It appears that the Cardinals are going to have to make a major trade if they're planning on making a serious attempt to defend their World Series title.
Although they managed to pull out a victory Monday against the Marlins, their play underlined what we already know: The bullpen is in dire straights. To add injury to insult, the team earlier in the day found out that ace Chris Carpenter is a lot less likely option to return to form in the near term than previously thought. So, with Carpenter and Jaime Garcia apparently on the shelf for the long term, it looks like the club needs at least one quality starter, too.
The bullpen is going to be tough to overhaul because there are several pieces needed. Where in the major leagues are the Cardinals likely to find a team with a battle tested and effective bullpen that is bad enough that they're willing to part with half of it? So I'm not even going to guess in which general manager John Mozeliak will go.
I'm not convinced after Monday night -- and the previous two months for that matter -- that Jason Motte is a decent closer. Not, at least, until he learns to harness and effective second pitch. Hitters are sitting on his once dominant fastball -- and hitting it hard. Then there's the matter of Marc Rzepczynski completely falling apart, Eduardo Sanchez coming apart at the seams and Mitchell Boggs and Fernando Salas running (sometimes) hot and (more often) cold.
After the Cardinals' (and Rays') remarkable comebacks last season, however, I wonder if teams are less likely this season to feel like they're out of contention and ready to put out the open for business sign.
There are good starters out there: Matt Garza with the Cubs and Wandy Rodriguez with the Astros are two players who could be useful who are also on teams that happen to be clearly out of the running. Chicago's Ryan Dempster also makes that list. But he's had some health problems lately and the Cardinals have been burned in recent history by acquiring damaged goods at the trade deadline.
Rodriguez could be the most attainable target if the Cardinals hope to keep Shelby Miller and other top prospects in the system. The Astros' GM is the guy who was responsible for stocking the St. Louis farm system, so he might have some guys he covets beyond the usual suspects. And, since Rodriguez is relatively well compensated, Houston might demand less in prospects for more salary relief. It's also nice, for the purpose of trading with them, that the Astros will be leaving the National League Central at the end of the year.
If the Phillies are ready to give up at five games under .500 and buried eight games out of the NL East lead in fourth place, Joe Blanton might be a guy they would deal or maybe they would even cut loose of Cole Hamels who is apparently at an impasse with the club on a possible contract extension.
I doubt the Brewers are willing to trade with a bitter rival even if they thought they are out of the running at seven games under .500 in fourth place. But Zack Greinke has been rumored to be available since spring training. I don't know if Grienke is worth the baggage he brings as a notorious clubhouse sourpuss. But he's got the pedigree and the hardware to do the job on the field.
The woeful Padres are getting a really nice season from former Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez. He's allowed 77 hits in 94 1/3 innings -- although he's walked way too many with 54 free passes issued. Wouldn't Volquez be interesting in a St. Louis uniform after his antics in the Cardinals' brawl with the Reds a couple of years back. Something else to consider: One has to wonder how much the Padres' giant home field factors into Volquez's results...
The big prize in the starting pitching derby might be Seattle's Felix Hernandez who has supposedly grown weary of the Mariners' losing ways. Some have accused Hernandez of dogging it on the field in order to force a trade.
He's signed through 2014 in a deal that pays him $19.5 million next year and $20 million the year after that, so the Mariners might be willing to pare Hernandez from their $85 million payroll. Cardinals fans aren't used to seeing their club pass out that sort of scratch. But they're potentially going to save almost $20 million on the rotation in 2013 when Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse hit free agency. It's also very likely that Lance Berkman's $12 million will be available for other purposes. With the emergence of Lance Lynn as a bona fide starter, which would be a better $20 million investment, Westbrook and Lohse or Hernandez and Lynn?
If Carpenter is in fact done for the season, any old fifth starter isn't going to cut it. They counted on Carp to carry a very large portion of the load down the stretch and the post season, sort of turning the rest of the rotation into glorified relievers who just happened to pitch at the beginning of the game. They need a guy who is capable of being a big game pitcher.
Hernandez is an exciting player who would be very well received in St. Louis. He'd have a chance to win here every year. And he's a guy with a future at the head of a rotation who might make a nice combo with Adam Wainwright for years to come with a compliment of younger, cheaper guys bringing up the rear. That being said, the Cardinals would almost certainly have to give up Miller to get him. And it might create some complications when the Birds try to extend Adam Wainwright in the next year or so because Hernandez currently makes so much more money than he does.