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What's left to be done, without using the H-word

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Things in Holliday-land are moving so slow that it's a Big Deal for the negotiations to finally be characterized as Holliday-Cardinals instead of Holliday-Cardinals-Mysterious-Third-Party. At this point, I guess, without any artificial Baltimore-related impediments in place, we can see exactly how Mozeliak and DeWitt value Matt Holliday—and how, implicitly, they value Albert Pujols

Unless you're an even bigger fan of Jack Cust than I am, this is good news. (In a less boring environment it's hardly news at all, but I won't look it in the mouth if you don't.) 

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So with left field in a Holliday-induced coma—in the comments yesterday our very own chuckb mentioned Johnny Damon, who I still think would be interesting in a DeRosa-shaped contract—we're left to run with an unpleasantly lukewarm approximation of the Hot Stove. Cheap options that don't fill the biggest hole on the team—from this Hot Stove moment forward excitement must be measured against a low replacement level. 

Pitching

Beginning 2010 with Jaime Garcia in place as the fifth starter doesn't frighten me all that much; what's worse is the prospect of beginning 2010 with Jaime Garcia in place as the last line of defense between the Cardinals and the P.J. Walters Set, the low-impact players who have either not yet mastered AAA or have done it with a strikeout rate so low as to make major league sluggers into Two True Outcome players. The Cardinals' bulk depth is actually pretty good, qualitatively, as these things go; Walters continues to get strikeouts in the Pacific Coast League, and though his ERA doesn't show it 2009 was a significant improvement. Rule 5-er Ben Jukich is moderately interesting, and Lance Lynn is no more than a year away. 

But as nice as it might be that the replacements are potentially above replacement level, the Cardinals are inordinately close to them; Carpenter, Penny, and Garcia are all at short removes from serious injuries, and Garcia pitched 38 innings last year. Between now and April, should the Cardinals have some leftover pennies to spend, it would be nice to see the Cardinals fill the gap between Garcia and the Emergency Simontacchi Button with one more player. 

(My starting pitcher flavor of the week: returning ex-Rangers prospect Colby Lewis, who spent 2008 and 2009 as the Sheets-ian ace of the Hiroshima Carp and has recently been linked to the majors. Lewis was a well-regarded prospect in Texas's system at the start of the last decade; his numbers in the minors are reminiscent of, but not as good as, Anthony Reyes's, combining lots of strikeouts with low walks. 

His experience in the majors was, to put it charitably, even worse than Reyes's; after one last shot in the Brad Thompson role for Oakland in 2007, he was shipped off to the Central League and excelled immediately. In his 354 Japanese innings he struck out 369 (leading the Central League both years) and walked just 46, a K:BB of more than eight. 

At 31 he's no longer a prospect, so he's a tough player to value; what are 354 great innings worth when they occur at a level that's some difficult-to-gauge level below the majors? [AL bloggers: this is where your National League joke goes.])

But so far the major Japanese deal in this slow cross-country year comes courtesy of the Mets, who gave Yakult Swallow reliever Ryota "Rocket Boy" (an excellently Japanese nickname) Igarashi a two year, $3 million deal. I'm not sure about the pitcher himself—the numbers and the footage suggest a poor man's Chris Perez—but the deal itself seems like something the Cardinals should think over. We've gotten pulled forcibly into worrying about the state of the team's budget from now until 2017, but that shouldn't blind us of the team's continued flexibility for small, short-term dealing in areas like the bullpen, where the Cardinals remain weak. 

Hitting

Who's left to replace? The Cardinals have set a baseline of pretty-good most everywhere but in left. The weakest links are Brendan Ryan, whose defense would excuse any regression short of a fall all the way back to his execrable stint in 2008, and David Freese, who's also the cheapest link. 

Short of Adrian Beltre falling into John Mozeliak's lap—a development I wouldn't mind at all, given his all-world defense and severe home-away splits in unfriendly Safeco Field—there are few options left on the market that would beat Freese's combination of utility and affordability. Felipe Lopez, popular on the comments of late, is another option that would likely improve the team for 2010, but he and any other Mark DeRosa substitutes still available would leave the team with two utility infielders who should under no circumstances play shortstop. 

Outside of left field, and with the usual caveats for starting pitchers' health and relievers' year-to-year reliability, this is a well-rounded team. There's some breathing room left for Mozeliak to maneuver in the rotation and the bullpen, and Adrian Beltre would be an unquestionable upgrade at third, but aside from that it's a tough core to squeeze any more wins out of; even a potential Beltre deal demonstrates the way in which the Cardinals will be pushing up against diminishing returns from this point forward.