30 Teams in 30 Days: St. Louis Cardinals Roundtable

Cardinals

Our guest bloggers is Matt Seybold from The Sporting Hippeaux, Daniel Shoptaw of C70 at the Bat, Mike Metzger from Stan Musial’s Stance, and Nick from Pitchers Hit Eighth.

Question 1 – Some are calling the Holliday deal the worst of the off season; is that true?
Daniel: I wouldn’t think so. Sure, the Cardinals probably spent more for Holliday than they had to, but he still got less than Scott Boras was claiming he’d get at the beginning of the season. I look at the Cardinals’ play on that contract as an over bet to help run others out of the bidding. If you come in too low, other teams will start getting into the mix and then you run the risk of losing the player. For all their talk about a “Plan B” this offseason, I don’t think the Cardinals really wanted to go to that plan.

Matt: It’s not the silliest contract, as Marlon Byrd and Brandon Lyon, among others, were overpaid by a greater margin according to their skills. I don’t believe the rumors that Scott Boras conned them into an extra $20 Million. If the Cardinals hadn’t ponied up, somebody else would’ve.

However, it is neck-and-neck with John Lackey’s contract as the riskiest of the offseason, simply because of its length. The Cards will be paying Holliday $17 Million in 2016, by which point he will be 36-years-old. Very few 36-year-olds provide $17 Million worth of production. They need only take a look up I-55 to see the progressively growing disaster Alfonso Soriano’s contract has become. Soriano was a year older when he signed it and it’s one year longer, but it will be (is?) one of the worst albatrosses in the game long before that year comes into play.

Now, Matt Holliday has a much better reputation than Soriano when it comes to keeping himself healthy and in shape, and he’s a more polished hitter and defender than Soriano, so the comparison is slightly unfair. Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to expect that St. Louis will be witnessing at least a couple years of Holliday’s decline during this deal.

The sad truth is that their have been seven contracts of $100 Million or more handed out to outfielders and only one of them (Manny Ramirez ’01-’08) was clearly worth it. Vernon Wells and Soriano are unmitigated disasters. Ken Griffey Jr. couldn’t stay on the field, which is fast becoming an issue for Carlos Beltran as well. Carlos Lee has been productive, but perhaps not at quite the level the Astros would’ve liked, and he still has three years left. Could Holliday be more like Manny than the others? Certainly. But the odds are stacked against it.

Jeff: Absolutely not — I think the Holliday deal will turn out just fine for the Birds on the Bat — protecting Albert in the lineup is/was priority 1a to re-signing #5, and Matt does that protection thing very well — Overspent? Probably — but let me say that as long as they still can re-sign Pujols, the Holliday should be nothing but a positive.

Nick: All depends on the viewpoint of the “some”.

This deal has so many fingers touching so many other parts of the Cardinals’ future that I find it difficult to evaluate as a stand-alone deal.

On the surface, it’s easy to look at those later years of the contract and wonder how it will be possible for Holliday to earn his paycheck. Surely increasing age and decreasing ability will be far more than market inflation can overcome, right? The Cards are going to be paying for some pretty lousy years in the back end, right?

Well, most cases in history tell us that – but there are exceptions. Truth is, we really don’t know what will happen 6 or 7 years from now with Holliday. What we do know is that he is the perfect fit for the Cardinals lineup NOW.

This is where the evaluation gets a bit murky for me – Holliday is an ideal fit currently, so what they’re paying him NOW is not overpaying or a bad deal in my opinion. Furthermore, if Holliday is the lure that keeps Albert Pujols in town – the “commitment to competing” that Albert was looking for – is it even possible they could overpay? If Albert takes a hometown discount of any amount, couldn’t you theoretically deduct the difference between his salary and his market value from Holliday’s yearly check?

There’s been a lot of talk about what Pujols is seeking in a contract extension, and I maintain that the Cardinals are going to be willing to pay just about anything within reason. If his willingness to stay in St. Louis was predicated upon Holliday returning, then how could they possibly have made a bad deal with Holliday?

As for whether they could’ve gotten Matt to sign cheaper, or were bidding against themselves, do you think we’ll ever really know? A bit hypothetical there, I know, but I’m not certain we’ll ever really know. Fact is, they got him below what Holliday and Boras thought his value was entering the off-season – that’s somewhat of a win in and of itself.

Michael: Below is a list of all the players who signed a 3-year or longer deal during this off-season:

Marlon Bird, 32 – 3y/$15M
Jason Bay, 31 – 4y/$66M
Aroldis Chapman, 21 – 6y/$30.25M
Chone Figgins, 31 – 4y/$36M
Matt Holliday, 30 – 7y/$120M
Tim Hudson, 34 – 3y/$28M
John Lackey, 31 – 5y/$82.5M
Brandon Lyon 30 – 3y/$15M
Placido Polanco, 34 – 3y/$18M

The going rate this winter was about $4.5M per WAR, according to Fangraphs. The Cardinals are betting that Holliday will be an average 3.8 WAR player for the life of this contract. That’s probable. However, no one produces the same at age 37 as they do at age 31, and baseball games aren’t determined by what a players average production is (OK, Albert, you get .8 of a HR today, Holliday gets 2 singles, Wainwright strikes out 7 and pitches 7 innings, etc). They’re decided by what happens during that game. During those seasons when Holliday is a 36 and 37 year old, St Louis isn’t going to get the same value they will this season.

Since I believe the Cardinals will get $120M of value from Holliday over the life of this deal, I can’t call it a bad one. However, since I also believe he won’t be a $17M player after Year 5 of the deal, I can’t help but wish years 6 and 7 were option years with a team buyout clause.

Aaron: It’s certainly not the worst of the offseason, but like everyone else, I’ll be intrigued to see if this impacts the team’s ability to retain Albert Pujols. As an A’s fan, I watched Holliday mope and loaf his way through the first two months of last season and then gleefully watched him butcher that flyball in the NLDS vs. the Dodgers. He’s a very, very good player who’s several paces behind greatness – but the Cards should be happy with the returns as long as Holliday’s head is in the right place.

Eugene: I’m in the minority in St. Louis, as I’m not a fan of the signing. Will it be nice having someone to hit behind Pujols? Yes. Will the team regret the deal in 5 years? Quite possibly. I think we’ll see decline at the end of the deal and it won’t be one that we’ll be able to push off on someone else. I also think that we could have addressed left field, a 5th starter, and a closer with almost the same amount of money. It would have also been nice to have those draft picks if he signed elsewhere.

Question 2 – Who will play most of the time at third base?
Daniel: A really intriguing question. I still think it’s likely that David Freese gets the plurality of time over there, but I’m not sure that it’ll be a majority, especially if Joe Mather is on the bench. Mather and Felipe Lopez will get plenty of time over there, unless Freese proves early on that he can hit in the big leagues. If he has a slow April, he may find it harder and harder to find time on the field.

Nick: This is the perfect situation for Tony LaRussa to go with his preferred method of “who has the hot hand right now?”

I expect David Freese to get every opportunity to prove he should be the every day starter down there, but it seems silly to think that the Cardinals signed Felipe Lopez to have him sit around and not get three or four hundred at-bats. Most of those are likely to come at the expense of Freese.

Joe Mather to me is the wild-card. If Mather carries a hot bat around in St. Louis, he’s going to be getting a good share of ABs as well, and less are available in the outfield now than would have been without Holliday.

Jeff: I fully expect Lopez to win and keep the job at three-bag. Tony will love his glove and he should outperform the other candidates with the stick, as well — I believe he’ll be a huge beneficiary of the lineup he’s in, seeing lots of pitches to hit and therefore finding himself on base a ton — seeing all of those pitches in the strike zone will help with his K/rate — I just do not trust Freese, I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it — Mather is interesting, but I truly believe all the Cards fans are going to be pleasantly surprised with Felipe.

Chih-Hsun: I have to disagree; I honestly think the job is for Freese to lose. Lopez looks like a natural 2nd baseman right now and honestly both guys are average 3rd basemen if you ask me. Freese hits for more power than Lopez and Lopez hits for a higher average. Freeze just seems to “fit” the 3rd basemen profile better. And Lopez is such a good versatile guy so regardless we are in good shape.

Matt: I think Felipe Lopez and Julio Lugo were both very wise additions, based on LaRussa’s tendencies. Both of them are pretty admirable hitters and can play all over the diamond. With Brendan Ryan probably out of the lineup for much of April, Lugo will start the season at short, which is a major downgrade defensively, but a sizable upgrade offensively, leaving Lopez in the mix at second and third, backing up Skip Schumaker and David Freese.

I think Freese’s performance early on has a bunch of implications for the other Cardinals. If he can hold onto third base, I think Lopez, who is an excellent defender and hit .310 last year, will eventually take over the majority of at-bats at second, with Schumaker able to move into a role which seems natural for him: fourth outfielder/utility man.

I know Skip is a popular player with St. Louis fans, as he should be, but his was among the worst fielders in the NL last year, while Lopez was among the best, and they are almost identical hitters. LaRussa is good about getting everybody at-bats and will continue to give Schumaker occasional starts at second, as well as in the outfield, spelling Ludwick and Rasmus.

Freese can hopefully offer what the Cardinals obviously won’t get from Lopez, Schumaker, or Lugo, which is a little bit of power (.532 SLG in minor leagues). Joe Mather and Tyler Greene also have some potential in that department, but I don’t see Joe Mather being capable of adjusting to the position and Greene is terrifyingly strikeout prone (more than 1 K per game, even in the minor leagues).

Michael: It’s already been said, but LaRussa will mix and match at third based on who’s going well at the plate, and who has a good history with the particular pitcher they’re facing.

That being the case, I think Freese and Lopez will eventually be pretty evenly split with AB – probably 350-375 each. Mather will probably get his time in as a late inning defensive replacement.

Eugene: I wish they would give Allen Craig more of a shot at third. Even with slightly below average defense, his bat would have carried him. Plus, if Brendan Ryan can continue his excellent defense, he’ll cover some of Craig’s short comings. In the end, I think Freese will see much of the time at third.

Question 3 – Which pitcher is the best option for the 5th rotation spot?
Daniel: More and more, it looks like that answer will be Jaime Garcia.

Garcia was my choice during the winter, but I could understand the hesitation on the part of management due to his injury history. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d gone to Memphis to work on arm strength to start the season.

I think that would still happen if Rich Hill could be effective, but so far he’s not shown that and he’s running out of time. It may be more likely that he winds up in Memphis right now.

As for Kyle McClellan, he’s having a great spring so far, though today’s game against the Marlins could be a telling factor. I just think they are wondering how they cover for him in the bullpen, and he’ll likely return to that role.

Matt: I totally endorse Daniel’s assessment. McClellan is much more valuable in the bullpen. Hill is clearly the guy they would like to take the fifth spot, but until he and/or Dave Duncan can solve his Ankiel-esque control issues, I don’t think he’ll be on the major-league roster. Garcia has done pretty much everything he could do this spring to prove he’s ready, although his walk rates are concerning as well.

Nick: The pitchers seem to be sorting that out on their own, in my opinion.

Rich Hill imploded this week with familiar control issues popping up. I don’t believe Hill can either get his mind right enough to earn the spot, or possibly even physically get back to the promise that he showed early in his career.

Kyle McClellan didn’t do himself any favors on Friday night, also displaying some concerning control problems. I’ve long held that McClellan provides the most value to the club in the bullpen.

Jaime Garcia is arguably pitching better than anyone else in Jupiter right now. It is clear that he came to camp eager to prove that he doesn’t need any more conditioning to rehab his surgically repaired pitching elbow.

Given that McClellan wouldn’t be losing a spot on the team, but rather falling back into a role in the bullpen (a ‘pen that has struggled this spring to find some consistency). Garcia has seemingly proven that his arm is healthy and he has the stuff to be a major league pitcher sooner than later.

Put Jaime in the rotation, KMac to the bullpen – improve team.

Trent: Garcia would be my pick for the fifth spot. If they get all five starters to chip in a bare minimum of 8 wins this year (i.e. starters 4&5) they should walk away with the division. They probably have the best 1-5 in the division (though the Reds could be discussed if Volquez was healthy) and should be able to support all five on a fairly regular basis.

Michael: I was pulling for Kyle McClellan, but it seems pretty clear Jamie Garcia has had the best spring. Right now he’s the best option for the 5-spot. McClellan has been nearly as good. I wonder if LaRussa would consider McClellan in the 4-slot ahead of Brad Penny.

Eugene: I’d been pulling for Jaime all off season; he’s clearly the best pitcher of the bunch. I would have liked the Rich Hill experiment to pay off, but it’s looking doubtful. McClellan has most value in the rotation, but I don’t think just throwing him in is very smart – he hasn’t pitched more than 80 innings since 2004 and has had arm problems. If they were to just throw him out for 200 innings, I see bad things happening. My plan would have been to stretch him out in Memphis, then see what he can do next year.

Question 4 – How will the Cardinals finish the season?
Daniel: Right now, on paper, the Cardinals are one of the two best teams in the National League, in my opinion. I don’t think they’ll have a lot of trouble with the NL Central, and as we all know, the playoffs are a crapshoot. Still, I think they have a legitimate shot at playing in the World Series and possibly winning it.

Jeff: anything less than a Central Division crown will be a huge disappointment — it’s totally realistic to expect the Redbirds in the World Series this year.

Matt: The Cardinals are among the top teams in the National League, undoubtedly, but they have a tough road ahead of them and as much as any team in baseball, their success is dependent on staying healthy. Losing Carpenter, Wainwright, Holliday, or, God forbid, Pujols for anything more than a few weeks would almost surely bring their season to a premature end. The lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen, though good on paper, are all quite shallow. Perhaps John Mozeliak will have the ability to acquire some key players at the deadline, as he did in 2009. However, the Cardinals farms system is not in great shape, further depleting it could have quite detrimental long-term consequences.

While I have St. Louis finishing second to Milwaukee in the NL Central, I still think, assuming they stay healthy, they will win around 90 games and be playoff bound. The two-headed monster atop their rotation makes them very dangerous in the postseason.

Nick: If the Cardinals don’t make the playoffs, 2010 should be considered a failure. They invested heavily in Matt Holliday and Brad Penny in order to keep the lineup in tact and shore up a starting rotation that lost 15 wins from Joel Pineiro.

Cincinnati is making strides to improve their major league team but is probably still a year or two away from putting together a contender. Pittsburgh is on the right track finally, but further off. Houston is a mess. Milwaukee still has a very powerful offense, but their pitching staff has yet to recover from losses of Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia. It seems easy to write off the Cubs given their epic failure in 2009, but they still have plenty of talent on that roster that could represent a serious contender if they are all healthy and on their games.

Bottom line, my expectation is for the Cardinals to win the division again – hopefully with very little challenge. Here’s to health.

Trent: It’s always easy to write off the Cubbies. All you have to think is, “Chicago Cubs in September” and it pretty much writes itself.

Michael: This team has the talent to win the division. Milwaukee arguably has the better lineup but significantly inferior starting pitching, at least on paper. Chicago may have slighly superior pitching, but Lee is getting old, and Marlon Byrd isn’t much of a upgrade from 2009 Milton Bradley. I expect around 93 wins and the NL Central for St Louis, assuming, of course, everyone remains healthy for the balance of the season.

I believe they will advance to the NLCS against Philadelphia. After that all bets are off, but I think Philly is the best team in the NL and will probably win the pennant.

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