So here we are in Mound City, home of the team that featured three of the 10 most-valuable players in the major leagues last season, and wound up with nothing but October golf dates to show for it. It would be easy, on a visceral level, to overreact and decide that the stars-and-scrubs formula hasn't worked, and start shopping one of the stars, but one of the advantages of this strategy for roster assembly is that you can easily replace the scrubs, and if you're worrying about expense, you know where to avoid it while making sure to spend top dollar on the capital items. It's the eight-figure mistakes with the likes of Kyle Lohse that are the ones to avoid.
First, start calling around to see whether several possible 2012 free agents-to-be in other people's outfields are available, as a matter of expense or disappointment or both. Start out with welcoming Sandy Alderson back to the ranks of the active organizational stewards and then ask about Carlos Beltran. Likewise, I'll congratulate Chris Antonetti on his promotion with the Indians before segueing to find out if he's willing to talk about Grady Sizemore. For a real wild card, let's buzz the Brewers and see if Doug Melvin is hungry enough for pitching talent to talk about Rickie Weeks—to play right field for us, though, not second.
Now sure, I know what you think, that I'll almost certainly be rebuffed, because it isn't like the farm system's stuffed with players. Even so, it's worth attempting because beyond trading for other people's under-contract stars, you get into solutions a lot more ugly (on defense) or expensive, or in the case of Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez, both. Given the expectation that there's only so much money in the register, I'd expect Dunn is automatically out of reach. Maybe Manny would sign for something incentive-laden, but I'm not holding my breath, and frankly, if I'm going to explore moving one of my big stars to right field, I'd rather see if his Albertosity would agree to the move so that I could try to add a lefty-swinging first-base bat for balance. And to be realistic, that probably also can be safely filed under “ain't gonna happen.”
However, to get any of these three, I'm certainly willing to put Lance Lynn into the conversation, figuring that Lynn's second-half performance has boosted his blue-chip rating enough to make him a name commodity in these kinds of conversations. For the record, after the break Lynn delivered 67 strikeouts against just 20 walks in 65 ⅓ IP, while getting his fastball from its previous 90-92 range up to sitting at 92-94, and even touching 96 in the PCL playoffs. That sort of improvement might find converts or new-blush enthusiasm, but given the modest cupboard and win-now expectations, he's probably the best moving part I have to work with.
If the Tribe is receptive about the concept—and they do seem to love them some Cardinals prospects—you can bet that Antonetti wants a blend of ready bodies and future value, starting with Lynn. So, I'll see if he'll go for a package that includes Lynn plus frustrating, toolsy outfield suspect Daryl Jones, one or two organizational types from among Mark Hamilton, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Nick Stavinoha, etc., maybe toss another live bat like Aaron Luna into that mix, and then one of a pair hard-throwing right-handers lower down in the system, Joe Kelly or Adam Reifer. Contingent on Sizemore passing a physical, of course, but if this works out right, the Cards could have the new Jim Edmonds in a five-for-one exchange. The price would essentially be a below-market one-plus-option deal, which I gave up a stack of nice talent to get, but it's not talent so nice you'll ever win the NL Central with it, long after my day's done.
That's a big chunk of the day right there, but getting a premium bat has to be taken as the must-do of the offseason to shore up a lineup that slumped to .261/.326/.384 after the trade deadline put Ryan Ludwick among the Pad people, which was almost a 30-point drop in SLG from what they'd done through July 31. But the other big-ticket item to address is the rotation, not just because you can never have enough pitching, but also because you just never know how much you can bank of Chris Carpenter's availability year-to-year, because Jaime Garcia is still going to be in the injury nexus for a year or two—he only turns 24 next July—and because there are still two more years with Lohse (for almost $24 million) to live down.
The easy fall-back, and the one that John Mozeliak seems to favor, is bringing back Jake Westbrook. I'm OK with that notion, as long as Westbrook is willing to sign for something well south of eight figures per annum. But if he decides to entertain dreams of plenty to be found on the market despite his track record for sporadic health, I'd say let him walk at anything north of $6 million, and see who might be willing to ponder taking up the dark arts at Dave Duncan's direction. There are a lot of veteran pitchers who need an assist to get their careers back on track, and if Dunc is all that his decades of delivered results suggest, I'm more than happy to make incentive-driven offers to former stars like Jeremy Bonderman, Doug Davis, Freddy Garcia, or Aaron Harang. Heck, give Brad Penny the benefit of the doubt, a non-roster invite and a split contract offer, just in case he'd like to make good on the money wasted on him last season.
This is where I go if Westbrook wants top dollar, perhaps signing a pair in order to threaten Lohse's job security with while I'm at it. If the two deals' costs are incentive-dependent, maybe then I have enough money left over at the end of the day to address that need for a big bopper in case my trade offers die quick deaths. If I don't get any of Beltran or Weeks or Sizemore, and I've wound up signing cheap starters on the mend, only then do I know I can make an eight-figure per, multi-year offer on Dunn to go out to play right field for at least the first year, while leaving Mr. Mozeliak something to work with if re-signing Pujols beyond 2011 proves impossible.
There's one major item left to address for 2011: the problem with stocking the infield at the non-Pujols positions, because that's a mess, but one you don't have to suffer with as you season ticket-holders just did. Up the middle, Brendan Ryan provides just one virtue (defense), and the Skip Schumaker experiment provides nothing beyond an “art for art's sake” exposition on the convertability of guys who don't hit well enough to start in the outfield—and who don't hit well enough to start in the infield either, as it turns out. Third base needs to be added to the shopping list as well, because while it sort of belongs to David Freese, it's important to remember that he's already heading into his age-28 season without having achieved all that much, and last season's production before he was shut down for surgery on his ankle didn't involve much power or patience.
At the very least, replacing both Ryan and Schumaker in the lineup should be queued up as the day's third major action item, with the acknowledgment that kicking both to the bench frees you from most of any other position-player shopping tasks. Ryan's best use will be as a defensive replacement (if you don't deal him for a reliever or the like), while Schumaker would be better suited as a multi-positional utility rover, one perhaps only you value when you're stuck paying him $2.7 million for 2011.
So to make sure I can afford my initial items as far as a bopper and pitching help, I'm going to trust rookie Daniel Descalso to help solve the Cardinals' immediate second-base needs. While there's an argument for seeing if Orlando Hudson would swing his nomadic career trek through St. Louis for a season or two, especially if he's willing to sign for $4-5 million late in January, I can't see a calendar from where I sit during my day in Mozeliak's chair, and I'm not going to pay a lot for my second baseman by moving early, not if I don't have much more than $15 million or so to play with (as the always insightful Matthew Leach posits).
Which means I should be serious about getting a shortstop. Here again, it's time to pick up the phone and see if the Rays would like to talk about moving Jason Bartlett or the Red Sox would get Marco Scutaro out of Jed Lowrie's way, also moving their salaries before they potentially become free agents for 2012. Both would represent significant offensive upgrades over Ryan, but in each case, though, I'm not looking to move one of my better prospects, so it's really just a pair of calls to see if either of my opposite numbers wants to move either and use the money in some other way. This will be easier to squeeze in if I've had to go cheap with starting pitchers; I figure I can't get either if I've pulled off the trade for Sizemore and settled for signing Bonderman and Davis, for example.
However, if I've got Sizemore and Westbrook, then I'm probably running out of money. While I'd like to talk to Jhonny Peralta for his multi-positional applications, I may have put myself in a position to afford an old friend: Edgar Renteria. For a year, and maybe something on the low end, ideally around $2-3 million. Ryan can serve as a spot starter and defensive replacement, and it provides the former St. Louis star with a victory lap of sorts. If Renteria decides to hang up his spikes, see if Miguel Tejada will take the same sort of deal. If not Tejada, call Juan Uribe. If not Uribe, call Craig Counsell.
But there's still the issue of whether Freese is really worth leaving be at third, and there, while Tejada or Uribe or Counsell would give you some flexibility, I'd really want to make sure it's a guy who can bat lefty. If I wound up with Counsell and he's already getting lots of reps at short, I might want to close out my busy day at the desk by leaving behind a note suggesting that if youse guys were formerly willing to blow the last spot on the bench on Sloppy Joe Thurston, you couldn't do worse by giving that same sort of role to Ruben Gotay after he hit .297/.430/.477 against right-handed pitching for Memphis. Yes, he drops off against lefties, and yes, he's a bit error-prone at third base, but if he ends up getting a bunch of at-bats spot starting as your re-fangled “second leadoff hitter” from the ninth slot, Pujols and his RBI totals will thank you for thinking of his pending free agency. Because avoiding that unhappy day is one big decision that you—or I—can't resolve in just one day.