The Cardinals wowed a lot of skeptical fans this off-season with the largely
unexpected re-signing of Matt Holliday to what stands as the largest contract
in team history.
I’m thrilled the front office cracked open the old checkbook and made sure the
team will have a strong core just like it did in the glory days of the MV3, Albert
Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. But what has left me scratching my head
is the fact that the Cardinals have done nothing to address the relatively
cheap fixes of improving the virtually nonexistent bench and fortifying the
questionable back end of the bullpen.
With $120 spent on Holliday and another $7.5 million invested in starting
pitcher Brad Penny, are the Cardinals really any better than they were in
Early projections favor the Redbirds to win the weak National League Central
almost by default. Baseball Prospectus pegs the Birds as an uninspiring
84-78 team that narrowly edges out the 82-82 Reds for the division crown.
The weak points are easy to see. And they seem like they would be equally
easy to correct with the quality of players still on the free agent market with
a little more than a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring
If the season were to begin today, Red Sox castoff Julio Lugo would be the
only veteran available off the bench besides back-up catcher Jason LaRue.
Lugo in 2009 hit .280 with three homers and 21 RBIs. LaRue made it to the
plate for only 104 at bats, most for the purpose of giving starter Yadi Molina
an occasional day off, hitting .240 with two homers and six RBIs.
Both Lugo and LaRue are right-handed hitters, as are all of the Cardinals
starters except for Colby Rasmus and Skip Schumaker. In addition to the
dearth of lefty bats, the Cardinals don’t have a quality fourth outfielder —
unless you count Schumaker, who probably won’t spend much time chasing
flies after the Cardinals just gave him $4.7 million over two seasons to play
Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha saw some playing time with the team when
the outfield was devastated by injuries in 2008. But Mather couldn’t make
the big league club out of spring training in 2009 and struggled to the tune
of a .176 batting average in Class AAA Memphis. Stavinoha had 87 at bats
for the Cardinals in 2009 but hit only .230 with two homers.
Still available on the free agent market is Mister Obvious, Felipe Lopez,
who can play anyplace but pitcher, catcher or centerfield. He’s a switch
hitter who bats for average, has nice speed and decent pop for a guy whose
best position is second base. He could start at third in place of rookie David
Freese or he could be a super sub like Mark Derosa.
The Cardinals decided to scrimp on the fifth spot in the rotation, which is
understandable with four established veterans up front. The problem is that
Plan A seems to be to pluck Kyle McClellan from the back of the bullpen and
drop him in the rotation.
So, who replaces McClellan in the bullpen? While the Cardinals seem to be
set from the left side with Trever Miller, Dennys Reyes and either Ben Jukich
or Rich Hill, the righties are much less impressive. Blake Hawksworth has
limited experience, Jason Motte is enigmatic and so far unreliable, Josh
Kinney has been there before but his control hasn’t returned following nearly
two seasons on the shelf with severe arm injuries. Mitchell Boggs showed
some promise in his conversion from starter to reliever but he seems like he
is more likely to be the long man out of the pen, not a setup guy. Who will
step in if closer Ryan Franklin can’t reverse his late season funk?
The Cardinals need to go out and get a guy like Braden Looper or John
Smoltz who has the ability to start or pitch late in games. And they need to
do it soon, I would hate to see the investment the team made on the big
guns go to waste.