Aaron Miles and Jeff Suppan were frustrating last season—exceedingly frustrating—but I don't think the Cardinals' failure to make the playoffs can be blamed on their choice of replacements, at least in particular; Felipe Lopez's replacement level performance over 425 at-bats was much more disastrous than Miles's over 151, and while the process that led to Jeff Suppan pitching 70 innings was all wrong, he somehow found himself with a 3.84 ERA over those 13 starts.
But free talent is fun to talk about—it's one of those areas in which you can still fancy yourself the smartest baseball fan in the room. So let's give ourselves and our pet Ken Phelps All-Stars the benefit of the doubt and see what happens when you replace the Cardinals' replacements with hand-picked VEB types. I'll be using Baseball Prospectus's MLE lines from last season, because Minor League Splits just wasn't made for these times.
Step one: Replace Pedro Feliz with basically anybody. The Feliz acquisition was the moment I realized the Cardinals were acting as though they were trying specifically to antagonize Viva El Birdos. Let me back up a little—it's not that they were trying to antagonize VEB, it's that there was no longer any difference between the way they were run and the way they'd be run in a hypothetical blog-pranking scenario.
In 40 games with the Cardinals Feliz put up an OPS+ of 32—a .208/.232/.250 line. If you set the average pitcher's 2010 batting line as the baseline for OPS+, Feliz would have hit 173. That's a freebie for Feliz's agent, who probably has his work cut out for him: Feliz is to pitchers as Albert Pujols is to other hitters. While I have the spreadsheet open:
CARDINALS LEADERS BY OPS- 1. Albert Pujols 472 2. Matt Holliday 422 3. Colby Rasmus 387 4. Ryan Ludwick 369 5. Jon Jay 343 6. David Freese 334 7. Yadier Molina 280 8. Skip Schumaker 277 9. Felipe Lopez 268 10 Brendan Ryan 225 11 Pedro Feliz 173 12 Brad Penny 169 13 Jeff Suppan 164 14 Adam Wainwright 159 15 Jaime Garcia 137 16 Chris Carpenter 63
I love just how nicely Pedro Feliz slots in as the top-hitting pitcher on the Cardinals. Anyway, he was really bad, is where I'm going with this, -0.4 wins below replacement in his brief stint with the team. He was so bad that acording to Baseball Prospectus you could slot in the perpetually young-for-his-league Donovan Solano, whose actual line with Memphis was .255/.283/.333, and get significantly better production (.231/.251/.284). (NOTE TO PEDRO FELIZ'S AGENT: CUT PRINTOUT BEFORE OPS- TABLE.)
But Feliz and Miles and any other middle infielder is backstopped by Ruben Gotay, who became a top Free Talent guy following his .272/.429/.450 2009 for the Arizona DIamondbacks' AAA affiliate. The Cardinals signed him, he had an extremely similar year (.285/.410/.436) for their AAA affiliate, and they proceeded to leave him there while they headhunted Pedro Feliz.
Gotay's a butcher at second base, and Miles was actually replacement level last year, so I think this is the right place to use Gotay, whose .241/.340/.345 MLE gives him an OBP-heavy OPS- of 288. If you're feeling especially exotic you could pry Matt Carpenter out of the Texas League, but MLEs aren't kind to a 24-year-old in a hitter's park in AA—his MLE is .233/.285/.333, which is only 136 points higher than Pedro Feliz's OPS.
If you give Feliz's 125 plate appearances to MLE Gotay you're looking at a difference of (really roughly) about seven runs on offense. That's a lot to expect out of Gotay, and Feliz underperformed even the expectations we had for him, but it's frustrating to see the Cardinals make a good move and then fail to take advantage of it all season.
Step two: Replace Nick Stavinoha with Allen Craig. Stavinoha may have helped to end Trevor Hoffman's career, but over 121 MLB at-bats in 2010 he hit .256/.286/.339, for a PEDROFELIZ+ of 159. Craig himself was not a great hitter in 2010, but he combined his not getting on base with an isolated-slugging of .166. Let's say Craig gets 80 of Stavinoha's at-bats and continues to mildly disappoint—that's something like three more runs.
Step three: Take a long look at the pitchers, whistle inscrutably. Not counting Joe Mather, the Cardinals got something like 254 replacement-level-or-worse innings out of their pitching staff last year. Blake Hawksworth, who I worry could put up some pretty solid MLEs in AAA, and Kyle Lohse, who had to come back at some point, make up 182 of them, which makes it difficult to imagine replacing them with different Free Talent types.
One thing the Cardinals absolutely should have considered is going in-house for their ROOGY reclamation project instead of bringing in Mike MacDougal. Josh Kinney's MLEs in Memphis give him an above-replacement-level performance, although the peripherals don't support his 1.80 ERA.
In Brandon Dickson the Cardinals also got one of the better full-season performances out of a PCL pitcher last season. He went 11-8 with a 3.23 ERA and a career-high 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings in AAA. I don't think he'd be much better than P.J. Walters if pressed into emergency service, but at least if he had been we could watch a new AAAA starter strike out Alfonso Soriano.