Ride the wave of good feeling a Matt Holliday extension would provide, and use the opportunity to get Pujols locked up as well. I can't see Albert pushing for an A-Rod sort of contract, despite being A-Rod's better; I'm thinking something more along the lines of Mark Texeira's contract from the Yankees, especially money wise. If the contract has to go ten years, do it. You don't let a guy that so defines your franchise to a large portion of your fan base walk unless you absolutely have to, especially when it's a position player. 
  • Sign Ludwick to a three year deal. This one's interesting to me, as Luddy is still in his cost-controlled years, but he's also going nowhere but up. His 2008 season is probably out of reach, but the numbers he's putting up this year are certainly in play every year of that contract, I think. By signing him after this year, you avoid being forced up and up and up by the arbitration process; Ludwick gets the financial security that means so much by it being guaranteed money, and the Cardinals can lock him in to a contract that helps them stay competitive. Three years, say, $21-24 million. That gives Luhnow and the minor league guys three years to turn Wagner Mateo or Kyle Conley or Virgil Hill or Jon Edwards or some other kid into a big time right field prospect. My money's on Mateo long-term, but probably not in three years. There may be a little transition period there, but that's okay. Regardless, this contract locks up Ludwick's production at a reasonable rate, while giving the farm system a definite time frame to fill a need. After that, offer Luddy arbitration and take the picks when he goes elsewhere. (If, of course, the arby process hasn't been changed by then.) 
  • I think you need to offer Rick Ankiel arbitration. I'm afraid he'll accept and the Cards will be stuck with him, but hopefully he'll play well enough down the stretch that some team signs him to a reasonable two-year deal. The draft pick you would get for Rick is too valuable to just let it go, I think, especially after losing so much minor league talent this year. If he accepts, just trade him as soon as possible, for anything. 
  • Consider signing Rasmus to a long-term deal during the 2010 season. Think Evan Longoria here. I know Colby's been struggling of late, and is still understandably adjusting to major league ball, but the kid is a future star. He's already the best defensive center fielder in the game, and his offense, while inconsistent this year, has always been the most heralded part of his toolset. You're giving up lots of that precious cost-controlled time, but as with Ludwick, locking in a top-tier player at a price that works for the organisation. 
  • With Holliday signed, Daryl Jones needs to be traded. This really hurts me to say, as I'm a huge fan of DJ Tools, but let's face it: Jones isn't Matt Holliday, and isn't going to be. I think he'll be an impact player, but he isn't taking Holliday's job away from him. Now I'm sure you're probably thinking, "Well, yeah, but he's young, cheap, and would be one of the best fourth outfielders in the game!" To which I say, that's true, but here's my theory on that issue: the value of Daryl Jones as a fourth outfielder is less than the value of Daryl Jones as a trade chip. He's the last real blue-chip prospect in the system (and even he does have a few warts), at least until some of the new guys really begin to make their names known, and the Cardinals have quite a few other guys capable of being very good extra outfielders. You're probably looking for a lefty, so Jon Jay or Tyler Henley are the likeliest candidates; my money is on Henley stepping in and being that guy. In the end, my valuation works like this: Daryl Jones as a fourth OF is worth less than Tyler Henley as a fourth outfielder PLUS the return on Daryl Jones in a trade. 
  • In dealing Daryl Jones, the target needs to be a young stud pitcher, either a prospect or a 0-3 guy. Clay Buchholz is the guy I'm looking at as a model, though he's not necessarily a good fit specifically here.The Sawx are willing to move him, as he's apparently part of the package they're offering for Roy Halladay, but I'm not sure Jones would be a great fit for them, and I think they would only move Buchholz for a big time talent haul. That's the type of guy you need to get, though. The Cardinals are already locked in to three starters for the next few years, and aren't going to be able to afford to pay for even averagish production, much less top-flight production; you need to use your best trade chip to get one guy you really believe in to step in to the rotation next year at the back end and let him develop from there. The price will probably be Jones + a mid-level prospect, and I'm okay with that. 
  • A note about this young pitcher: I believe both Jaime Garcia and Mitchell Boggs can develop into good starters, given time. So why not just use those two, instead of moving DJ to bring in a guy? I don't think betting on Garcia to handle a full starter's load next season is a very good idea, and Boggs has yet to prove he can pitch well consistently, rather than oscillating wildly between potential #3 guy and candidate for Triple A middle relief. Garcia in the bullpen next season, working on his stamina and acclimating to the big leagues, Boggs or Hawksworth as the #5 starter and Lance Lynn stashed at Memphis as a #6/7 would be an ideal situation, I think. 
  • Skip Schumaker should be dealt as well. I know he's a managerial favourite, and has done yeoman's work this year turning himself into a decent second baseman, but Skip is also approaching the point when he's no longer cheap, and his age is no longer a real plus. And even as much as Skip has improved at the keystone, he's still a minus defender, if only a small one. Daniel Descalso, the Cardinals' second base prospect currently raking at Memphis, could match Schumaker's production numbers pretty closely, I believe, if only because he wouldn't have to overcome the runs Skip gives back with the glove. On the contrary, I've seen DD play a few times, and to my eye he's a plus defender. I think second base next year should be a time-share between Julio Lugo, who's already under contract and being paid for by Boston, and Descalso. 
  • In dealing Skip, the target should be, most likely, relief help. The Cards raided the pantry pretty well this season to bring in Khalil Greene and DeRosa, and while there's plenty more bullpen help still on the farm, you hate to not have a safety net if some of those guys struggle on exposure to the big leagues. You want a guy who's still young and cheap in exchange for Skip, but someone with a couple seasons under their belt, just so there's an established track record to work off of. 
  • Shelby Miller must be signed. The Cardinals need a blue-chip guy, if only to help prop up what is going to be a very weak system after this year's talent drain, but they also need MIller specifically to turn into the guy they think he can be. By the time Miller gets to the high minors, Carpenter will likely be gone, Kyle Lohse will be on his way out, and Adam Wainwright will be the expensive staff ace. The Cards have plenty of guys who look like they could pitch at the ML level in a rotation, but none with a really exciting, dominant package. With big deals for Albert, Holliday, Rasmus, Wainer, and probably Molina on the books, the Cardinals won't be able to afford to buy one, either, so they're going to need a young stud. Miller should be that guy. 
  • Not too long ago, I believe it was Azru over at Future Redbirds who postulated the Cardinals will likely see some conservative drafts the next  couple years to help restock things after losing so much talent this year. I think that's the exact wrong strategy to take. The Cards will likely be locking themselves into most of their starters for the next couple years, and there are still plenty of bench type guys in the system, so the early picks need to remain aggressive. The value difference, even if only in a trade scenario, between a Pete Kozma or Adam Ottavino and a Shelby Miller is hard to overstate. Even if Miller struggles early on in his pro career, he'll be insanely sought after, simply due to the possible upside if he puts it all together. On the flip side, what do you honestly think the Cardinals could get for Kozma right now, even though he's moved very quickly through the system and is playing better than several other first-rounders from the same draft? As useful as Kozma could end up being, the perceived lack of star upside there is going to depress his trade value, no matter how well he's played so far. 
  • Brendan Ryan is your shortstop the next couple of years. Particularly with the offensive firepower the Cards are boasting currently, you can absolutely afford to have a glove guy at short. (That's not to devalue Brendan's bat, either; he's become a decent major league hitter, but what we've seen so far is probably about his ceiling with the bat.) Particularly if you replace Skip with Lugo/ Descalso next season, the middle infield could save a whole lot of runs for the pitching staff. 
  • Third base is a tough one. The ideal, of course, would be for DeRosa to accept arbitration for next season, offering the Cards another year to try and figure out a long-term solution, but I honestly think someone offers him a multi-year deal. As it stands now, I think you have to repeat this spring's competition, with David Freese and Joe Mather competing for playing time. (Allen Craig should be in the mix as well, but I kind of doubt he will be.) If it looks as if one of those guys is going to hold down the job, great. If not, then they'll serve only as a stopgap until Mo can figure something else out. The alternative would be to try and get some hot corner help when moving Schumaker, but I'm not sure how feasible that is. Honestly, if the Cardinals go into next season with only third base as a position of real concern, I think we should all count our blessings after how badly the oufield and left side of the infield blew up this year. 
  • Luhnow and his crew must continue to draft plenty of relief candidates. It may seem to run counter to what I said earlier about drafting aggressively, but just look at how much value the Cards have gotten out of the minor league relievers of late. The bullpen this year has been a mild strength, and has cost virtually nothing. Drafting guys who closed in college, potential fast risers like Joe Kelly and Scott Bittle, may not be particularly exciting, but is a sound strategy for keeping costs down. With the big contracts for the power bats, the bullpen is going to have to continue to be very cost-effective. The only way to keep it that way is to grow your own relievers. 

So that's the course of action I would map out for the Cardinals over the next two offseasons. I think this is the year you need to get deals done with Pujols, Holliday, and Ludwick, while reaping the draft pick windfall from the departing free agents. You deal away a blocked high-octane prospect in order to get a future building block, and move a solid role player before he gets expensive and free up a spot for another top prospect.

If the Cardinals did these things, they would have the best outfield in baseball, a defensively outstanding infield with potential for solid contributions on offense, a rotation that could come close to equaling this year's production, and a bullpen that should be a mild strength again while not siphoning money. The Cardinals do this, and I think we could see another run in 2010-2015 like we had in 2000-2005. Of course, then they'll finally win the series in '16 after their newest trade acquisitiion, Madison Bumgarner, blows out his shoulder and is replaced in the rotation by by Colin Balester, only to see the whole thing come off the rails in 2017.

The Baron's Playlist for the 29th of July, 2009

"Waterfall" - Quintron

"Cannibal Resource" - The Dirty Projectors

"Twilight Galaxies" - Metric

"Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" - Bettye LaVette