Note: this might be a pretty lengthy post. Read on only if you’re awesome.
As a baseball fan, July 31 is one of the most exciting days of the year for me. It’s unofficially the 2/3 point of the regular season, and it’s also the non-waiver trade deadline. As a result, the two or three weeks leading up to the deadline are filled with speculation and hypothetical trades created by armchair GMs that are often more puzzling than anything.
Last year, the week leading up to July 31 saw two significant trades and a free agent signing that changed the face of the Cardinals’ roster. Colby Rasmus, pegged to be the team’s center fielder for the next decade, was traded to Toronto along with a couple underachieving relievers in a three-team trade. In exchange, the Cardinals got Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, and some buttnut former Cub who took up a roster spot. They also traded a minor league outfielder for shortstop Rafael Furcal and signed free agent reliever Octavio Dotel, both of whom proved to be integral in the playoff push.
This year, the landscape was a bit different. With the team losing ground to the Reds and Pirates despite going 15-10 since the beginning of July, fans were adamantly clamoring for a major trade to bring in a starting pitcher, a starting second baseman, and who knows what else.
To his credit, John Mozeliak stuck to his guns and made no over-reactionary trades. Rather than mortgaging the future for a rental player, he made one trade and one free agent signing, both to bolster the bullpen.
First, he signed lefty Brian Fuentes, a free-agent reliever cut by the Oakland A’s after posting some less-than-mediocre stats earlier this season. Fuentes doesn’t throw the heat that he used to, but he’s also a half-season removed from a solid 2011. He’s a four-time All-Star, and in 2009, he led the major leagues in saves with 48. He’ll be used as a setup man, mostly in the seventh inning. He’s already appeared in three games for the Cardinals and thrown 2.1 scoreless innings. He’s walked two, but he’s also struck out three. If he can regain his form, he could be an underrated pick-up, as his career marks indicate.
The lone trade the team pulled off was for a reliever yesterday when the Cardinals sent former first-round pick Zack Cox to the Miami Marlins for Edward Mujica.
My first thought when I heard the trade: well, Zack Cox is more expendable than some of our other prospects.
My second thought: Edward who?
If you’re not too familiar with the name, don’t worry; you’re not alone. Mujica spent three mediocre years with Cleveland before going to San Diego, where he blossomed into an above average reliever for two seasons. Traded to Miami for Cameron Maybin, Mujica had an excellent season last year, walking just 1.7 per 9 innings and striking out 7.5 batters per 9 innings. This year, his stats aren’t nearly as good, but he’s still been very effective against right-handed batters, holding them to a slashline of .211/.265/.329. Mujica is just 28 years old and won’t be a free agent until 2014, so if he can pitch well the rest of the way, he could be a solid cost-controlled option next year for the Cardinals.
So, what about Cox? (heh) Cox was the 25th overall pick in 2010 out of Arkansas and was considered one of the best bats in the draft. He hit a combined .306 last year in high-A ball and AA and was promoted to AAA Memphis this year, where he started off extremely slowly, but began to find his groove in June and July. He was hitting .254/.294/.421 when he was traded. This is the second time in recent years that a first-round pick considered a top bat has been traded by the Cardinals (the first being Brett Wallace in the deal for Matt Holliday). With David Freese’s breakout seasons and the revelation of Matt Carpenter as a super-sub, though, Zack Cox was pretty much blocked at third base in the Cardinals’ system. He was initially considered to play second base but lacked the range and footwork. At first, he’s blocked by Allen Craig, Carpenter, and another top prospect at Memphis, Matt Adams, who is tearing the cover off the ball and has already had experience at the major league level. In addition to that, the Cardinals just drafted three third basemen within the first two rounds this year: Stephen Piscotty, Patrick Wisdom, and Carson Kelly.
I got into a rather lengthy discussion yesterday and today with a friend of mine who was a sportscaster for an NBC affiliate about whether the starting rotation needed to be updated. He argued that the rotation was middle of the road and the team could have gone after a starter like James Shields, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, or any number of pitchers that were available.
With all due respect to my friend, I disagreed. I think the starting rotation’s been perhaps the single most underrated aspect of this team.
Even with the early struggles of Adam Wainwright and the injury to Jaime Garcia, this rotation has been among the top in baseball.
Counting just the statistics accumulated by the starting rotations for each major league team, the Cardinals starters rankings are as follows:
Wins: 3rd, 45
Losses: 4th fewest, 32
ERA: 4th, 3.58
Innings per start: 6th, 6.19
BB allowed: 3rd, 167
On-Base plus Slugging: 4th, .697
Home Runs allowed: 1st, 49
Total Bases: 8th, 943
Caught Stealing %: 2nd, 44%
Walks/Hits per Innings Pitched: 8th, 1.26
K/BB ratio: 8th, 2.96
Pitches per plate appearance: 2nd, 2.69
On top of this, Jaime Garcia just began his rehab assignment with 2.1 scoreless innings. He’s scheduled to start Friday at Springfield. If things go well, he’ll make two more rehab assignments after that and then rejoin the Cardinals in late August, presumably moving Joe Kelly into the bullpen. The Cardinals could have presumably made a low-risk move, such as perhaps acquiring John Lannan from Washington, but it may not have helped.
Ok, so why didn’t they upgrade the offense?
Well, they don’t really need to. The Cardinals have the best offense in the National League, simply put.
Now, why don’t the Cardinals have a better record then, if the rotation is so good and the offense is the best? Well, the problem is the consistency with which the offense scores. The Cardinals don’t have a very good record in low-scoring games (isn’t that true about most teams, though?) and they’ll go stretches where they won’t score more than three runs in a game for a week. The Cardinals have an array of streaky hitters (Holliday, Freese, Molina, Beltran) and have been plagued by injuries (Furcal, Berkman, Jay).
When this offense gets it going, though, they’re good.
Runs: 2nd, 509
Hits: 1st, 989
RBI: 1st, 492
Average: 1st, .276
On-Base Percentage: 1st, .345
Slugging: 5th, .435
On-Base Plus Slugging: 3rd, .780
BB: 3rd, 361
While there were some big bats available at the trade deadline, I’m not sure it would have helped long-term. Hanley Ramirez was traded from Miami, but he’s got a prohibitive contract, and his performance has gone into a tailspin the last three years; his OPS is more than 200 points lower than what it was in 2009.
So, what’s the next move?
Well, really, barring an unforeseen injury, the next step’s gonna hinge on Garcia’s rehab. If he can come back healthy and be productive, he’ll either move back into the rotation and bump one of the youngsters into the bullpen or he’ll shore up the bullpen as a lefty. I’m not completely sold on his return; a torn labrum is one of the worst injuries a pitcher can have, if not the worst. If he can’t come back healthy, the team would likely recall one of their youngsters for the bullpen (Trevor Rosenthal, perhaps) or could perhaps make a trade.
A trade? I thought the deadline passed yesterday?
Well, it did, sort of.
The non-waiver trade deadline was at 3:00PM central July 31. After July 31, trades can be made, but the players being traded must pass through the waiver wire, meaning a team can claim the player once he’s been placed on waivers (the teams with the worst records get the highest priorities). If a team claims him, then the team that controls him can either work out a trade or remove him from the waiver wire. Once he’s removed from the waiver wire, he can’t be put on waivers again the rest of the season and must remain with his parent team.
If he passes through waivers, then the parent team has the ability to trade with whomever they please. The player must be added to the new team’s 25-man roster before September 1, though, if they hope to use him in the playoffs. It sounds kinda complicated, and it doesn’t happen a whole lot with impact players, but it does happen. The Cardinals pulled one such trade off in 2004, when they shipped three minor leaguers off for Larry Walker, who helped propel them into the playoffs in 2004 and 2005.
For now? Well, some are upset the team didn’t do more, and they’ve a right to feel how they want. Cincinnati upgraded their bullpen by acquiring Johnathon Broxton. Pittsburgh made a flurry of moves as well. By comparison, the Cardinals almost stood pat.
Still, signs are emerging the Cardinals might finally be playing to their potential. The Cardinals have won 9 of their last 12 and 16 of their last 26 games. Matt Holliday and David Freese were perhaps the best hitting tandem in the month of July in all of baseball. Adam Wainwright’s lowered his ERA a half run the last month, and the Cardinals have three starters with at least ten wins. The bullpen has been a major asset in the last month as well. The Cardinals have the best run differential (runs scored – runs allowed) in the majors at +102.
The Cardinals go for the sweep later today in Colorado, then they come home, where they’ll play 16 of their next 19 games. At home, the Cardinals have been playing much better as of late, as they’ve won 10 of their last 12 home games and won three straight series in a row. Although last year showed us that anything is possible, it’s more likely this coming stretch will show us whether the Cardinals will be legitimate contenders come August. They stand seven games behind Cincinnati, but they’re just three back in the wild card chase. If there’s anything that last season taught us, it’s that no lead is insurmountable.