January 18, 2006
While the pretend LA team seems preoccupied with their courtroom battle, the real Los Angeles team has been busy making moves this off-season. Let's take a look at the moves made since we left off, focusing only on Major League acquisitions:
Immortality: Former Cardinals reliever Bruce Sutter was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. On his 13th ballot, Sutter added 56 votes to cross the 75% line and become the first pure reliever ever honored in this fashion.
In what was a short career, Sutter came to prominence with the Cubs, winning a Cy Young Award for them in 1979. It was with the Cardinals, however, that he won a championship. Acquired in exchange for Leon Durham, Ken Reitz and Ty Waller in the winter of 1980, Sutter helped the Cardinals to the best record in the NL East in strike-shortened 1981, then threw more than 100 innings in 1982 as the Cardinals won the East by three games. He came up big for the Cards in the NLCS, throwing 4 1/3 shutout innings against the Braves, with a win and a save in the three-game sweep. His World Series wasn't as memorable (four ER in 7 2/3 IP), but it was he who got the last out in Game Seven, helping the Cards to their first title since 1967.
The debate rages over whether Sutter is a worthy Hall of Famer, but there's no arguing that at his peak he was a dominant relief pitcher. He is a key part of the Cardinals' history, and now, a recipient of the game's highest honor, the second member of that 1982 team (along with Ozzie Smith) in the Hall. His plaque will show him wearing a Cardinals hat.
Answers: In the last Cards Notebook, we looked at the three holes the Cardinals would have to spend their offseason filling: two outfield slots flanking Jim Edmonds and one in the rotation. They did just that, albeit in a low-profile fashion that carries a lot of risk.
First, the Cardinals made a minor deal at the winter meetings, swapping Ray King to the Rockies in exchange for Larry Bigbie and Aaron Miles. Bigbie was a disappointment in two time zones last season, putting up a combined .239/.301/.346 line for the Orioles and Rockies in his age-27 season. It was his second down year in a row since his .303/.365/.456 performance in '03 for the Os. Bigbie has little star potential, and his complete failure to hit after a trade to Colorado last year has to be taken seriously. However, he's a good defensive outfielder with some doubles power and a decent walk rate, and he'll cost just $900,000 in 2006. It's an infinitely better idea than signing Jacque Jones would have been.
Not as low-risk, but unfortunately about as low-upside, was the decision to invest $15 million in three years of Juan Encarnacion. Like Bigbie, Encarnacion is considered a good defensive outfielder (although his Davenport numbers do not reflect this--below average in every season since 1997, and -32 FRAA for his career). He had a batting-average spike in '05, jumping to a .287 mark that was the second-best of his career, a figure that drove his .287/.349/.447 overall line and a career-high .280 EqA. The rest of his game remained unchanged, however; Encarnacion doesn't walk enough or hit for enough power to be an asset unless he's hitting .280 or higher, and he's not shown an ability to do that consistently. He's also not a threat on the bases any longer: 11 SB/9 CS the past two seasons combined.
Encarnacion has the better reputation and the more recent history of productivity, but it's Bigbie who's likely to help the Cardinals more in '06. The most likely scenario, however, is that neither player has much of an impact, and that Walt Jocketty has to scramble in the summer to fix at least one hole on an outfield corner.
Perhaps the most intriguing puzzle piece--and certainly the biggest one--is Sidney Ponson. Released by the Orioles following two seasons of lousy pitching and even worse personal behavior, Ponson represents the latest opportunity for Dave Duncan to resuscitate a veteran pitcher's career. The heavy-set right-hander doesn't have the talent to be Chris Carpenter redux, but if he can stay out of trouble off the field and take the mound every fifth day (prior to '05, durability was Ponson's main strength), he can be an asset for a Cards' team that has little in the way of rotation depth. There's no guarantee here; Ponson's peripherals have been mediocre since the first half of 2003, he's overweight, and it may be that not even the great baseball environment in St. Louis can get him to change his lifestyle. But the combination of a relatively talented pitcher with Duncan is familiar enough to make this marriage one of the more intruiging subplots of the spring.
The Cardinals have a top-heavy roster, with three of the brightest stars in the National League in Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. When you start that far ahead of the competition, just putting a league-average team on the field everywhere else is enough to push you into the high 90s in wins. (The Seattle Mariners of the mid-to-late 1990s, the last team structured similarly, failed to do this in some years.) Bigbie, Encarnacion and Ponson won't be impact players, but if they can just be average ones--and all have shown that ability--the Cardinals will be better equipped to ride their stars to a third straight division title.