All posts by Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

5. La Russa Keeps Cards in Contention despite No Deadline Help

I guess one could argue that every year’s top story is how the club did during the season, yet in 2008 the ending seemed incomplete with a second-division finish in the National League Central.

In this countdown, we have already considered the instability in the rotation, masked somewhat by the most fortunate March rescue of 15-game winner Kyle Lohse off baseball’s scrap heap.

The next storyline in this series will delve into the bullpen meltdown, in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa could be considered an enabler, at least.

Together, these two segments illustrate the career-long conundrum with the 30-year MLB skipper. On one hand, his loyalty to his veterans, which is admirable to a point, can at times work to the detriment of his team.

On the other, his preparation and intensity have clearly taken his clubs to heights they would never have reached otherwise. Such was the case in 2008, as La Russa demonstrated an uncanny ability to take what appeared to be an average club and get more from them than expected.

Exemplified by the rotating crew of outfielders, of which at least four spent considerable time on the disabled list and his unconventional deployment of batting his pitcher in the eighth spot in the order, La Russa used 147 different lineups in the Cardinals’ 162 games.

While he has taken heat in many corners for his “gimmick”, sabermetricians have proven there is a slight edge in La Russa’s move to bat his pitchers in the number eight hole. Who can argue against any edge, no matter how small it may be?

That wasn’t enough to save the season, though.

Eleven days prior to the July 31 trade deadline, the Cardinals had played exactly 100 games, or 62% of their schedule. They were 57-43, 14 games over .500 and just two games back.

Not two games back in the Wild Card race, mind you. The Cards were just two games out of the Central Division lead! Clearly anything could happen – especially with some help. The Chicago Cubs had already added Rich Harden.

On July 21, the Milwaukee Brewers came into Busch as the Cards had just swept the San Diego Padres out of town, four straight. Led by their shiny, new acquisition C.C. Sabathia, who shut out the Cards that Saturday, the Brewers won all four games. They would go on to make the playoffs despite sacking their manager while the Cardinals waited for help that never came.

I believe this series was the turning point in the season. More on that later.

I do understand why the club did not mortgage their future on a Sabathia-type trade, yet I do not accept the argument offered to fans that every single one of the 29 possible trading partners wanted too much in return for every potential deal.

Not every proposed trade had to be of a Colby Rasmus magnitude. For example, in past years, useful pitchers like Jeff Weaver and Joel Pineiro were picked up at the deadline for spare parts at the Double-A level.

Rumors surfaced of the Cardinals’ interest in players such as left-handed relievers Will Ohman and Brian Fuentes and outfielder Matt Holliday. Yet, ownership and management did almost nothing while the team fell short by just five games from capturing the Wild Card instead of the Brewers.

Do you really believe no help was available or that the bosses weren’t completely trying? To me, it almost seemed as if they had predetermined their 2008 club just wasn’t good enough. If true, it would be most strange since this team won three more regular-season games than the World Champions of 2006.

I chalk up the 2008 season as an opportunity lost, though La Russa deserves kudos for keeping them in contention as long as he did.

4. The Decline of Izzy and the Bullpen Woes

Coming into the 2008 season, Cardinals fans had every reason to feel optimistic about the bullpen and especially the ninth inning.

Club career saves leader Jason Isringhausen seemed to have put his hip surgery behind him. Izzy was coming off a league-leading 2007 during which he saved 94.1% of his opportunities (32 of 34). He ended that year by converting 18 consecutive save chances.

Veteran set-up men Russ Springer and Ryan Franklin were back to reprise their roles, but the left side was a bit uncertain. Randy Flores’ production had begun to decline, while Tyler Johnson’s health problems lingered. As a result, minor league signee Ron Villone made the team instead.

I have never been a strong proponent of the “roles” argument, i.e. “I didn’t know my role and that is why I did not pitch effectively.” Yet in 2008, the unsettled nature of the closer’s job did seem to impact the efficiency of the pen and therefore the team.

Let’s look at the chronology:

May 9: The first-place Cards drop a 4-3 game to Milwaukee as Izzy blew his fifth game of the young season. La Russa then took the closer out of the ninth-inning role, which a frustrated Izzy welcomed.

May 15: With a depleted pen, La Russa calls on Izzy to protect a one-run lead in the eighth against the Pirates. Four runs scored as Izzy could only get one out. The manager called Izzy’s situation “problem number one” for his club, losers of seven of nine at the time.

I suspect overuse could have contributed.

Though Isringhausen had an injury-free 2007, La Russa went out of his way to explain that during 2008 spring training that he would use his closer sparingly to “save his bullets” for later. Especially considering Izzy’s past hip problems, the plan seemed wise.

Yet as soon as the regular season began, the surprising Cardinals began to play close game after close game – contests they could and did win. A by-product was aggressive use of Izzy.

Specifically, the closer took the ball in half of his club’s initial two dozen games, 12 appearances through April 25. By the time he called it quits temporarily, he was still taking the mound in every other game – 21 appearances in their first 43 contests.

Even in his younger days, Izzy had never pitched in 80 games, as his early usage pace projected. In his seven full healthy seasons since becoming a full-time closer, Isringhausen averaged 64 outings, with a high of 74 achieved four seasons ago.

May 16: One day after saying he had no physical problems, Izzy was placed on the 15-day disabled list. The stated reason was a laceration (cut) to his right hand, caused when he hit a television in apparent frustration one week prior. Interestingly, since that episode, the 35-year-old had been able to make three more mound appearances.

The unstated reason for the move was for Izzy to somehow regain his lost mound confidence after absorbing six blown saves and five losses in his first 17 save situations. He reported to Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida. “Closer of the future” Chris Perez was promoted from Memphis for the first time.

June 14: Izzy had been pitching in Palm Beach and Springfield on his rehab tour as Franklin had been closing during the intervening month. Perez was doing well in his MLB introduction in a general relief role.

While Franklin had six saves and a win, he was often in trouble. Compared to his time setting up, as closer his WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) and ERA exploded. (1.25 to 1.40 and 1.80 to 3.87, respectively.) It seemed clear Franklin was not the ninth-inning answer.

June 27: Since his MLB return ten days prior, Isringhausen had been ridden hard again, though not as closer. He pitched in six of the Cardinals’ nine games, including two outings of 2 1/3 innings each. He allowed eight hits and three walks in those 8 2/3 innings, but only one earned run.

July 18: Perez was returned to Memphis to work on his secondary pitches. He had yielded runs in seven of his last ten outings (9 ER/12 1/3 IP).

July 25: In the same Milwaukee series mentioned above where Sabathia spun his shutout, Franklin took losses in Game 1 and Game 4, both via devastating home runs.

A tenth inning three-run blast by Bill Hall started the series and Ryan Braun finished with a two-run shot that turned a potential Cardinals win into a disheartening four-game series sweep for the visitors from Wisconsin.

Franklin’s uncomfortable post-game interview that Thursday was reminiscent of Izzy’s public frustration and disappointment in May. At that point, Franklin’s ERA and WHIP as closer were 5.46 and 1.75. His July ERA was approaching eight.

July 28: Izzy returned as closer but seemed to be on a short leash. Club officials noted that Adam Wainwright, out since June 9 with a finger injury, might be tried in the ninth-inning role.

August 1: Isringhausen collected his only save in his second 2008 stint as closer and what may be his 217th and final save as a Cardinal in a 6-3 home win over the Phillies.

August 6: Perez was called upon in a tight game against the Dodgers and was perfect in getting the final five outs. It was the 23-year-old’s first major league save. He would go on to collect five more during the rest of August.

August 18: Izzy’s season ended as he went onto the DL with tendinitis and a partial flexor muscle tear near his right elbow that would require surgery in September. La Russa admitted the club had been aware of the injury for the previous week to ten days, but did not know if Izzy had been hiding it for a longer period.

September 7: After two blown saves in the first week of the month, Perez picked up his final save and seventh total in the 2008 season in a 3-1 home win over Florida. He won against the Cubs two nights later, but took an extra-inning loss in Pittsburgh on the 13th.

September 8: In what may have been his strangest closer announcement in a season full of them, La Russa seemed to be grasping at straws when he disclosed his new plan to deploy the perennially-rehabbing Chris Carpenter as his one-game-per-series closer. What made it especially odd was at that point Carp had pitched just once since August 10 and did not appear again in any 2008 games following this “announcement”.

September 18: Jason Motte relieved Perez in the ninth against Cincinnati, picking up his first career save. It would be Perez’ last save opportunity of the season as Franklin was re-installed as closer to finish out the season.

How bad was it?

  • The Cardinals tied for second in the majors in games lost by the bullpen with 31, behind only the woeful 99-loss San Diego Padres (34).
  • They tied with a 101-loss club, Seattle, for the most blown saves in MLB with 31.
  • The Cards lost 12 contests in extra innings, worst in MLB.
  • They were defeated in walk-off fashion an astonishing 13 times, also worst of the 30 teams in the majors.

It is impossible for me to believe that this 2008 team would not have been a playoff club with a more stabile closer.

Looking ahead, it is unclear what the plan is for 2009. At least some of the powers want to add an experienced ninth-inning man, but no one is yet on board to play that role.

Perez, Motte and Franklin will be back, while Izzy and the unheralded Springer are likely gone. Kyle McClellan and oft-injured Josh Kinney will also return.

3. Albert Pujols: Overcomes Elbow to win MVP and nine other awards

When reading several other top Cardinals lists for 2008, I was stunned that Albert Pujols’ season was not even mentioned. Being so consistently excellent means he is often taken for granted, even by a segment of his own team’s fans.

In 2008, Pujols ranked second in the National League in batting average and on-base percentage and first in intentional walks, total bases and slugging. Albert’s OPS of 1.114 was not only the league-best, it is his personal career-best.

That is why it is so encouraging to see that Pujols became 2008’s most recognized player across MLB despite the Cardinals’ late-season fade.

Pujols collected ten major awards:

  • The National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, his second (2005).
  • The Dick Schaap Memorial Player of the Year and National League Player of the Year Awards from the MLB Players Alumni Association
  • The Roberto Clemente Award from MLB
  • The Players Choice Player of the Year Award and NL Outstanding Player Award voted by his peer players
  • The Oscar Charleston Legacy Award as the best player in the NL from The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  • The Sporting News MLB Player of the Year
  • The NL Silver Slugger Award at first base
  • This Year in Baseball Hitter of the Year Award

All this occurred against a backdrop of concern over lingering problems with his throwing elbow. When the pain increases, Pujols has been known to make comments which are quickly inflated in importance and the resulting over-reaction is widespread.

The issue flared up in January and again late in the season as anxious fans tried to interpret a deeper meaning when Pujols complained of pain and noted his ever-present surgical option. Yet as recently as September, Pujols was quoted as saying he felt the best he had in a year and a half as the Cardinals undertook the unusual action of issuing a formal press release to deny the first-baseman’s season was in jeopardy.

In October, Pujols did undergo surgery on his right elbow in a procedure that was considered more minor. It included decompression and transposition of the ulnar nerve, designed to reduce the pain and hopefully forestall the more-serious Tommy John ligament replacement surgery that could take him out of action for up to an entire season.

Over the next couple of years, the heat will be turned up on team executives to ensure the face of the franchise receives a long-term contract extension that will make him a career Cardinal.

2. Ryan Ludwick: All-Star and Silver Slugger

Just the opposite of the Pujols not-to-be-taken-for-granted story is the totally unexpected emergence of outfielder Ryan Ludwick as an offensive force.

The oft-injured 30-year-old has traveled many miles since having been the second-round draft selection of the 1999 Oakland A’s from UNLV, taken just 14 picks after the Cardinals called out “first baseman Chris Duncan”.

The right-handed hitting younger brother of former Redbirds pitcher Eric Ludwick made his first major league appearance with the 2002 Texas Rangers. He had become a Ranger after having been part of a deal for now-Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. After 21 games in centerfield, Ryan’s initial season ended when he required surgery to insert a screw to repair a serious hip fracture.

Then ranked as the Rangers’ number seven prospect, Ludwick spent most of the first half of 2003 back in Triple-A before moving to the Cleveland Indians in a trade for outfielder Shane Spencer and pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez, who would later pitch in Memphis (2006). In what became a continuing pattern of injury, Ludwick missed the final month of the 2003 campaign with a contusion of the patella tendon in his right knee. Surgery would be required to remove torn cartilage.

In 2004, Ludwick began the season with a second surgery to remove scar tissue in the knee and then had to deal with a bleeding ulcer. Ludwick didn’t come off the disabled list until July and rehabbed in the minors until receiving a September call-up to the bigs. That is when in a bizarre mishap, an apparent stray gunshot penetrated the Indians’ team bus, grazing Ludwick and striking a teammate.

Ludwick made the Tribe roster out of spring training in 2005 as their fourth outfielder, but soon thereafter strained his shoulder and by Memorial Day was outrighted to the minors. Ludwick signed a minor league deal for 2006 with Detroit and spent that entire season in Triple-A. He agreed to terms on a similar deal with the Cardinals in December, 2006.

After an impressive spring with the big club and continuing to scorch the ball in Memphis early on, Ludwick received the call to return to the majors in early May, 2007. Among his season highlights for the Cardinals were a go-ahead, three-run home run and a career-high five RBI against the Oakland A’s, two home runs against the Reds which included a 473-foot shot, among the top ten longest in Great American Ballpark’s five-year history, as well as a career-best hitting streak of 11 games in September.

Coming into 2008, Ludwick seemed to be in a competition with former American League MVP Juan Gonzalez for a right-hitting outfield position. Juan Gone couldn’t answer the bell so while Ludwick made the team, he entered the season as a part-timer. That changed quickly.

Ludwick ended up playing in 152 games in 2008, batting clean-up against right-handed hitters and following Pujols in the line-up. Ludwick became the first player since Hideki Matsui (2004) and Lefty O’Doul (1929) to hit 30 home runs and have 100 RBI at age 30 while having had 750 or fewer career at-bats.

Ludwick set career highs in at-bats (538), hits (161), doubles (40), triples (3), home runs (37), RBIs (113) and batting average (.299). His .591 slugging percentage was second best in the National League and 80 extra base hits ranked third in the NL.

He and Pujols were named to the 2008 National League All-Star Team as reserves. Ludwick made the team via the Player Ballot, which is cast by players, managers and coaches. Following the season, the two were also selected for The Sporting News’ 2008 National League All-Star team and received NL Sliver Slugger Awards.

Despite the results, during the off-season Ludwick has been mentioned by Cardinals GM John Mozeliak as possibly being available via trade. The outfielder was linked to aborted deals with the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies but remains a Cardinal today and is expected to reprise his surprise role with the 2009 club.

1. The Wounded Arms: Carpenter, Mulder, Clement

The problems and successes of the 2008 Cardinals have been covered in detail already, yet when all is said and done, the lack of a healthy, productive rotation is what I consider to have been the biggest contributor to the disappointing 2008 bottom line.

The stress on the bullpen would have been reduced by dependable starters capable of getting even into the seventh inning. Over the course of the 162-game season, the Cardinals starters averaged just 5 2/3 innings. They tied for last in the league with two complete games.

The starting staff allowed the third-most hits in the NL at 1009, with only Pittsburgh and Colorado worse. They fanned just 576 opposing hitters, 15th of the 16 NL clubs. In part due to stellar middle relief led by Russ Springer, their starter’s ERA was 4.20, in the middle of the NL pack. They also walked the fewest batters at 266.

The acquisition of Kyle Lohse, the emergence of Todd Wellemeyer as a credible starter and the steadiness of Braden Looper were all positives. So was Adam Wainwright, who missed two-and-a-half months with a finger injury.

The inconsistency of Joel Pineiro, Brad Thompson and rookies Mitchell Boggs and Mike Parisi was not unexpected, as the latter three were asked to make 14 starts among them.

Yet the reason this item is number one on my list is that the three big names expected to join the Cardinals during the season, Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Clement, did not contribute.

Over their careers coming into 2008, all three had winning records. In fact, they are a combined 75 games over .500 and have totaled 290 major league victories.

Carpenter 100 69 0.592 229 25 1522 694 4.10
Mulder 103 60 0.632 202 25 1312.1 609 4.18
Clement 87 86 0.503 236 6 1412.2 702 4.47
Total 290 215 0.574 667 56 4247 2005 4.25

With a season-opening payroll of over $99 million, almost one-fifth of it, $17.75 million, was tied up in these three non-starting starters. If you include the buyouts paid to get rid of Mulder and Clement, the total cash burned climbed to almost $20 million.

Here is what the Cardinals received in return – less than one inning per million dollars:

2008 W L PCT GS CG IP ER ERA Salary
Carpenter 0 1 0 3 0 15.1 3 1.76 $10.5M
Mulder 0 0 0 1 0 1.2 2 10.80 $6.5+$1.5M
Clement 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00 $1.25+$.25M
Total 0 1 0 4 0 17 5 2.65 $17.75+$1.75M

Of course, it wasn’t known starting the season these three would all fold, yet the Cardinals paid for their lack of preparedness.

With all the injured players, the Cardinals resorted to an unprecedented in-season move with formal weekly medical reports. It seemed more often than not that pitchers were always progressing, yet never quite ready.

Following are some of the specifics.

Carpenter was already throwing bullpens in March with a predicted July return, 12 months after his Tommy John surgery. By mid-April, he was facing live hitters and was up to 60 pitches.

In June, Carp suffered a setback. Elbow soreness led to a trip to famed Dr. James Andrews to ensure there was no serious injury. In early July, Carpenter was back up to 55 pitches, but the club was suggesting he might have to return as a reliever.

After two minor league rehab starts, Carpenter was activated to make his first MLB start since Opening Day 2007 on July 27. By his third start, on August 10, Carp had to be taken out due to a right triceps strain.

He returned to the DL on August 15. Though Carp was activated when rosters expanded, he made just one short September relief outing before being shut down again.

Following a period of intrigue, Carpenter elected a non-surgical rehab in preparation for 2009. To say there remains concern is an understatement.

Mulder’s target return was originally May. He made his first rehab start with Palm Beach on April 15. The lefty struggled upon moving up to Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, complaining of shoulder fatigue. In May, he was shut down twice with a rotator cuff strain and lack of range of motion in his shoulder due to capsular irritation.

After adjusting his arm slot to a lower position, Mulder finally resumed his rehab back in Springfield in mid-June. He then had to be scratched from a Memphis start with back stiffness later in the month.

Despite that, the Cardinals activated Mulder on June 27 and made him a reliever. In seven minor league starts, his ERA had been 6.55 and minor league hitters teed off against him at a .338 clip.

In another surprise, La Russa and Dave Duncan started Mulder on July 9 in Philadelphia. He lasted less than one inning, leaving the game with “left shoulder irritation”.

After Mulder remained in limbo for over a month, the Cardinals finally officially pronounced his season over on August 20. When the club bought out Mulder’s 2009 option on October 21, his three years as a Cardinal officially came to an end.

Closing the books, the lefty had pitched only 12 2/3 innings on his most recent two-year, $13 million contract signed prior to the 2007 season. Not surprisingly, Mulder’s agent has recently proclaimed his client cured and ready to go. He remains a free agent.

While the financial gamble on Clement was not bad, it was the Cards’ unrealistic expectation that he would be a member of their 2008 rotation that was ridiculous. Clement had three serious shoulder surgeries and was two years away from having been effective.

Once the coaches got a look at him in the spring, the optimism turned to concern. Duncan told me in March that he was surprised Clement was not ready. The righty did not pitch in any spring games, instead being placed onto the disabled list to start the season along with the other two.

Clement began his minor league rehab with Palm Beach on June 2nd. A month later, he was still not ready. With a move required, he cleared waivers and reported to Memphis.

The Cardinals finally admitted the obvious on August 2nd when they released Clement. He was clearly unable to pitch at the level necessary to compete in the bigs with a 4.61 ERA and ten walks compared to eight strikeouts in a dozen appearances.

The 34-year-old never reached the majors with St. Louis, signing a minor league deal with Toronto for 2009.

If any of the three had come through, the Cardinals 2008 season would likely have ended differently.

While Mulder and Clement are gone, the Cardinals have no choice but to hope for the best with Carpenter. They are committed to one another for three more years and a minimum of $44.5 million.

In the next installment of this series, I will anticipate several of which may prove to be the top Cardinals stories of 2009.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Coming soon:

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

10. Kyle Lohse: From Jobless to Four-Year Contract

After having been traded at the deadline in two consecutive seasons, right-hander Kyle Lohse arrived in Philadelphia in time for the 2007 stretch drive. Though the Phils fell in the playoffs to the National League champion Colorado Rockies, Lohse wanted to stay in the City of Brotherly Love.

Despite the then-29-year-old’s career record of 11 games under .500 and an ERA pushing five, Philly reportedly floated a reasonable three-year, $21 million offer past agent Scott Boras early last off-season. Rejected then withdrawn, it would be the last bid Boras and Lohse would see until spring.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals were patching together their 2008 rotation, hoping Matt Clement, then Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter could return from injury and lead them into the playoffs.

Even as spring camp began, it became clear that Clement could not contribute and the others may not be able to be relied upon, either. When Joel Pineiro added to the woes with shoulder problems in March, Cards GM John Mozeliak quickly dialed up Boras.

The resulting deal was a bargain – one year at a base of $4.25 million, reaching $4.75 million with innings-pitched incentives. Lohse would go on to lead the 2008 Cardinals in victories with a career-best 15 and post the lowest ERA of his eight years in MLB at 3.78.

Lohse was the first Cards pitcher since Matt Morris in 2004 to start both Opening Day and the initial post-All-Star break game. He cracked off a nine-game win streak that ended in late July which was the longest on the team since Carpenter’s 13-game run in 2005. Lohse’s .714 win mark (15-6) was fifth-best in the NL.

Lohse didn’t want to be homeless again this off-season, so in September, he ordered Boras (against the agent’s better judgment) to negotiate an extension to enable the pitcher to remain in St, Louis. A four-year, $41 million deal ensued, announced as the season ended.

It remains to be seen whether the extension will prove to be a wise business move for the club, but where would the 2008 Cardinals have been without Kyle Lohse?

I prefer not to think about it.

9. The Drafting and Success of Brett Wallace

The 2008 First-Year Player Draft was an important one for the St. Louis Cardinals. While the overall reputation of their farm system has been steadily improving in recent years, it seemed more a measure of quantity than top quality.

Other than top prospect Colby Rasmus, few if any Cardinals farmhands were being mentioned by industry watchers as among the best in the game. With the 13th overall pick this June, their best position since prior to the Jeff Luhnow years, the organization had a chance for a big move.

They passed with flying colors by taking third baseman Brett Wallace of Arizona State University, recognized by many as the most polished hitter in the entire draft. The two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year and the only hitter in ASU history to hit over .400 in two consecutive seasons, the California native received a signing bonus estimated at $1.84 million.

The rap on the 22-year-old is his defense, though he is still learning, with only a couple of years of experience at the hot corner. Some critics can’t get past Wallace’s 6-foot-1, 245 pound frame and assume he is a statue defensively.

While at least one writer derisively asserted that Wallace has “falling down range”, others, including yours truly, have seen him play and believe he can be a credible major league third sacker. Wallace hears the negatives and told me he uses them as motivation.

This fall, I asked Wallace where his defensive efforts are being focused.

“The angles for me are a big thing and reading the ball off the bat. I think there are sometimes balls that I am not used to because I haven’t been playing there that long. A ball is hit and it takes me a second… It’s a constant adjustment, reading different hops and reading the angles are some of the main things I am trying to work on.”

There is no doubt about the bat. Between Quad Cities and his season-ending skip-level promotion to Double-A Springfield, Wallace’s line was a solid .337/.427/.530 (BA/OBP/SLG).

He was asked to participate in the prestigious Arizona Fall League and though he started slowly, he then came on strongly. Against the higher-quality arms in the AFL, Wallace improved his slugging while keeping his OPS constant (.309/.381/.585).

With Troy Glaus in his final season contractually in St. Louis, the only remaining question is whether Wallace will execute another leapfrog manuever, this time over David Freese. The latter, acquired from San Diego for Jim Edmonds one year ago, excelled with the bat at Triple-A Memphis last season and currently seems to be Glaus’ heir apparent, though that is a most tenuous title.

If he continues at his current pace, established in less than six months as a professional, Wallace could make his first appearance in the majors before the conclusion of the 2009 season, with 2010 still anyone’s guess.

Mark DeJohn
Mark DeJohn

8. Minor League Success: 60 Games over .500

For some years the laughingstock of those who rank farm systems, the St. Louis Cardinals’ investment in rebuilding their minor leagues is finally getting noticed. Just this past week, it became known that Baseball America plans to rank the Cards as the number eight system among the 30 across MLB.

One measure of success is minor leaguers joining the big league team. As I noted here, eleven different players made their major league debuts for the Cardinals in 2008, nine of whom were products of the farm system. At least three of them became major contributors to the club – Kyle McClellan, Joe Mather and Chris Perez, while Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia and late addition Jason Motte all showed promise.

Two players were invited to join Team USA for the Olympics and five were selected to play in the Futures Game. While Memphis had just one All-Star, Springfield had eight, Palm Beach seven, Quad Cities three and Batavia six. Johnson City and the Gulf Coast League Cardinals had one All-Star each, with the former’s representative, Curt Smith, was named the Appalachian League’s Player of the Year.

In addition to individual success, there were positive results on the field in 2008, too. The Cardinals top six minor league affiliates all had winning records and combined to win 60 more games than lost (376-316, .543).

Chris Maloney’s Triple-A Memphis Redbirds reversed several losing seasons, finishing in second place in the Pacific Coast League American North Division.

The Springfield Cardinals of the Double-A Texas League just missed the second-half North Division crown. Pop Warner’s team actually had the division’s best first half-second half record combined, but did not make the post-season.

The Palm Beach Cardinals won the first-half East Division crown in the Florida State League, but lost in the playoffs to the eventual league champion.

Steve Dillard’s Quad Cities River Bandits ended the season two games over .500 in Midwest League play.

Not only did the Batavia Muckdogs win the Pinckney Division of the New York-Penn League, they took the league crown. It was the first title in the 51-year history of the franchise. Mark DeJohn was named our Cardinals Minor League Manager of the Year.

The Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League finished six games over .500, their first winning season since all the way back to 1996!

Only the Gulf Coast League Cardinals struggled, as they were a feeder for other clubs while relying on high school draftees and Caribbean academy players making their US debuts. One of the league’s youngest clubs finished 17-38.

In addition, a vast majority of the managers and coaches will be returning in 2009, offering continuity and the potential for further improvement next season.

7. Long-Term Extensions for Young Stars Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright

Some may be surprised to see this topic rate so highly. On the other hand, I feel so strongly about it that I can’t help but wish I could have scored it higher.

While many fans focus on the bottom line of payroll spent and agonize over high-priced free agents, the key to be able to afford such luxuries is to grow and protect top talent.

Such was the case early in the year when the Cardinals locked up two important parts of their future, catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Adam Wainwright, long before they had to. Each player signed a long-term deal that carry into his free agent years, assuring him of remaining with the Cardinals for some time.

Molina was first. In January, he agreed to a four-year contract extension worth $15.5 million with a club option for a fifth season. With the agreement, the Cardinals and Molina avoided salary arbitration and keep one of the game’s best young catchers in the organization through at least 2011. The deal includes the first and potentially second of Molina’s free-agent eligibility years.

The catcher rewarded the club with his trademark defense, recognized as the NL’s Gold Glove backstop for 2008. It was Molina’s first award. He also batted a career-high .304.

Wainwright followed. In March, he inked a deal that covered 2008 plus Wainwright’s three arbitration-eligible seasons, 2009, 2010 and 2011, along with a pair of team option years that would eclipse his first two seasons of free agency. As a result, the now-27-year-old could remain in a Cardinals uniform through the 2013 campaign.

Financially, the contract can be four years, $15 million, five years, $24 million or six years, $36 million. No matter how you slice it, the deal looks to be a bargain for the club, while giving the player earlier financial security than he would achieve otherwise.

6. Troy Glaus for Scott Rolen Trade

Two birds with one stone. Addition though both subtraction and addition.

Characterize it how you want, but make sure you recognize this deal for the masterful stroke it was.

On January 14, Mozeliak and the Cardinals traded disgruntled third baseman Scott Rolen to the Toronto Blue Jays for their third sacker, Troy Glaus. Rolen’s once powerful offensive game had declined after three shoulder surgeries and his dissatisfaction with team management deteriorated to such a level that something needed to be done.

All over baseball, it was known the Cardinals had to move Rolen. Not a great bargaining position to be in. To that time, the best (and perhaps only) public offer for Rolen was made by the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers, who anted up injured left-hander Chris Capuano. Mo wisely passed.

Glaus, while a solid player since coming up with the Angels in 1998, had struggled with foot injuries recently, possibly aggravated by the artificial turf in Toronto. In addition, Glaus’ name was among the many that had come up in the Mitchell Report.

Following the trade, the newest Cardinals third baseman did everything that was asked of him and more. Though lacking the range of Rolen, Glaus was very dependable, with a league-high fielding percentage at the position of .982 against just seven errors all season long, the latter setting a new club record.

Offensively, Glaus answered the bell for 544 at-bats over 151 games, with the former his highest count since 2002. He delivered results, too, with 27 home runs and 99 RBIs that were both third-best on the club as was his OPS+ of 124. Glaus typically batted in the number five spot in the lineup, behind Albert Pujols and either Ryan Ludwick or Rick Ankiel.

As noted above, Glaus is under contract with the Cardinals for 2009. He has the right to test free agency following the upcoming season. On a Cardinals team that was labeled by many as being “in transition” in 2008, the addition of Glaus was huge, though it was generally unheralded.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Coming soon:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Where Were You in ’82?

The 1982 World Championship was the St. Louis Cardinals’ first since 1967, a span of 15 years, and would be the only one to break up the long, dry spell from ’67 until 2006.

As most Cardinals fans already know, Whitey Herzog’s 1985 and 1987 clubs would again knock on the door, but those National League champs were turned away in the seventh game of the Series by the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, respectively.

Not this time.

On October 20, 1982 at Busch Stadium II, the then-American League champion Milwaukee Brewers sent out the former Cardinals Pete Vuckovich and Ted Simmons as their battery for Game 7 of the World Series. The former was the American League Cy Young Award winner that season, while the latter had been arguably the greatest catcher in club history, both having been traded away in controversial deals made by the then-unproven Whitey Herzog.

The Cardinals answered with their “one tough Dominican”, the often unpredictable Joaquin Andujar. “Vuke” was knocked out in the sixth as Silent George Hendrick and Keith Hernandez powered the Cards from a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead they would not relinquish. The final was 6-3.

Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter (left) finished up Andujar’s win with two scoreless innings and leadoff man Lonnie “Skakes” Smith had three hits, including two doubles and scored twice. The Cardinals stranded 13 runners or the outcome would have been worse. Catcher Darrell Porter was awarded the Series Most Valuable Player Award.

The club had won 92 games during the regular season and took their first-ever National League Eastern Division crown, then stomped the Atlanta Braves three straight for the NL championship. At, we ranked this 1982 team as the number 12 all-time Cardinals squad.

I don’t need to watch the replay on, part of a series called “Baseball’s Best”, but I encourage everyone to do so who doesn’t already own the game on tape or disc. I purchased my copy as part of the DVD box set entitled “Greatest Games of Busch Stadium”. (Currently on sale at A&E Shop.)

It clearly was one of the greatest!

Looking back, I realize that I had grown up a bit spoiled by the success of the Cardinals of the 1960’s and after the terrible 1970’s, was more than excited about this Series victory.

Just as with other key points in one’s life (Where were you when Kennedy was shot, etc.?), I remember exactly where I was on the night of October 20, 1982.

Sadly, I was not at the ballpark. A business trip put me in Dallas, Texas. I watched the game at the then-Granada Royale Hometel on Stemmons Freeway. Despite the sub-optimal setting, I will never forget the feelings of release of my 15-years of pent-up excitement that night.

Bob Forsch, Keith Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog and Willie McGee at a 1982 team reunion in 2005. (AP)
Bob Forsch, Keith Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog and Willie McGee at a 1982 team reunion at the old Busch in 2005. (AP)

Maybe it was my then-relative youth, but even the 2006 victory, after a longer wait of 24 years, did not seem as sweet as that long-awaited 1982 championship!

Thanks to Whitey and the boys!

A question to my fellow old-timers out there. Where were you for the ’82 win?

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

15) The Emergence of Kyle McClellan and Skip Schumaker

Kicking off part two of this series is a segment with a pair of positive stories about two unexpected top contributors to the 2008 Cardinals. Only one was a true rookie as the other claimed a starting role for the first time after bit parts in three previous seasons.

Kyle McClellan came into spring camp as seemingly the longest of long shots. He had been in the system since 2002, recovered from Tommy John surgery, been left exposed in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft and not taken and had accrued just 30 2/3 innings of pitching at the Double-A level and above coming into 2008.

Yet Pitching Coach Dave Duncan was intrigued by the right-hander’s four-pitch repertoire. During a solid spring, McClellan was moved from starting to relieving and was ultimately selected to come north with the big-league club.

The local St. Louis product would start strongly, being called upon in more and more important situations. As the season progressed, the 24-year-old’s results tailed off, however.

McClellan went on to make 68 appearances, second-most among National League rookies and third-most all-time among first-year Cardinals. He earned 32 holds, but was just 1-for-6 in save opportunities. McClellan earned the Cardinals Rookie of the Year Award, presented by the organization in September.

Moving forward, McClellan could be asked to return to the 2009 bullpen or be returned to starting.

Skip Schumaker has been in the Cardinals system a year longer than McClellan, since 2001. While the 28-year-old made his MLB debut in June, 2005, he rode the Memphis shuttle for the next three seasons.

The left-handed hitter came into 2008 in his best shape ever and with a chance to assume the old So Taguchi spot, that of pinch-hitter and late-game defensive replacement, able to play all three outfield positions.

With a superb spring, Schumaker held off top prospect Colby Rasmus. He not only made the big club for the second consecutive year, but surpassed his previous peak by becoming a starter and lead-off man.

Injuries, first to Chris Duncan and later to Rick Ankiel, along with an ability to get on base (.359 OBP) helped cement Schumaker’s starting role. As a result, he received 540 at-bats, becoming a key contributor to the 2008 Cardinals in the process. Schumaker’s primary Achilles heel is an inability to hit left-handed pitchers (.168/.238/.185 in 119 at-bats last season).

With at least six outfielders legitimately positioned to contend for at most five jobs in 2009, nothing is assured for Schumaker going forward. Because he has exhausted all his option years, he cannot be sent down to the minor leagues without first being exposed to waivers.

14) Colby Rasmus: Strong Spring, Lost Season

Who hasn’t heard of the Cardinals top prospect in each of the last two, going on three seasons now?

A little over one year ago, then-new general manager John Mozeliak wanted popular but fading centerfielder Jim Edmonds to be gone badly enough that he was willing to pay San Diego $2 million just to take him away.

Many anticipated part two of the move to be the ascension of Colby Rasmus to replace Edmonds in 2008, this despite the 21-year-old having never played above Double-A. To say Rasmus’ year didn’t evolve as anticipated would be a grand understatement.

The business reality of baseball reared its head when Rasmus did not come north with the Cardinals despite his solid showing during spring training. His primary competition from the left side, Skip Schumaker, had an equally impressive spring, earning the leadoff role on the 2008 Cardinals.

Rasmus, upset over not making the team, headed straight to Memphis and into a deep funk. He crawled into June with a 2008 regular-season OPS considerably under .700. Further complicating matters, his father received wide notoriety due to a series of critical comments posted on our message board.

In June, Colby blistered the ball, with an OPS of .976. That same period, fellow Memphis outfielders Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha each made their MLB debuts instead of the top prospect, earned though solid performances over a longer period this season.

On July 1, Rasmus was added to the Team USA Olympics squad, which by default would either keep him in the minors or he would have to give up his spot. Within ten days, a groin injury put the outfielder onto the disabled list, making it a moot point. Rasmus didn’t return until late August when he played in three games each in the Gulf Coast League and Florida State League.

It was too little, too late for the Alabama native in 2008.

Despite the Cardinals being short-handed in the outfield with Duncan, Ankiel and Mather out, Rasmus did not receive the call to make his MLB debut in September. In the estimation of manager Tony La Russa, Colby hadn’t played enough during the season to warrant the move.

Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow spoke to in September about Rasmus.

“I think he’s going to focus 100 percent on being ready for Spring Training and making this club,” Luhnow said. “That’s where his head needs to be. Forget who’s posted what online, or what people are saying about what he’s doing or not doing. He and I had a good long chat [Tuesday], and I believe he’s got the right attitude.

“When you talk to him directly, he has one goal and one goal only, and he’s pretty focused on it. I tried to communicate to him that I have that same goal. That we all do, really.”

2008 was basically a lost year for Rasmus, with nothing considerably different today versus 12 months ago other than the uneven Triple-A experience. As of yet, Colby is not required to be added to the 40-man roster and just as was the case last year, remains a long-shot to make the Cardinals out of 2009 spring training.

So far, Rasmus has been rumored to be virtually untouchable when other clubs make trade inquiries. Once upon a time, the subject of the next top story was in a similar place.

13) The End of the Anthony Reyes Era

Depending on how you look at it, the official date for this event might have been July 26 or perhaps December 11. Others argue the die had been cast several years earlier.

Prior to Rasmus, the Cardinals’ most celebrated prospect was a former right-handed pitcher from the University of Southern California, Anthony Reyes. Only because of injury concerns and signability questions was Reyes on the board when the Cards took him in the 15th round of the 2003 draft.

By 2005 and 2006 as he steadily moved up the line, Reyes was considered the top prospect in the Cardinals system. The possessor of a blistering fastball was called upon to replace the forgettable Sidney Ponson in May, 2006 and would go on to make 17 starts in the majors in his rookie season.

Reyes’ crowning moment as a Cardinal was in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series in Detroit. The Cards, major underdogs to the Tigers, took the opener behind eight-plus innings of two-run baseball by Reyes. He holds the record for fewest career wins (six) by any Game 1 Series starter in the history of the game.

His 2007 began with a solid 3-0, 2.70 ERA in spring training, and concluded in a historic manner, but not in a positive sense. Reyes took ten consecutive defeats to start the regular season, tying the club record set in 1898. In between more time in Memphis and ending the season in the bullpen, Reyes’ .125 winning percentage (2-14 record) tied the franchise’s single-season futility record, established in 1896.

Though he did not make the 2008 rotation, Reyes was placed on the club to start the season as a reliever. Whispers of a difference of opinion between the front office and the coaching staff ensued. Reyes was demoted to Memphis for the fifth time in the last two years on May 5, making room for Mike Parisi‘s MLB starting debut.

Reyes arrived back from Triple-A in mid-June but was scratched from his first start with right elbow inflammation. Once his rehab was complete, Reyes remained with Memphis until the July 26 trade to Cleveland.

All the Cardinals received in return was a 24-year-old reliever named Luis Perdomo, assigned to Double-A Springfield. The Cards thought so little of the Dominican Republic native that they left him exposed in December’s Rule 5 Draft, where he was taken by the San Francisco Giants for $50,000.

With that, the final tie to the Reyes era in St. Louis is officially gone. All that remains are some mixed memories, a feeling that things could and should have been different and the mere pittance of $50,000.

Not mentioned in the above was the ever-present 800-pound gorilla during Reyes’ entire stay in St. Louis. Of course, that is the widely-reported difference in opinion regarding the right-hander’s pitching style that placed La Russa and Duncan in one corner and Reyes in the other.

I was with the Cardinals at the time of the trade and recorded La Russa’s remarks from his office. Here is an excerpt, during which the pitcher and the media were assigned ample helpings of blame.

“I regret some of the nonsense that became a distraction about his style of pitching didn’t match. That didn’t work in his advantage. You just don’t need distractions when you are trying to be… I am talking about veterans; it doesn’t make any difference…

“I regret the fact that people brought up the fact that they didn’t think he was the right kind of pitcher. Dave Duncan gives every pitcher that comes here his absolute best shot, which has been proven over time to do as good of a job as anybody. It was a story line that kept getting pushed that he wasn’t Dave’s kind of pitcher. No.

“You can’t pitch there (gesturing high in the zone). You have to pitch here (middle) and there (low). Everything that Dave told him is what he tells all these guys. It can happen to anybody when you are younger. It can distract you,” said La Russa.

Now 27 years of age, Reyes is penciled into the Tribe’s 2009 rotation. His post-trade, six-start American League debut went fabulously, as he posted a 2-1 record with a 1.83 ERA upon a late-season recall from Triple-A.

12) The Rockies Deals that Weren’t: Matt Holliday and Brian Fuentes

On numerous occasions, La Russa has asked for a power bat to hit behind Albert Pujols in the Cardinals batting order and recently, he has reinforced his desire for a proven closer.

This past summer, two members of the floundering, yet defending NL champion Colorado Rockies were linked to the Cardinals. Outfielder Matt Holliday was one year away from becoming a Scott Boras-led free agent while the contract of closer Brian Fuentes (pictured) would conclude at the end of 2008.

While neither became a Cardinal last summer, nor did any other significant player, unless you count the temporary addition of Washington castoff Felipe Lopez.

Before Holliday was dealt by the Rockies to a surprise suitor, the Oakland A’s, on November 12, the Cardinals reportedly offered three players for him. Outfielders Ryan Ludwick and Skip Schumaker and starting pitcher Mitchell Boggs were the players rumored to possibly be heading west.

Moving two outfielders for one would have relieved some of the outfield logjam. Yet after the emergence of Ludwick last season, there was considerable public debate over how much of an upgrade Holliday would offer offensively.

Another important factor was money. Holliday is set to be paid $13.5 million next season, while Ludwick can remain under club control for three more seasons and will likely make a third or less of Holliday’s 2009 take.

The Cardinals haven’t done any better trying to get Brian Fuentes, though it has been for different reasons.

A lack of confidence in emerging closer Chris Perez and 2009 rookie-to-be Jason Motte left La Russa to proclaim Fuentes as the Cardinals’ top priority during the early December Winter Meetings.

It is true that being left-handed and a closer would meet two of the Cards’ stated needs, yet drawing that high of a profile may or may not have been the manner in which Mozeliak would have preferred to play his hand. Still, the GM backed up the proclamation with a two-year offer reported to be in the $16-$18 million range.

Fuentes didn’t bite, stating he prefers to play in his home state of California with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Halos lost their closer, Francisco Rodriguez, to the Mets as a free agent. If they ante more money and/or the third year Fuentes desires, that deal should get done.

In the meantime, the second-fiddle Cardinals have grown tired of waiting and may have withdrawn their offer entirely.

Rarely, if ever, has so much ink been spilled in and around St. Louis over two players that actually never became Cardinals.

11) The Passing of George Kissell (link one) (link two)

George Kissell was undoubtedly the greatest Cardinal organization man of the latter half of the 1900’s, that despite few fans having ever heard of him.

The 88-year-old’s official title was senior field coordinator for player development, but he was more commonly known as the man who taught thousands of farmhands how to play the game the Cardinals way for over a half-century.

Before perishing in October due to injuries suffered in an automobile accident, Kissell served the organization for 69 years. Most recently, he assisted the Cardinals’ minor league affiliates and handled instructional duties for the minor leagues during spring training and extended spring training.

Kissell began by spending ten years in the minor leagues as an infielder and worked in many capacities since 1940. From 1946 to 1968, he was a manager, coach, scout and minor league instructor. Kissell was on the Major League coaching staff from 1969 to 1975 and was special field assistant to General Manager Bing Devine in 1976.

In 2005, the Cardinals unveiled a plaque outside the clubhouse at the Cardinals Complex in Jupiter to honor Kissell which reads, in part: “Every player in the Cardinals’ Organization since 1940 has had contact with George Kissell and they have all been better for it. … Well known for his emphasis on fundamentals, George taught several generations of Redbirds how to play baseball.”

Further, in a December memorial service in Kissell’s former home of St. Petersburg, Florida, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt, Jr. proclaimed that the club’s four practice fields in Jupiter would be named in Kissell’s honor.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Coming soon:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Eleven Cardinals Rookies Debuted in 2008

A comment by CariocaCardinal on the Teixeira/Pujols thread where he suggested the St. Louis Cardinals minor leagues may be peaking got me to thinking.

There is no sure way to quantify this, yet one simple measure is readily available and doesn’t require years to play out before getting an answer.

During the 2008 regular season, the Cardinals called up eleven different players from the minors for their first exposure to the big leagues. Some did very well, while others barely had time to finish their cup of coffee before being sent back.

While this is clearly a measure of quantity, not quality, this total of eleven is the largest number of first-timers to don the Cardinals uniform in any single season since the second year of the Tony La Russa era which began in St. Louis in 1996. 12 players debuted in 1997.

Nine of the 11 in 2008 came up through the Cardinals system, the exceptions being Brian Barton and Rico Washington. Two of them have already departed for other organizations – Washington and Mark Worrell.

Here, we’ll take a quick look back at all eleven 2008 arrivals. I will score each in one of three categories (high, medium, low) to illustrate my view as to their level of 2008 contribution as well as long-term success potential with the Cardinals.

It is worth noting that three players made the MLB debuts during each of the first three months of the season. During the second half, only two newbies arrived.

Position Debut Contribution Potential
Kyle McClellan RP 1-Apr high medium
Brian Barton OF 1-Apr low low
Rico Washington 3B 1-Apr low n/a
Mike Parisi SP 5-May low low
Chris Perez RP 16-May medium high
Joe Mather OF 30-May medium medium
Mark Worrell RP 3-Jun low n/a
Mitchell Boggs SP 6-Jun low medium
Nick Stavinoha OF 22-Jun low low
Jaime Garcia SP 11-Jul low high
Jason Motte RP 3-Sep low medium

April debuts

1. Kyle McClellan. (left) Made the club out of spring training and was a solid performer out of the bullpen all season long, though his numbers tailed off. Was named Rookie of the Year by the Cardinals.

Looking ahead, he could either remain a setup man in the pen or perhaps return to starting in 2009. The latter might require one step backward (a first-ever stop in Memphis) to take two steps forward later on.

2. Brian Barton. High hopes for the Rule 5 outfield pick coming off a nice spring were deflated when Barton seemed quite often to be the second-to-last player off the bench. (The backup catcher is always number one.)

In September, any player that could hold a glove was started in the outfield while Barton just rode the pines more often than not. Turning 27 years old in April, Barton seems destined to be lost in Memphis next season.

3. Rico Washington. A heart-warming story if there ever was one, making the team out of spring training after 11 years of ill-fated minor league attempts. Scott Spiezio‘s self-destruction and Brendan Ryan‘s injury were also big contributors. After registering a sub-Mendoza line batting average, Rico was back in the minors before April was out, never to return with St. Louis. He is currently a minor league free agent again.

May arrivals

4. Mike Parisi. Not overwhelming, but was serviceable when called upon. It was telling that his starting debut occurred when the Cardinals gave up on Anthony Reyes and needed someone to take the hill. Late-season Tommy John surgery scuttled his 2009 season, giving a whole year for others to pass him. Removed from the 40-man roster in November.

5. Chris Perez. (left) The “closer of the future” arrived in mid-May and did fine until he hit a rough start that soon returned him to Memphis to work on his secondary pitches. Despite club dalliances with experienced closers this offseason, Perez has shown he can grow into the role. Here’s hoping he receives the chance.

6. Joe Mather. After tearing up the Pacific Coast League, the man affectionately known as “Joey Bombs” showed not only his power, but also demonstrated very good outfield defense in the majors. Before going down with a hand injury that required season-ending surgery, Mather managed to get enough at bats, 133, to exhaust his rookie eligibility. Expected to compete strongly for a reserve outfield position in 2009.

June rookies

7. Mark Worrell. The reliever with the odd motion didn’t stay long and was not asked back, even in September when rosters expanded. Worrell spoke up about his concerns and within 24 hours, was traded to San Diego. Perhaps that was just a coincidence.

8. Mitchell Boggs. The 2005 fifth-rounder received his chance to make his first ever appearance on an MLB roster and to start his first big league game at the expense of Parisi, who was returned to Memphis. Boggs was the anchor of the 2008 Memphis staff, but had a real problem with free passes while in the majors (22 walks in 34 innings). Should be the first starter recalled from Memphis in 2009.

9. Nick Stavinoha. The outfielder earned his call-up after pacing the Redbirds offense during the first half. He looked overmatched at the plate with St. Louis, both in June and again in September. I hope his ceiling is higher than John Gall‘s, but I cannot erase the comparison from my mind. Seems destined to return to Memphis, where playing time for outfielders should be very competitive.

July new arrival

10. Jaime Garcia. (left) The top left-handed pitching prospect in the entire system by a considerable margin started with Double-A Springfield, yet found himself on a big-league mound three games prior to the All-Star break. Garcia mostly relieved, but also was given one MLB start.

His pitching elbow, which had ended his 2007 early, gave out, requiring him to undergo Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. If Garcia actually comes back stronger in 2010 as do some post-TJ, NL hitters had better watch out!

September speedballer

11. Jason Motte. Last to be called up, but far from least. The reliever with the upper 90’s heat fanned 15 in his first ten innings during his initial time on the Cardinals roster (in September). His changeup remains a question mark, but if Perez falters, Motte could make a play for the job himself. The numbers game could end up causing him to start 2009 back in Memphis, though even if so, Motte should be back soon enough.

In subsequent articles, I will look backward and forward. I will review past rookies each season during the La Russa years and will also attempt to forecast the MLB debuts for the 2009 Cardinals. Even before doing the analysis, my gut says not to expect another 11 first-year players this coming year.

Kennedy and LASIK: The eyes have it. Or do they?

How many times do we have to see golfing great Tiger Woods on television touting laser eye surgery, attributing it to his improvement from a -11 golfer to the machine he is today, before we scratch out own eyes in frustration?

The procedure, often called LASIK, is becoming more and more common across Major League Baseball as well. (This is not to be confused with lasix, which is a diuretic used to control bleeding in the lungs of stressed race horses and is sometimes prescribed to humans, too!)

In what seems to be the biggest hot stove news out of frozen Minnesota this winter – outside of their re-signing of Nick Punto, that is – first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Michael Cuddyer each underwent laser eye surgery on both eyes last month, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Early results from both players are predictably positive.

LASIK seems to be rampant in the Great White North, as outfielder Denard Span led the way with laser eye surgery last off-season, preceded by two other Twinkies. Span attributed his better vision as one reason for his breakout performance for Minnesota this year.

Perhaps with the famous “sky” problems for fielders in the Metrodome losing fly balls against the dingy white fabric roof, the Twins players may be hoping for defensive benefits in gaining clearer vision, too.

Yet in reality, the only time we seem to hear about players having these procedures is when it is perceived to have made a difference.

Not all doctors are sold

Several years ago, two university researchers, one from Harvard and the other from UCLA, studied the offensive performance of a dozen Major League hitters who had undergone the procedure.

Color them unimpressed. From their release:

“The study concluded that there was no offensive benefit to undergoing the refractive surgical procedure in these players. In addition, due to the well-established risks of these elective surgical procedures, the authors conclude that players may be best served by waiting until the end of their baseball career before performing the procedure.”

Despite this scientific research to the contrary, baseball players everywhere are tossing away their glasses and contact lenses to undergo the surgery.

Wonder if those are prescription lenses? (AP)
Wonder if those were prescription lenses? (AP/2007)

Closer to home

How does this relate to the Cardinals, you ask?

Being a long-time contact lens wearer myself, I was surprised the first time I saw now-free agent and former Cardinal Aaron Miles out of uniform and in his regular clothes. The infielder sports a pair of black-framed glasses on his personal time, changing to contact lenses only after reporting to work.

I have made it a point during small talk conversation with Miles several times in recent years, at least partially because I was curious why he hadn’t gone under the laser. I readily admitted that if I could be put to sleep and wake up repaired, I might be willing, but until that is a viable option, I’ll pass.

While not ever being specific about his reasons, Miles acknowledged that while he too had considered it, he wasn’t really interested in the procedure.

The most recent time we had this chat was in the Cardinals clubhouse during 2008 spring training. In the next cubicle was second baseman Adam Kennedy, who volunteered he had the surgery last off-season.

Did it matter for AK7?

I thought it might be interesting to look at Kennedy’s 2008 results in a very unscientific study of my own. Following are his recent batting averages/slugging percentages and on-base-percentages along with his career totals.

One might think that early in the 2008 season, results from the surgery would have started to emerge. You can be the judge.

Maybe it’s like an ink spot test, where we all see different things. Nothing particularly noteworthy catches my eye, though.

Kennedy BA OBP SLG
2007 0.219 0.262 0.290
Spring 2008 0.276 0.345 0.300
April 0.314 0.364 0.357
May 0.161 0.224 0.194
June 0.311 0.358 0.426
July 0.280 0.308 0.380
August 0.304 0.306 0.326
September 0.320 0.358 0.580
Season 2008 0.280 0.321 0.372
Career 0.276 0.328 0.389

What might this tell us?

First of all, coming off the horrendous 2007 season he experienced, I can understand why Kennedy might have felt like he needed to try something, anything. Had he repeated that kind of performance in 2008, it could have spelled the end of his second tenure with the Cardinals, one year remaining on his three-year contract or not.

Yet when comparing Kennedy’s 2008 against his entire body of work as a major leaguer, it was pretty darned average. This past season, his batting average was just four points higher than his career mark, but his on-base percentage and slugging were below the norm.

Looking at the glass half-full, perhaps the Cardinals would be delighted to receive career-average production from Kennedy, a disappointment overall during his second stint in St. Louis.

Based on this case study of one, I’ll have to agree with the two university research doctors and stay on the Aaron Miles, non-surgical side of the fence.

Teixeira Signing Helps Cardinals with Pujols?

Ever since Mark Teixeira signed with the deep-pocketed New York Yankees for eight years and $180 million this past week, articles have appeared all over the country as writers begin to agonize over what this means to the market value of Albert Pujols.

I may be in the minority, but I don’t think this news substantially changes anything with regard to the long-term relationship between Pujols and his employer, the St. Louis Cardinals.

One angle could be played that the Teixeira deal may actually prove to be a slight positive for the Cardinals and their fans.

Other than playing the same position, Tex, while a very fine first baseman, is not in Pujols’ class. Few if any current players are.

Tex said “goodbye” to the Angels (AP)
Tex said “goodbye” to the Angels (AP)

Still, Teixeira is now committed to be the Yankees’ first baseman from now through the 2016 season. As a result, the highest-spending club in the majors would seemingly have no room to play Albert, even if he reached free agency and they wanted to sign him.

Could they dump Tex in a few years down the line? Perhaps, but it would be difficult. In addition to all that money, Tex scored a full no-trade clause in his new deal.

Not all that long ago, the Yanks bestowed a lot of money on the doorstep of one Jason Giambi. Though they later regretted paying Giambi over $20 million per year, they ended up having to hold onto him anyway.

The defensively-challenged Giambi did serve a lot of time as the designated hitter, but when a team is engineered around aging veterans as are the Yankees, there are many more DH candidates than there are places to play them.

Now, one might argue that there are other clubs that could and would pay one player $33 million, especially one with the resume of an Albert Pujols. That is true. The Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels certainly come to mind, though the latter just lost both Tex and K-Rod to the New Yorkers.

Yet it is impossible to ignore that the most formidable prospective competitor to the Cardinals if Albert hit the free market, the club that sets prices for all the others, just took themselves out of the first base market for the next eight years.

How did I come up with $33 million?

It is very simple. It doesn’t require a lot of deep statistical comparisons. We already know Albert is the best player in the game. Therefore, he should be paid as such. Teixeira and other lesser players’ salaries are completely irrelevant.

Today, that player is the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who will make $32 million in both 2009 and 2010. In what is a surprisingly realistic structure in an out-of-this-world contract, A-Rod’s annual salary will actually decline as he moves into his mid-to-late 30’s to “just” $20 million per year in 2016 and 2017.

In my view, for the Cardinals and Albert, the only question remains “when?”

Pujols is under contract for the next three seasons, all at his 2008 rate of $16 million. (Technically, the final year, 2011, is a team option.)

The Cardinals have two basic options with Albert:

1) Act now, making a serious offer to extend Pujols for essentially the remainder of his career.

As is customary in these kinds of deals, the Cardinals would likely need to increase the amounts to be paid Pujols in each of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons, despite them having him already under contract at the bargain $16 million rate.

That could easily add another $30 million or more to the extension – money that would not have to be spent.

There are several other risks inherent in this move. One is medical, the other financial.

They relate to the case of Pujols’ balky throwing elbow. If the recent nerve relocation surgery doesn’t alleviate the constant pain or if his ligament finally gives out, Pujols would likely miss an entire season recovering from “Tommy John” elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Would you rather see the Cardinals pay Pujols $16 million on his current deal or $33 million under a new contract to spend a year off the field while rehabbing?

2) Wait and see what the future holds and delay making a new offer for a year or more.

Here, the risk for the club is the market. In few years, the top salary dog may not be A-Rod. It could be someone else, but likely not. Let’s face it, there does not seem to be the next Albert in the on-deck circle. This is what may be a one-in-a-lifetime player.

For Pujols, the only risk is his health. Salary-wise, the reason he is underpaid today is because he opted for the security of a long-term deal earlier than was required. He may not be so inclined to leave money on the table like that again.

That is why I believe, as painful as it will feel to some fans, the best business decision for the Cardinals and for Pujols himself is to wait and talk contract in a couple of years.

A lot can change between now and then… or maybe nothing will.

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Odalis Perez: Better off with the Enemy

The St. Louis Cardinals have been a member of the National League Central Division since its creation in 1994. As a result, they have not seen their yearly schedule tipped in the direction of playing the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals frequently.

In interleague play, established in 1997, the Cardinals’ “natural rival” was understandably designated as the Kansas City Royals. That means the clubs typically have home and away series scheduled each summer, or about the same number of games as one of the above three clubs play against the Cardinals each season.

Likely, if it wasn’t for the title of this article and its accompanying photo, you would probably have no idea where I am heading.

Here we go. The four aforementioned clubs are those which had employed left-handed pitcher Odalis Perez over his ten-year Major League career – Atlanta (1999, 2001), Los Angeles (2002-2006), Kansas City (2006-2007) and Washington (2008).

Other than a promising start, which led to an NL All-Star berth back in 2002, the Dominican Republic native’s career has been most undistinguished.

His aggregate won-loss record is nine games under .500 at 73-82. Perez last won double digit games in a season back in 2003. His career ERA is 4.46, but he has managed to come in under 5.50 in just one season since 2005. On a more positive note, that was last season, when his ERA with the Nats was 4.34.

Now a free agent for at least the third time in his major league career, Perez’ name has come up on some Cardinals’ fans wish lists as an inexpensive left-handed alternative for the back end of the 2009 rotation. The hope is that pitching coach Dave Duncan could work some magic on the 31-year-old, who made just $850,000 with Washington last season.

Other fans aren’t so sure, noting that the Cardinals, and especially Albert Pujols, would be better off if his countryman Perez continues to pitch for the opposition rather than don the birds on the bat.

The latter group make an excellent point.

Perez has watched Pujols tour the bases five times (AP)
Perez has watched Pujols tour the bases five times (AP)

Over their careers, Pujols’ line against Odalis is an amazing .609/.719/1.391 (BA/OBP/SLG). That makes for a super-human OPS of 2.110!

Over the Scout premium message board, I was asked to assess the statistical impact of Pujols on Perez’ career.

Perez has pitched to 5678 regular-season batters in his time as a major leaguer, allowing 1409 hits. Pujols only has 14 hits of that total, or 1%, in his 23 at-bats facing Perez.

Perez has yielded 661 earned runs in his career, of which Pujols drove in 15, or 2.3%. So one way to look at it is that Albert delivered 2.3% of the damage in 1% of the hits in 0.4% of the at-bats.

If you took away Pujols’ 15 RBI, Perez’ career ERA would drop from 4.46 to 4.36. So, that impact is one-tenth of a run per nine innings over Perez’ ten-year career.

(Of course, all this assumes no other Cardinals hitter would have collected more hits or drove in any of the runs that we took away from Albert in this analysis.)

Unfortunately the Cardinals have only faced off against Perez about once per season over the years.

In 13 career games, ten starts, against the Cardinals, Perez is 3-6 with an 8.53 ERA. He has allowed almost two baserunners per inning and the Cards are batting a collective .344 against the lefty. He’s walked more batters (25) than he’s struck out (23) in those 50 2/3 innings. 14 of the hits yielded left the ballpark, of which five came off Pujols’ bat.

After seeing this, Cardinals fans should be trying to aim Odalis over to the north side of Chicago, where he might be “fortunate” enough to face the St. Louisans four or five times each and every season!

Time to start the “Odalis to the Cubs” campaign!

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

It is fast approaching that time of year to again look back and reflect upon the year that was. I plan to do the same here between now and year-end, with a five-part series highlighting the Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008 and a forecast of some of the top storylines for 2009, as well.

We will start with 2008 top stories 16 through 20 today, then 11-15, six through ten, followed by the top five and we’ll finish with the look ahead to the coming year.

While there was no obvious event such as a World Series victory or even a divisional title to crow about during 2008, there were still plenty of interesting stories – many positive, but some less-so.

Whenever I wrote an article during the year on about one of the top 20 events, the link to it or the player page will be embedded in the titles below. If they are subscription-only, the special “insider” icon will be displayed alongside.

Without further ado:

20) Roberto De La Cruz Receives Highest Club Bonus Ever for a Latin American Player

If you are asking yourself, “Who?”, then you are probably not alone.

Following is what I said several weeks ago about the 17-year-old Dominican in our Top 40 Prospect Countdown, which is still going, by the way. I ranked De La Cruz at number 38 and his overall ranking came in at number 35:

“All indications are that this time next year, I will have regretted ranking this player, also previously known as Roberto Pina, so low. In fact, I already do.

Here’s why. Money talks.

The Cards aren’t known for throwing cash around, yet De La Cruz received more in bonus than any other Cards player taken in the June 2008 First-Year Player Draft not named Brett Wallace, a polished college hitter five years older than he. In fact, De La Cruz fetched the same bonus as the #29 pick in the first round, in the vicinity of $1.1 million!

Some scouts considered De La Cruz, like Wallace a third baseman, to have been the best hitter in this year’s July 2nd class – a similar designation to how Wallace was tagged prior to the regular draft.

Since at least 2005 and probably much longer, only Wallace and Pete Kozma (2007) received more in bonus from the club than did De La Cruz. Players further down the money ranking list include first-rounders Adam Ottavino (2006) and Colby Rasmus (2005).

While the Cardinals and farm director Jeff Luhnow have a lot riding on De La Cruz, Luhnow went beyond just praising the third baseman’s play in the fall Instructional League. He gushed to that the youngster was “the most impressive player there offensively and defensively”.

We are talking about a pool of 49 of the organization’s best young players at Instructs, of which 11 already have full-season experience. Other than Wallace, every signed 2008 draftee through Round 24 was in camp. Yet, De La Cruz was the one singled out.

Like I said, I am pretty sure I ranked him too low.”

19) Cardinals Announce Intent to Purchase Memphis Triple-A Affiliate

(second link)

A story line that first raised its head a year ago surrounded the impending end to the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliation with Memphis, set to expire at the end of the 2008 season.

The locals were unhappy about their recent teams’ lack of competitiveness on the field, a reflection on the upper levels of the Cardinals farm system. With minor league veterans clogging the roster, there was little youth, excitement or winning baseball played. The 2007 Pacific Coast League entry hit rock bottom, as their 56 wins set the all-time franchise futility record.

That changed completely in 2008, on the scoreboard and in the standings (19 more wins than the year before) and with the upcoming stars on the roster, including Rasmus, Bryan Anderson, Joe Mather, Chris Perez and Jason Motte.

Still, there was no public information flow on any negotiations between the Cardinals and Memphis ownership after a May meeting. Finally on September 11, the Cards and Redbirds announced an extension of their player development agreement for another four years.

Less than a week later, the Cardinals, the Memphis Baseball Foundation and Blues City Baseball announced the signing of a non-binding letter of intent to begin the process for the Cardinals to acquire the Triple-A Pacific Coast League franchise from the non-profit Foundation.

It may take months for the details to be worked out, with the transition from the non-profit foundation to the for-profit Cardinals being one of the more challenging issues still on the table.

Forbes recently ranked the Redbirds as the second-most valuable minor league franchise and its acquisition seems a wise business decision for the Cardinals to increase their holdings, which already include Double-A Springfield, A-Advanced Palm Beach and four other lower-level clubs.

Update: A December 28 article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal quotes a senior team official who says the sale should be complete by the start of the regular season in April.

18) Chris Duncan’s Unprecedented Neck Surgery

Coming off season-ending hernia surgery that ruined his 2007 campaign, Cardinals outfielder Chris Duncan reported to spring training hoping to work his way back into his old power-hitting shape.

Instead, the 27-year-old looked extremely rusty, with a spring line of just .167/.222/.328 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 54 at-bats. He dealt with minor back and hamstring problems, but the results just weren’t coming.

By Memorial Day, Duncan was on his way to Memphis. News of any physical ailments were very guarded, with public words only that the player needed to get more work in to relocate his stroke.

Duncan only remained in Triple-A for 25 at-bats, but the results were awful, as he posted a .160/.300/.240 line before returning to St. Louis less than two weeks after being demoted. Just ten days after returning to the bigs, Duncan was placed on the disabled list.

News began to trickle out about the severity of his problem, a damaged cervical disc in his neck. Duncan had been administered multiple shots intended to reduce pain in his neck and weakness in his left arm and hand, but ultimately, it was not enough.

First the disc was said to be bulging, then herniated and finally it was determined to require replacement. Duncan elected to undergo a first-ever procedure on a professional athlete piloted in Europe that substituted the damaged disc with a metal prosthetic one.

At the recent Winter Meetings, manager Tony La Russa offered a very positive report on Duncan’s progress. “He’s doing well. He’s excited, we’re excited. He’s on time at the beginning of the year to jump right into the swing of things and everything else,” explained the manager.

Still, on the Cardinals, with no designated hitter and a rock-solid first baseman, Duncan will have to play regularly in left field to get his 2009 at-bats. While a below-average fielder, Duncan can never be accused of not going all-out defensively. Unfortunately, that often means diving catches that if continued would seem to put unnatural pressure on his new robo-neck.

Yet, if Duncan has to back off on his fielding to protect his body, he will likely move from an acceptable outfield alternative to a liability.

17) Billy Southworth Enters the Baseball Hall of Fame

Too often, our baseball heroes of the past do not receive their just due until it is too late for them to enjoy the recognition. Such was the case for the Cardinals’ skipper from their 1940’s dynasty, Billy Southworth.

Born in Nebraska in 1893, the outfielder had a nice 13-year playing career with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston Braves, New York Giants and the Cardinals. “Billy the Kid” had been a member of the 1926 World Champion Cards and placed in the top 20 of the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting that season.

Southworth first received the call at the age of 36 to become a major league skipper as a player-manager for the Cardinals of 1929. He crashed almost as quickly as the stock market that year.

Not yet ready for the weighty task of managing the club the first time around, Southworth was returned to the minor leagues that July. He would not ascend to the managerial chair in the majors again until 1940. Having been in and out of the organization in the 11 years since, Billy returned to St. Louis a much wiser man.

The 1940 Cardinals had a .341 winning percentage when Southworth took over and played .633 ball the rest of the way. That set the stage for his teams to win a total of 620 games through 1945, including three straight National League pennants and World Championships in both 1942 and 1944.

In a time when clubs played a 154-game schedule, Southworth’s 1942-44 Redbirds won 105 or more games each season and his .642 career Cardinals winning percentage is the best of any St. Louis manager in the modern (post-1900) era – even better than icons Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog and La Russa.

Moving to Boston in 1946, Southworth would lead the Braves five-and-a-half more seasons, including another NL pennant in 1948. His .597 career win mark is fifth-best all-time in the major leagues.

Finally in 2007, the seeds of change took root with the National Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. The results of their voting were announced at the December, 2007 Baseball Winter Meetings and Southworth was inducted into the Hall in Cooperstown on July 27.

While Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt, Jr. accepted the award on behalf of Southworth, to the best of my knowledge, there was no formal acknowledgment of the event at Busch Stadium. That is a shame for a former Cardinals great.

16) Scott Spiezio Ruins His Career

Utility infielder Scott Spiezio began his professional career with the Oakland A’s, won a world championship with the 2002 Angels and signed a three-year contract with the Seattle Mariners only to wash out and be released during the 2005 season.

Having hit bottom professionally, Spiezio won a spot on the 2006 Cardinals despite having been a non-roster invitee signed to a minor league deal shortly before spring training. Sporting a bright red spot of facial hair, he quickly became a fan favorite while playing a big part in the team’s run to a tenth World Series championship.

That season, Spiezio hit .272 with 13 home runs and 52 RBI in 119 games played. The switch-hitter played five different positions, all four infield plus left field, and made 61 starts. He led the team with eight pinch-hit RBI and finished second on the club with eight pinch hits. Spiezio continued his clutch comeback into the post-season with six RBI and two triples, including a key triple in Game Two of the National League Championship Series.

His fortunes reversed in 2007 as the then-35-year-old appeared in only 82 games while batting .269 with four home runs and 31 RBI. Spiezio missed more than a month of the season while receiving treatment for substance abuse and was on the team’s Restricted List during that time. Prior to that point, he missed time supposedly due to odd maladies such as an upper respiratory infection, allergic reaction to medication, food poisoning, hand infection and the like.

In late February, 2008, it became known that an arrest warrant was issued by the Irvine, CA Police Department for Spiezio on six charges stemming from an automobile accident and subsequent altercation in December.

The warrant alleges he was driving under the influence, driving under the influence with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or more, hit and run, aggravated assault and assault and battery.

That was the last straw as the Cardinals immediately released him despite the fact Spiezio was entering the final year of a two-year, $4.5 million contract signed prior to the 2007 campaign.

A month later, Spiezio inked a minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves, with that organization willing to offer him a “second chance”. That chance lasted all of five games in Triple-A Richmond in early April before he was released again. Spiezio had agreed that he would submit to testing, continue his rehabilitation and report to the ballpark each day prepared to play, but failed to live up to the latter condition.

The Braves didn’t try to hide it or make excuses. Spiezio was sent packing again, his third release in less than three years. At that point, his personal life had hit rock-bottom, too.

Just a week prior, Spiezio pled guilty to misdemeanor drunken driving and hit-and-run charges stemming from the December, 2007 incident in California. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and agreed to undergo a three-month alcohol program, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and complete 80 hours of community service.

The two-time world champion has since fallen off the baseball map. Maybe for him, it is better that way.

Coming soon:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Ex-Cards Minors Player, Coach Steverson Back to Bigs at 37

Todd Steverson, most recently the manager of the Sacramento River Cats, the Oakland A’s Triple-A affiliate, has been named first base coach with their major league club. It is his first return to the big leagues since his playing days in 1996.

The 37-year-old also has a long history with the Cardinals, first as a drafted teenager, then as a minor league veteran and finally as a coach in the system.

(Sacramento River Cats)

The former outfielder was originally selected out of Culver City (CA) High School by the Cardinals organization in the sixth round of the June 1989 First-Year Player Draft. He did not sign with them however, instead electing to attend Arizona State University. Three years later, in 1992, he was drafted again, this time in the first-round (25th overall) by the Toronto Blue Jays.

By 1995, Steverson reached the majors for several short stints that totaled 31 games while posting a .256 batting average with Detroit and San Diego. His seven-year professional playing career as a corner outfielder concluded at the age of 26 with the 1998 Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, his only season as a player in the Cardinals organization.

Steverson kept the uniform on, making a transition to coaching the next year for the Cardinals. He would remain five seasons coaching in the farm system at the Single-A level. Steverson began with the A-Advanced Potomac Cannons in 1999 and also returned for the 2001-02 seasons. He also coached with A-level Peoria in 2000 and A-Advanced Palm Beach in 2003.

The native of Los Angeles moved over to the A’s organization in 2004, serving as the hitting coach for the short-season Vancouver Canadians. The next two seasons, Steverson received his first managerial shot with the A-Advanced Stockton Ports. In 2007, Steverson was promoted to helm the A’s Double-A affiliate, the Midland RockHounds of the Texas League.

(Sacramento River Cats)
(Sacramento River Cats)

Steverson moved up again in 2008, leading the River Cats to both the Pacific Coast League and Triple-A Championships (in the Bricktown Showdown over the International League champ Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) in his first season as their manager. The Cats repeated the dual feats from 2007.

Steverson’s 2008 club had finished 83-61 in the regular season to take the PCL’s Pacific South Division title. The Arizona resident carries a lifetime managerial record of 297-264.

He had already been announced as returning to Sacramento for 2009 before he received the call to join the major league staff of A’s skipper Bob Geren.

Steverson replaces former Cardinal infielder Tye Waller as Geren’s first base coach. Waller has slid over to the bench coach role. Steverson will be working alongside yet another former Redbird infielder as Mike Gallego was hired as the A’s third base coach and infield instructor earlier in the off-season.

Our A’s affiliate,, interviewed Steverson two years ago. In this interview, he discussed topics such as coaching Albert Pujols and his major league aspirations – part of which have now been realized.

Cardinals Add Two Young Latin American Relievers

Now and then, playing in winter ball creates an opportunity for as-of-yet unsigned players to find a professional home.

Such is the case for two young men, one from Colombia, the other from Venezuela.

One is getting his first chance, while the other has found a new home.

Both are being given the opportunity to come to Extended Spring Training in the hope of making a short-season club in 2009.

Luis Orozco (Sincelejo Toros)
Luis Orozco (Sincelejo Toros)

The St. Louis Cardinals have signed 18-year-old Colombian right-handed reliever Luis Orozco to his first professional contract with any MLB organization.

The signing is not all that surprising since Orozco is currently playing winter ball for Sincelejo in Colombia. His manager is Cardinals minor league catching coordinator Dann Bilardello and pitching coach is Tim Leveque, who will be playing the same role with Batavia in 2009. Of course, the two recommended the contract.

This winter, Orozco has pitched in 16 games, 19 1/3 innings for the Toros, all in relief. The good news is that he’s yielded just six earned runs (2.79 ERA) on only five hits and has collected four saves. Unfortunately, Orozco has issued ten walks and served up two long balls. He has 20 strikeouts, just better than one per inning.

Cardinals Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez offers this report on the 5-foot-11, 160-pounder. “Orozco is competing against players with professional experience, showing lots of mental toughness and is not afraid of any game situation. He is being used as a reliever and occasionally closes games. When his changeup is on, it’s an excellent pitch,” observed Rodriguez.

Despite his youth, because of his success in Colombia, the 2009 plan for Orozco is to bypass the academies entirely and allow him to compete for a short-season job right out of Extended Spring Training.

“Based on what we’ve seen this winter, we envision him playing at a low US minor league level in 2009,” forecasts Rodriguez.

In the Venezuelan winter minor league, the Liga Paralela or Parallel League, the Cardinals sponsored one entire team and supplied additional players to another.

That provided them the opportunity to bring in a number of young men who may or may not have what it takes to become Cardinals. The league allows tryout players, ones that are not signed to a regular contract, to participate.

Eight to ten prospective Cardinals were given look-sees from between one and 13 games in duration during the just-completed Liga Paralela season.

One of them scored a contract, though he does have previous professional experience.

Left-handed pitcher Julio Castellano has come to terms with the Cardinals and has also been invited to travel to the US in the spring for Extended Spring Training.

While that is a bit unusual for a new signing, Rodriguez’ explanation is clear. “Castellano has exhausted all his Venezuelan Summer League years, so he’ll have to make the Gulf Coast League squad to remain under our control.”

Castellano was recently released by Houston after playing in the VSL for the Astros the past four summers. In 2008, he went 2-4 with two saves and a 5.26 ERA in 15 games. In what seems to be a common thread among minor league free agent signings, Castellano has troubles with walks. He issued 20 free passes in his 37 2/3 innings, though he also fanned 24.

In aggregate, as a professional, the 6-foot-2, 170-pounder has a 4.69 ERA in 128.2 career innings over 54 games, 46 in relief. Castellano registered 86 strikeouts and 67 walks.

Rodriguez explains why the 21-year-old native of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela caught the Cardinals’ attention. “Castellano is lefty with a live arm who in our estimation will benefit from our pitching instruction in Jupiter,” he explained.

Castellano career stats:

2005 VSL Astros 0 1 5.03 14 0 0 0 19.2 22 18 11 16 12
2006 VSL Astros 3 0 6.00 17 0 0 0 33 42 26 22 14 26
2007 VSL Astros 3 1 2.82 8 7 0 0 38.1 37 14 12 17 24
2008 VSL Astros 2 4 5.26 15 1 0 2 37.2 44 26 22 20 24
Total 8 6 4.69 54 8 0 2 128.2 145 84 67 67 86

Ex-Cardinals News: Mulder, Edmonds, Looper

In my opinion, one of the better sources of Hot Stove rumor mill information is a weekly Sunday column by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. In Sunday’s article, three ex-St. Louis Cardinals received prominent mention.

First up was the next chapter in the continuing and heartwarming Mark Mulder feel-good story, clearly designed to try to drum up a market for a pitcher that hasn’t been able to pitch effectively for at least the last two years.

More details were “leaked” about the current nature of Mulder’s infamous arm slot – not as high as when he was dominant, but allegedly higher than with St. Louis this past season. The spices were emotional comments from Mulder himself, relayed by his helpful agent Gregg Clifton and new Brewers mamager Ken Macha.

While this is at least the third “Mulder is doing great” piece in recent weeks, no one has apparently seen him actually throw a baseball. At this point, the only team rumored to potentially have interest is Walt Jocketty’s Cincinnati Reds, which on one hand would be a curious destination, but on the other, quite fitting in a perverse sort of way. Yet, no teams have been named that actually admit tendering Mulder an offer.

As a result, there is more work for Clifton ahead. Expect the next installment of the Mulder propaganda in a couple of weeks. Feel free to ignore it, if you are so inclined.

Jim Edmonds, who is not being asked back to the Chicago Cubs for 2009, could become a target of the Red Sox, suggests Cafardo. The club is in the market for a fourth outfielder and Jimmy Ballgame’s 19 home runs for the Cubs have apparently generated attention.

To put that into perspective, if you add the 2008 home run counts of Cardinals outfielders Chris Duncan, Brian Barton, Joe Mather, Skip Schumaker and Nick Stavinoha, your total would be only 24 long balls. It took them 1105 at-bats to collectively achieve that.

Edmonds delivered his 19 in just 250 ABs.

While there was no doubt that then-GM Jocketty erred in giving Edmonds two years prior to the 2007 season, it is a shame that the outfielder could not have remained a Cardinal last year. In hindsight, perhaps it took his humbling failure with the San Diego Padres for Edmonds to accept he might be better deployed as a platoon player in the latter stage of his fine career.

A mercurial type, he might have never been able to bow to that reality in St. Louis. Too bad, but best of luck to Edmonds in wherever he lands in 2009.

(We’ll have to forgive Cafardo for not knowing JimEd flamed out to start the 2008 season with the Padres rather than the Cardinals. At least he understands there is baseball played outside the Northeast Corridor.)

Last but not least is underappreciated Braden Looper, who Cafardo fingers as being “close” to signing with the Milwaukee Brewers. It seems an ideal spot for the right-handed starter to land. Too bad it is a National League Central rival of St. Louis.

The Brew Crew’s 2008 playoff rotation took a major hit this off-season with the loss of C.C. Sabathia and the almost certain departure of Ben Sheets. They still have exciting youngster Yovani Gallardo and holdover Jeff Suppan, but clearly need outside help.

As an aside, Looper has Suppan partially to thank for receiving the opportunity to convert from relieving to starting in 2007. The two were teammates in St. Louis in 2006, with Suppan in the rotation and Looper in the bullpen. Once Suppan and Jeff Weaver departed after the World Championship season, Looper was drafted to help fill the starting gap the past two years. Now it is his turn to cash in.

Soup, a great guy if there ever was one, priced himself out of the Cardinals comfort range as he headed toward free agency. Suppan ended up signing with Milwaukee for four years, $42 million, a deal quite comparable to what the Cardinals and Kyle Lohse agreed to at season’s end. (Seems longer than 90 days ago, doesn’t it?)

While there is one parallel between Suppan and Looper in that they were cut loose, there is one huge difference.

The Jocketty-led Cardinals of the 2006-2007 off-season were quite comfortable that Suppan would not accept an offer of arbitration. As a result, they offered, Suppan declined as expected and the Cardinals collected a compensation-round draft pick plus the Brewers’ second-rounder when he signed with Milwaukee.

That comp round pick was turned into Clayton Mortensen, who has already reached Triple-A, and is indisputably a top 15 prospect in the system. (Milwaukee’s forfeited second rounder was used by the Cards to take Clemson’s David Kopp, currently our number 34 prospect in the Cardinals system.)

While the take for losing Looper this time around would have only been the sandwich pick, the Cardinals were overly cautious in deciding not to offer him arbitration. I still believe John Mozeliak and the Cards were unnecessarily worried that Looper would accept a one-year deal with them.

The decision not to make the offer to Looper left a valuable comp pick sitting on the table, never to be used. If the Cards go one step further and sign a Type A free agent such as reliever Brian Fuentes, their first 2009 draft pick would be in the 65-70 range. No talent anywhere near a Brett Wallace or Colby Rasmus level will still be left on the board.

Once Looper signs a nice, big two or three-year deal with Milwaukee (or elsewhere), it will become even more obvious that the Cardinals blew their chance to add another premium draft pick in a year when they could really use it.

More on New Cardinal Maekawa from Luhnow and Rodriguez

As I had footnoted on Friday in my original article on the Katsuhiko Maekawa signing, the 30-year-old Japanese left-hander has been signed to a minor league contract by the St. Louis Cardinals, but did not receive an invitation to Major League Spring Training.

Since then, I have communicated with Jeff Luhnow, Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development and his leader in the Caribbean, Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez regarding the signing.

Between the two executives and some additional research, we now can fill in more of the details of the Maekawa story.

Past interest

Luhnow notes this was at least the Cardinals’ second look at the pitcher. “We knew about him last year but we did not pursue him. He did sign a contract with another club (ed: the Washington Nationals) but his visa was held up and by the time he finally got that cleared up, it was too late,” he explained.

Returned to the Dominican

While I had noted in my first article that Maekawa had been pitching in Venezuela for Caribes, I missed the fact he had started this off-season in the Dominican. He returned there in 2008 after putting together a very nice 2-1 record with a 1.82 ERA in seven starts for the Gigantes del Cibao in 2007.

Back in Cibao this winter, Maekawa apparently hadn’t built up much goodwill from the previous winter. Rodriguez explains. “He had been pitching in the Dominican Republic this winter but was released after a few appearances.” Specifically, it was at the end of October after pitching in just two games.

Perhaps rusty from the long layoff, Maekawa only lasted 3 1/3 innings in two starts and was charged with nine earned runs. After his release, he came across Luhnow and the Cardinals contingent while they were on a scouting mission.

Asked the Cardinals for a job

Luhnow explains how it came about. “About a month ago I took a large group of scouts and player development people to the DR. While we were there, we ran into Maekawa and he said he was looking for a place to pitch. We had him come to our academy and face hitters.”

The Cardinals brain trust liked what they saw in Maekawa.

“His stuff was very good for a guy who hadn’t been pitching in a while. His fastball was 90 plus, he showed a sharp curve and a splitty with tumble. He has some deception in his delivery (the ball just seems to appear out of nowhere). The biggest issue with him has always been his control, but he put up some decent numbers in Japan,” Luhnow offered.

Note that over his 10-year career in Japan, Maekawa walked over five batters per nine innings. This winter, it has been almost 12 free passes per nine, so there is a lot of work to be done here.

Moved to Venezuela

Luhnow and the Cardinals signed Maekawa and sent him to work under Enrique Brito with Caribes in the Venezuelan League in late November.

“We decided to get him into some games in Venezuela for a month or so until it was time to head home and get his visa. We are hopeful there will be no hangups this year and he will be in Jupiter in time for minor league spring training,” Luhnow said.

Rodriguez is responsible for making that happen. “I’ve been involved on the administrative side (visa, contract signing, etc.). Maekawa just returned home to Japan to attend his visa appointment this week and will not return to Venezuela,” Rodriguez explained.

Back to Japan

Hopefully for the Cardinals, Maekawa’s visa hearing will go better than it did last off-season. Though he signed a deal with the Washington Nationals for the 2008 season, he was not allowed to fulfill the contract.

The Japan Times confirmed that Maekawa was fired by the Orix Blue Wave in 2007 as the result of the pitcher’s arrest in Osaka in 2006. He allegedly fled the scene of a car-bicycle accident when the police arrived and asked for his license. It had been suspended since another incident in 2002.

Maekawa originally joined the then-Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1997 as their first-round draft pick. In his ten years in Japan playing in both the Pacific and Central Leagues, he had a 31-45 career record with a 5.26 ERA in 149 games. During his final season there, 2006, Maekawa was 1-7 with a 4.37 ERA in 24 games.

Career stats

Following are Maekawa’s stats while in Japan and since.

1997-2006 Jpn 31 45 5.26 149 95 16 1 9 609 628 385 356 48 345 417
2007 Winter
Gigantes Dom 2 1 1.82 7 7 29.2 19 6 10 19
2008 Winter
Gigantes Dom 0 2 24.30 2 2 0 0 0 3.1 6 9 9 1 6 3 2.00 0.400
Caribes Ven 0 2 6.39 4 4 0 0 0 12.2 12 9 9 2 15 12 2.57 0.255

Opening or closing doors?

What with all the Cardinals-related excitement generated over Japan in the last few weeks simply because the general manager met with the agents of a couple of free agents from that country, some overly-optimistic fans look to Maekawa’s signing as a door-opener for the organization overseas.

I recall the same types of comments when the Cards signed their first Japanese player, So Taguchi, back in 2002. Of course, it didn’t happen. At least in that situation, the player was a model citizen and became a favorite in St. Louis.

A Japanese-American friend of mine familiar with the Maekawa situation made it clear that due to his off-field problems, public sentiment against Maekawa in Japan is very strong. In fact, while perhaps only rumors, at least one Washington Post writer believes Maekawa has unofficially been banned from the Japanese major leagues.

As a result, it is hard to believe any attention the Cardinals will receive in Japan as a result of the signing will be positive.

The future

Consider this move comparable to the signing of a six-year minor league veteran free agent to provide depth to the upper levels of the Cardinals’ system.

Maekawa’s past record indicates that he is the type of pitcher flexible enough to serve in most any role, whether as a starter, long reliever or left-handed specialist.

Luhnow basically confirmed that when he said, “We see Maekawa as competing for a rotation spot or bullpen spot in Memphis.”

PJ in PR: Finishing in Style

It seems crazy to even suggest it, but in my opinion, right-hander P.J. Walters may be the most underrated pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system, at least at the upper levels.

All the 23-year-old did was take the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award for the entire organization last year and our equivalent recognition from, too. That was earned while pitching across three levels, as he began 2007 with Quad Cities. We ranked him as the Cardinals’ #10 prospect in the system last off-season.

Walters started the 2008 regular season with Springfield, then quickly moved up to Memphis. There were some whispers of concern as his won-loss record was not great in the second half. So what? Here are his last three months of results with Memphis:

June 25 0.327 0.431 1.80 4.32 9.72 0.72
July 30.3 0.248 0.284 1.32 3.86 8.60 1.78
August 36 0.203 0.262 1.31 5.50 9.00 0.75

(A tip of the cap to Minor League

We can see his June was rough, as his opposing batting average and on balls in play were very high. Through July and August, the numbers moved back into more of an expected range. There was a momentary blip of home runs allowed in July and the walks are still too high. Other than that, it was a fine conclusion to the 2008 season for Walters.

He was asked to pitch in winter ball for Jose Oquendo and the Gigantes de Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Getting international experience and prolonged exposure to the coach rumored to be the leading candidate to follow Tony La Russa as Cardinals manager could only be a good thing – if the results followed.

For his part, Oquendo rewarded Walters with the opening night start for both Carolina and the entire league and kept him in the rotation for eight starts. Early on, before the arrival of catcher Yadier Molina, Walters had the additional enjoyment of pitching to a familiar target, Memphis catcher Bryan Anderson, who has since returned home.

Home is the next stop for Walters, too. He pitched his final Puerto Rican game on Friday night per the original agreement and will be home in time for Christmas.

Walters pitched to a Ponce club on Friday whose leadoff hitter was none other than last week’s big signing by the Cardinals, infielder Joe Thurston. His winter average fell to .288 as he went 0-for-4 against Walters and a quartet of relievers as Carolina breezed to a 7-1 victory.

P.J. picked up his third win of the season on 5 1/3 shutout innings of work on five hits, two walks and one strikeout as his pitch counts were carefully being watched. After all, between the regular season and winter ball, Walters has tossed just short of 200 innings.

Here is P.J.’s final line for the winter compared to his Springfield/Memphis regular season totals.

Spr/Mem 10 6 4.50 29 29 158 158 88 79 22 70 156 1.28 0.262
Carolina 3 3 4.34 8 8 37.1 42 21 18 3 11 38 1.83 0.290

Strikeouts better than one per inning, walk rate under control. Ground ball rate was up considerably compared to Memphis. Though opposing batting average was also up, the level of competition was too. Overall, a nice showing.

Importantly, Walters finished his Puerto Rican stint strongly, allowing just four runs over his last three starts, totaling 18 innings, including his longest outing of seven innings last Sunday.

On a footnote, word is that former Yankees great, outfielder Bernie Williams will be suiting up for Carolina soon as he tries to make the Puerto Rican club for March’s World Baseball Classic. Bernie last played in the majors in 2006. Oquendo will repeat as the WBC manager for his homeland.

Walton’s take: You’re going to see Walters listed too early in our Top 40 countdown currently underway at, but it isn’t justified, in my opinion. While he will surely start at Memphis in 2009, Walters is clearly positioning himself to take a spot in the line of contenders for a call up to St. Louis when the need arises.

Cards sign Katsuhiko Maekawa – Who?

Guess this is the week for a Japanese focus around The Cardinal Nation. First, we had all the excitement because the club’s GM met with the agents for two 33-year-old free agents, Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami. Then, I posted an unflattering comparison between Cubs “star” Kosuke Fukudome and former Cardinal So Taguchi.

Now, in the Cards’ continuing search to acquire obscure left-handed pitchers from every continent on the planet, they may be able to cross Asia off the list. (I understand that Ian Ostlund is from Virginia, but with a name like that, doesn’t it seem like he should be a Brit or a Scandinavian?)

According to a published report, the St. Louis Cardinals have reportedly signed Japanese native, 30-year-old left-hander Katsuhiko Maekawa, to a minor league contract. No word on if he was invited to major league spring training.

The source was a Japanese report picked up and translated by The signing has not yet been confirmed by the Cardinals, though I will update this article when I receive an answer.

Most recently, Maekawa has been pitching in Venezuelan winter ball for Caribes, where his work has been simply uninspiring. In four starts totaling 12 2/3 innings, he has allowed an incredible 27 baserunners, 12 on hits to go with 15 free passes plus five wild pitches.

With a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 2.13, it is amazing Maekawa’s ERA is “just” 6.39. On the positive side, he has a dozen strikeouts in Venezuela.

Prior to the 2008 season, the 6-foot-1, 216-pounder was signed to a minor league deal by the Washington Nationals but never made it to major league spring training camp. Maekawa was reportedly denied a visa due to the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident and driving for several years without a license in Japan.

He had likely caught the Nats’ attention when he delivered a 2-1 record with a 1.82 ERA in seven starts in the Dominican Republic last winter.

(Last month, the Cardinals had added another lefty who actually pitched for the Nats, Charlie Manning. The Cards picked Manning off the waiver wire and as such, he is on the club’s 40-man roster.)

From 1997 through 2006, Maekawa posted a 5.26 ERA and a 417/345 K/BB ratio in 609 innings during his career in Japan with Kinetsu (1997-2003), Hanshin (2004-2005) and Orix (2006). Apparently he did not pitch during the 2007 regular season in Japan.

His aggregate won-loss record was 31-45 and he shows a consistent problem allowing too many baserunners. His Nippon Professional Baseball WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) was 1.60. (Major league average is under 1.40.)

Walton’s take: IF the Cardinals have truly signed Maekawa and IF he can enter the US in March and IF he can pitch reasonably effectively, the best we can probably hope for is a Ron Flores replacement for Triple-A Memphis. The younger of the Flores brothers was never seriously considered for a call-up to St. Louis during 2008 and left the organization as a minor league free agent following the season.

Update: confirms the signing. A major league spring training invite is not included.

2005 Taguchi > 2008 Fukudome

“C’mon! Fukudome was so bad, even Taguchi was better!”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

Ah, the Holidays are a wonderful time of year, when families all over the country re-assemble, reminisce and yes, sometimes resurrect past skirmishes.

Such is the case in our household here in 2008. My oldest son Ian returned home first of our gang to officially begin the consumption of mass quantities of food and seize the opportunity to catch up on his laundry. While waiting for the dryer, our conversation most predictably gravitated to the state of the game of baseball.

As the discussion narrowed to the prospect of Mark Cuban’s apparently futile attempt to purchase the Chicago Cubs, Ian tweaked my nose over the likelihood that a Cuban regime would escalate growth in the National League Central salary structure to a level even more uncomfortable for the St. Louis Cardinals to compete.

Of course, we both knew that Cuban’s recent indictment for alleged insider trading eliminated the less than 1% chance Bud Selig and his cronies would have let an unpredictable and deep-pocketed hands-on adversary like Cuban crash their exclusive country club, anyway.

Still, Ian’s point was that even BC, Before Cuban, the Cubs had grown their payroll to an amount considerably higher than their NL Central counterparts, most notably including the Cardinals.

My reply was that the Cubbies need a higher payroll since they have handicapped themselves by wasting millions on fool’s gold, the likes of former Cardinals starting pitcher Jason Marquis and the high-profile outfielder imported from Japan last winter, Kosuke Fukudome.

Marquis, too undependable to even hold down the fifth starter’s role for the Chicagoans, same as in St. Louis, is slated to earn just under $10 million this coming season.

That’s pocket change compared to the amount the then-shiny-new Japanese import Fukudome was presented last winter – a whopping $48 million over four years, including $11.5 million in 2009.

What those two duds are paid more than closes the financial gap between the Cardinals and Cubs.

As I was making that point, a light bulb moment occurred.

Speculating that the Cubs’ had been hoping to acquire their own Ichiro, I noted they got much less that they bargained for – unless you count an unbelievably unjustified All-Star Game selection and an unearned sixth place finish in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, that is.

Fuk may be waiting a long time for a ring
Fuk may wait a long time for a ring

In fact, with some wind in my debating sails, I continued by push my point by making a rash assertion that the Cubs’ received less production from Fukudome than the Cardinals did from their own Japanese import, So Taguchi, in his best season in the US.

“Say what?”

Turns out, when normalizing the at-bats from the light-hitting Taguchi’s 2005 season with St. Louis, his first as a full-time major leaguer and the one in which he received the most at-bats, with Fukudome’s initial season in MLB, I was absolutely right.

This despite the fact that Fukudome is eight years younger and So’s best campaign was at the age of 35, in his decline phase physically.

Taguchi 2005 0.288 396 45 114 8 53 11 0.322 0.412 2
Taguchi 2005 n* 0.288 501 57 144 10 66 14 0.322 0.412 3
Fukudome 2008 0.257 501 79 129 10 58 12 0.359 0.379 6

* normalized

leader in BOLD

In summary, had Taguchi maintained his 2005 pace through 501 at-bats, the number Fukudome received last season, So would have had a higher batting average, more RBI, more stolen bases, a higher slugging percentage and half the errors in the field as the Cubs “star”.

“Yee, hah!”

Fukudome did score more frequently and amassed a better on-base mark, but that is it. Those represent the only two major statistical areas in 2008 where the overpriced, overrated Cubbie actually performed better than the 2005 version of Taguchi.

While the Cub made $8 million in 2008, So pulled down a whopping $550,000 back in 2005. In other words, in his top season, Taguchi made less than 7% than did Fukudome last year.

One final point. Taguchi’s Cardinals club took the World Series the very next year while Fukudome’s Cubs have now been waiting 101 years for the same. Based on his “rookie” season, it certainly doesn’t look like Fukudome is going to play any positive factor in reversing that trend over the final three years of his current contract, either.

Hey, Taguchi is again a free agent. Maybe his agent should call Jim Hendry to see how badly the Baby Bears general manager wants a new centerfielder?

Cardinals Minority Owner in Serious Financial Trouble

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch?

Yes, at least via their family relationships.

The family tree

Founded by Joseph Pulitzer in 1878, the Post-Dispatch was still owned by the media company Pulitzer Inc. until 2005. At that time, Lee Enterprises, Inc. of Davenport, IA purchased Pulitzer Inc. and made it a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lee.

A footnote in that transaction was that a small minority stake of the St. Louis Cardinals also passed from Pulitzer to Lee.

Chairman Michael Pulitzer had tried to join the William DeWitt Jr. ownership group when the Cardinals were purchased from Anheuser-Busch in 1996. Though it was a bit of a surprise at the time, there was strong public sentiment that the business community was demonstrating their commitment to help keep the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Yet because Pulitzer already owned a stake in the Arizona Diamondbacks, MLB would not allow him to also acquire a share of the Cardinals. MLB’s rules preclude ownership participation in more than one team.

Five years later, in 2001, both Pulitzer Inc. and Michael Pulitzer himself successfully acquired what was characterized at the time as a “nearly four percent stake” in the Cardinals. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, nor was it clear what portion is under company ownership and what Pulitzer holds personally.

The annual Cardinals media guide continues to list both Pulitzer Inc and Michael Pulitzer among the 15 “investors” in the club. The other 13 are all individuals, led by DeWitt and his older sister.

In their annual report on the Business of Baseball, released in April, Forbes estimated the value of the Cardinals at $484 million. The entire four percent stake would be worth just under $20 million, or peanuts considering the magnitude of Lee’s current problems.

Current state cloudy

Somber news was reported on Monday in the Post-Dispatch and nationwide. Lee’s independent auditor, KPMG LLP, sounded an ominous warning that heightened fears that the company may be on the brink of imminent financial failure.

KPMG plans to file a “going concern” statement in conjunction with Lee filing its annual report by the end of the year. Apparently, the only way to avert that would be for Lee to refinance a $306 million debt by the end of this month. If that fails, a series of default loan dominoes will reportedly fall, which would bring down the company.

The St. Louis Business Journal added for the same reasons, KPMG will also modify its auditors’ reports on the separate financial statements of Pulitzer Inc. and the Post-Dispatch.

As expected, Lee officials’ public comments express optimism the problems will be resolved.

Independent industry watchers disagree. 24/7 Wall St. ranks Lee number seven in their 15 companies on “Bankruptcy Watch” and that was when company stock was almost $6 per share.

Their assessment: “The company wrote off $841 million in assets last quarter. Advertising revenue dropped almost 6% year-over-year, and that is almost certainly accelerating. Lee is sitting on almost $1.3 billion in debt and, before the end of the year, it probably will not have the operating income to cover debt service.”

In October, Lee had suspended dividend payments to stockholders and established a new credit agreement with lenders to try to stave off selling assets or declaring bankruptcy to survive. Employees were informed that company matches to their 401(K)s were reduced.

Shares in Lee Enterprises have plummeted from a 18-month high of $24.97 to $0.34 at market opening on Thursday. That’s right, just 34 cents per share.

In other words, it would cost you more to buy a copy of the Post-Dispatch from a newsstand than to acquire two shares of Lee stock! One might argue it is barely worth the paper it is printed on.

Lee is hardly alone, as many newspaper chains nationwide are feeling the severe effects of the credit crunch aggravated by steady declines in circulation and advertising sales.

Many financial observers attribute much of Lee’s current problems to being overextended in debt tied to acquisitions. Lee reportedly borrowed roughly $1.5 billion to acquire Pulitzer Inc. three years ago and prior to that added Howard Publications in 2002.

Bottom line, selling their small stake in the Cardinals, whatever it is exactly, wouldn’t even slow the flow of red ink from Lee’s gaping wound.

Impact is broad

While the Post-Dispatch may have been Pulitzer’s flagship, Lee Enterprises publishes 49 daily newspapers and more than 300 weekly newspapers and specialty publications virtually nationwide.

At the time of the 2005 acquisition, Lee Enterprises employed over ten thousand people, of which 4,000 came over from Pulitzer.

Despite the obstacles, perhaps satisfactory arrangements can be made to keep the papers running without interruption. Selfishly and narrow-mindedly, I believe the quantity and quality of the Post-Dispatch’s Cardinals coverage has grown substantially in recent years and would hate to see that compromised.

Most importantly, here’s hoping the thousands of Post-Dispatch employees can keep their jobs as their parent struggles to remain solvent.

Cardinals consider two Japanese pitchers

I read with considerable interest Joe Strauss’ article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday in which a small celebration occurred over the St. Louis Cardinals’ interest and activities in the Pacific Rim.

“This was something we had interest in as an organization. We’ve made a pursuit of it,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told Strauss.

To the best of my knowledge, the club’s efforts are still in their infancy, at least in the area of amateur scouting. They have a couple of people assigned to cover an awful lot of ground over there. Matters are complicated by factors of distance, culture and most importantly, rules that make free movement of players from The East to the US especially difficult.

On many occasions over the last five years, Cardinals Vice President Jeff Luhnow has reminded me of the challenges of establishing a foothold in Asia.

On the other hand, the success of professional scouting is very dependent on one 800-pound gorilla – the rules of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

Kawakami and Uehara
Kawakami and Uehara

Not to be dismissive to the Cardinals’ hard-working scouts in any way, but the two names in the P-D, 33-year-old pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara were already relatively well-known in international baseball circles.

In fact, even I profiled them a few months ago. At the time, I didn’t call the two out as specific targets of the Cardinals, but instead as players projected to be available as free agents this off-season.

Because both pitchers have over ten years of service in the NPB, they are true free agents and do not have to pass through the restrictive and expensive player posting process.

That may be one reason why they appeal to the Cardinals, though the club would still have to bid against other interested clubs, same as with US free agents.

As a result, I am not overly excited about the Cardinals’ chances. If the players are really good, the Cardinals could easily lose out in the bidding and if the players are undesirable to other organizations, they should be undesirable to the Cards, too.

While neither of these pitchers has to go through the posting process, I thought I would digress for a bit to explain about it.

The posting process

The “posting system” is documented in a signed agreement that governs player movement from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB organizations.

A two-part bidding process is in place for all posted players that by definition will likely squeeze out mid-market clubs such as the Cardinals from getting top players, not unlike as in the USA (C.C. Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, etc.).

MLB teams are allowed to place sealed bids through the MLB Commissioner’s Office for the right to negotiate with selected NPB players. They may only be posted, or made available, if their NPB club is willing to let them leave.

The NPB team is informed of the highest bid. They must make their decision whether or not to accept without knowing which MLB team is the highest bidder.

These initial fees compensate the NPB team for the loss of their player. The NPB player is then allowed 30 days to negotiate with the winning MLB team regarding the terms of his prospective contract in the USA.

The whopper

The most famous example is that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was posted two winters ago. The Boston Red Sox submitted the highest bid of over $51 million, which was accepted by the Seibu Lions of the NPB.

On to step two.

Dice-K’s agent, (guess who?) Scott Boras, wanted a five or six-year deal and he got exactly that, a six-year, $52 million deal with the BoSox. That made the club’s total investment in the pitcher over $100 million.

Of course, I am not assuming for one second that the two players in which the Cardinals are interested would command anywhere near that type of money.

I should note that this posting system only applies to players that were under contract with a Japanese team and does not apply to amateur players. The latter is currently a major point of contention. The final player of the five highlighted below, Junichi Tazawa, entered MLB this way, much to the dismay of the NPB.

Who are these guys?

The following five capsules will be a part of the “2009 Fantasy Baseball Guide” magazine, for which I am a long-time contributor. It will hit newsstands this spring.

I will start with the two players linked to the Cardinals. Mozeliak met with their agents during the Winter Meetings last week. While the P-D article discussing the two is entitled “Fuentes waits, so Birds mull options”, it is difficult to picture either as legitimate consolation prizes if the Cards cannot sign free-agent closer Brian Fuentes.

One last time, please remember that both Uehara and Kawakami are free agents, and as such are not required to pass through the posting process. Also be aware that NPB stats listed below do not translate directly to MLB.

The two in question

Right-hander Koji Uehara was 6-5 with 72 strikeouts and a 3.81 ERA in 89 2/3 innings this past season for the Yomiuri Giants, a major drop from his 1.74 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 62 innings in 2007, his only season as a closer. He was actually demoted to the Japanese minor leagues for two months during 2008 for poor performance. At age 33, what role might he play?

Kenshin Kawakami, also 33, was reportedly Japan’s highest-paid starter at $3 million last season. A veteran of international competition like Uehara, Kawakami was 9-5 with 112 strikeouts and a 2.30 ERA in 117 innings for the Chunichi Dragons. That was a considerable improvement from his 3.55 ERA in 2007. The right-hander sports an 87 mph fastball, cutter, and curveball. He fans nearly a batter per inning, but can be prone to yield the long-ball, too.

Three others

Hitoki Iwase, the left-handed closer of the Chunichi Dragons, has collected 165 saves over the last four seasons. The 33-year-old’s ERA was 2.94 this past season after a 2.18 mark in 2007 and a 1.30 ERA the year prior. Iwase’s fastball is said to reach 93 mph, backed up by a plus slider. How much does he have in the tank, though?

Olympian Yu Darvish is the biggest name in Japan, but there has been no announcement on whether or not he will be posted this winter. Rumors of a $75 million posting fee would clearly set a record if true. The 22-year-old right-hander went 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA and fanned 208 in 200.2 innings for the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

Junichi Tazawa is a hard-throwing 22-year-old right-hander who played for a semi-pro club in 2008 and therefore was not required to go through the posting process. Tazawa is said to sport a mid-90s fastball, a 12-to-6 overhand curve and a splitter, but is unproven professionally. He signed a Major League contract with the Boston Red Sox in early December, but is expected to start 2009 in the minor leagues.

Knoedler signing invokes memories of Dizzy Dean

In what was a minor signing by any stretch of the imagination, on Tuesday, and various mainstream media sources reported the St. Louis Cardinals signed catcher Justin Knoedler to a minor league contract for 2009 and included an invitation to Major League spring training camp.

This morning, I received several notes informing me of the announcement, wondering why I had missed it, wanting to know more about the new Cardinal, etc…

The fact is that I thought I didn’t need to re-announce it, as I had already reported the Knoedler signing three-and-a half weeks ago, way back on November 21! (Click on the highlighted link to read the free article along with a photo gallery.)

The 28-year-old was signed, sealed and delivered before the protected lists for the Rule 5 Draft were due on November 20th. Knoedler was eligible to be selected in the draft, but not surprisingly, he was passed over.

– Did any other Cardinals news source report his signing last month? Nope.

– Did they report anything about the Rule 5 Reserve Lists and their ramifications? I did. (Link to subscriber-only article on Scout.)

Nothing against those hard-working writers from the deep-pocketed organizations that cover the Cardinals regularly. Many of them I consider friends. And I don’t expect to scoop the big boys on most all major news items affecting the major league club.

On the other hand, I hope you can recognize Knoedler as an example to appreciate the unparalleled depth of coverage you get here and on about the Cardinals minor league system. I’ll gladly stack our hustle and coverage on the minors up against any of them.

If that interests you, remember to check here at The Cardinal Nation as well as at The Birdhouse daily!

In the immortal words of the great Dizzy Dean, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it!”

Astros to close Venezuelan academy while Cardinals invest

The St. Louis Cardinals will soon have one less competitor with in-country facilities in Venezuela as the Houston Astros announced this week plans to close their Venezuelan academy.

Though under the ownership of Drayton McLane, the Astros have reportedly cut back on scouting and player development, this news was still a surprise to me. Houston was the first MLB organization to enter that market 20 years ago and as a result mined premier talent such as Bobby Abreu and Johan Santana.

That initiative was started under the leadership of the well-respected scouting and development executive Andres Reiner, who is now planning a similar long-term investment initiative in Brazil on behalf of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Speaking to, Houston officials seemed to go out of their way to explain that the changes have nothing to do with the on-going political unrest in Venezuela, or the economy. Instead, they want to deploy their resources to try to get players to the majors sooner.

The Astros will continue to scout players in the country going forward. As did the Cardinals two years ago, the Astros are adding a Gulf Coast League club, but in their case, it is trading one off for the other, not an incremental addition.

The Astros aren’t alone. In 2008, the 12-year-old Venezuelan Summer League ran with just eight teams, including Houston. Other organizations that had previously participated but no longer field VSL teams include Boston, Cincinnati, Florida, San Diego and Baltimore.

The Cardinals are heading in the opposite direction, increasing their commitment in and to Venezuela. Not two weeks ago, I was trying to reach Cardinals Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez only to find he was out investigating an untapped territory in the country.

Rodriguez explains. “It’s a very large country so you need more than one scout there as the regions you need to cover are so vast. You can’t just do it with one or two guys.”

The Cardinals deploy three scouts in the country along with the assistance of Latin American cross-checker Juan Mercado.

Rodriguez is clearly bullish on the country. “Venezuela has really made some strides in the last ten years in the area of player production. The last time I checked, Venezuela had over 1000 players in the minor leagues under contract to major league clubs. That is a pretty significant number. They are really producing players,” he explained recently in an October subscriber-only interview I ran on

Rodriguez went on to note that the corresponding number of players under contract from the Dominican Republic is only about 1600-1800, making the difference much smaller than most, including me, would have guessed.

The Cardinals are planning to move their Venezuelan academy into a new leased facility with a target opening date of mid-2009.

“Our plan is to build an academy in Venezuela, operate in the same manner as we do in the Dominican Republic and our goal is to produce players. We feel there is talent to be had there,” Rodriguez said.

The Cardinals believe that having in-country facilities should at least give them “a slight edge” when trying to sign 16-year-olds. Some players or their parents might have concerns about youngsters having to head overseas to Dominican academies instead of being able to train in Venezuela.

“Venezuela is not a country you can ignore, in my opinion,” Rodriguez summarized.

Links to the October Rodriguez interviews on (subscriber-only):

Rodriguez on Cards’ International Operations

Cards Director of Int’l Ops, Moisés Rodriguez

Muckdogs drag Rochester deeper into financial muck

Rochester Community Baseball, the organization that stepped in last winter to rescue the floundering Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn League, has released their financial statement for 2008, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Unfortunately, RCB lost over a quarter of a million dollars running the St. Louis Cardinals’ short-season NY-P affiliate this past season, that on the heels of another six digit loss in 2007 when the club was operated locally. Had the Rochester group not stepped in, the League was seriously considering pulling the plug on the franchise.

Despite their first league championship in 45 years in 2008, the Muckdogs’ attendance was basically flat at Dwyer Stadium at around 45,000 for 38 home games. In fairness to them, the Rochester group got a late start last season but committed this fall to give it another year.

For 2009, they can build a full head of steam to sell tickets and advertising, the two primary revenue sources. To help carry that out, RCB has brought in their own management team to operate the Muckdogs this coming season.

In a bit of an unusual arrangement, two young men will split the traditional general manager role for the ‘Dogs under the direction of highly-respected Rochester GM Dan Mason. Travis Sick, 23, was named the General Manager of Baseball Operations while 31-year-old Casey Freeman is the new GM of Stadium Operations.

Rochester management is a proven team that has demonstrated the ability to turn a profit in running a minor league club. The Red Wings, the Minnesota Twins’ affiliate in the International League, made over $150,000 last season, yet that was not enough to offset the Batavia loss.

RCB Chief Operating Officer and Chairman of the Board Naomi Silver was properly optimistic but also acknowledged the business reality in telling the Rochester paper, “…Batavia was a tough nut. We won’t stay in Batavia indefinitely if the operation continues to lose money.” Last week at Baseball’s Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, Silver was named Minor League Baseball’s Executive of the Year by Baseball America.

As far as the on-field product is concerned, the parent Cardinals are doing their part, too. The championship team put onto the field and managed by veteran Mark DeJohn was anchored by 15 collegians from the 2008 draft, including our Batavia Position Player of the Year, Colt Sedbrook.

Other stars were our Cardinals system Rookie Starting Pitcher of the Year Scott Gorgen and Rookie Reliever of the Year Adam Reifer, along with some exciting youngsters such as then 17-year-old Venezuelan centerfielder Frederick Parejo.

In addition, this fall the Cardinals stepped up and committed to supply players to Batavia for two more seasons, covering 2009 and 2010. They came to Batavia after the Philadelphia Phillies moved out following the 2006 season. In 2006, the nomadic Cards franchise played their only year in State College, PA and prior to that called New Jersey home.

The right management seems to be in place and the right on-field product should again be there. It remains up to the people of Batavia and the surrounding area to get behind their team.

The signals are pretty clear that the community business leaders need to step up and regional fans have to come out in greater numbers to support the Muckdogs or they could easily backslide into the very tenuous spot they found themselves following the 2007 season.

If the All-Star team of Rochester Community Baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals can’t pull it off, who else would take the risk to try to help pull the Batavia Muckdogs out of their own deepening financial muck?

Cardinals add Thurston, but why?

On Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals announced the signing of 29-year-old infielder Joe Thurston to a minor league contract and invited him to their 2009 major league spring training camp.

Thurston spent the 2008 season in the Boston Red Sox organization, the majority at Triple-A Pawtucket. The second baseman led the International League with 160 hits and ranked third in batting with a .316 batting average. It was the second straight season that his batting average eclipsed .300.

Thurston is currently playing winter ball for Ponce in Puerto Rico and is batting .298 with three home runs and 12 RBI in 104 at-bats. The left-handed hitter has appeared in just 59 major league games in his ten-year professional career and owns a .227 (15-for-66) batting average.

The Dodgers’ fourth-round draft pick in 1999 used to be a top prospect way back when. Then known as “Joey Ballgame”, Thurston was ranked as the #5 Dodgers prospect by Baseball America in 2003 and was being touted before the season as a Rookie of the Year candidate. Instead, he gradually played his way into becoming the non-prospect he is today.

Thurston has seen MLB action for the Dodgers (2002-2004), Phillies (2006) and Red Sox (2008) and played in the Yankees system in 2005. Thurston appeared in three games for the Red Sox from April 18-21 last season after having his contract purchased on April 16.

Walton’s take: I don’t get it. I thought the Cardinals were done with this type of minor league veteran fill-in signings for Memphis. Thurston is primarily a second baseman and can play shortstop and outfield.

Memphis already has Brian Barden, Tyler Greene, Jarrett Hoffpauir and Jose Martinez up the middle, with the first three already on the 40-man roster. And we already know how crowded the outfield is at the top of the system, even before we might see Allen Craig and/or David Freese out there for the Redbirds.

Bottom line, this seems like a wasted signing. If Thurston sticks with Memphis, he will just take away at-bats from legitimate prospects with little chance of a call-up. Think of it as the 2009 version of D’Angelo Jimenez without the MLB track record.

Looper arbitration decision could impact Fuentes

In recent days, two of the most talked about subjects surrounding the St. Louis Cardinals have been the cases of free agent closer Brian Fuentes and starting pitcher Braden Looper – one potentially coming into town with the other likely leaving.

In what follows, I will explain how these two seemingly-isolated cases are anything but.

Aftershocks of the decision to not offer Looper arbitration include either the Cardinals not signing any Type A free agents such as Fuentes or gutting the early part of their 2009 draft. There is also a significant financial ramification that may or may not impact the organization’s Latin American program.

Looper and Fuentes
Looper and Fuentes

Losing Looper

Though the Looper decision was not assumed prior to the December 1 deadline, many observers, including me, expected the Cards would offer him. Yet, Looper was probably pleased to be cut loose. Seeing Kyle Lohse snare a four-year deal worth $41 million likely helped Braden realize some time ago that his chance to score a similar multi-year contract would not be with St. Louis.

Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and now Lohse have long-term contracts, with Todd Wellemeyer coming up for consideration in 12 months. That is potentially too many starters tied up for too long, leaving Looper on the outside looking in.

Despite concerns about the economic downturn everywhere, Looper seemed assured of getting a better deal somewhere other than a one-year, arbitration-driven deal with the Cardinals. As a result, it was generally expected that the shaky closer-turned solid starter would have turned down the opportunity for a one-year deal with the Cards via arbitration.

The Cardinals didn’t care about expectations. They were apparently worried that Looper might accept despite the seemingly low risk of its occurrence. Therefore, they took the only route to absolutely assure that wouldn’t happen – they cut their formal ties with the pitcher.

With no guarantee that injured ace Carpenter will be ready to go to start next season and how many innings they will get from him, the Cardinals seem to be in the market for some insurance for their starting rotation. Their top five are currently Carpenter, Wainwright, Lohse, Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro.

If the organization does want that insurance, it seemingly won’t be delivered via Looper, unless the two sides come back around to each other later in the off-season.

Extra pick lost

Though I believe the Cardinals were unnecessarily cautious in this situation, I am frankly less concerned about keeping Looper than I am about the downstream ramifications of the decision.

As a Type B free agent, had Looper been offered but not accepted, the Cardinals would have received a compensatory draft pick commonly called a “sandwich” pick that can be used between the first and second rounds of the June, 2009 draft.

Since the Cardinals did not make that offer to Looper (or Jason Isringhausen or Russ Springer), they were not awarded that selection.

A change in plans?

From an organization that has highly-prioritized the long-term mission of building their farm system, bypassing the likely compensatory pick for Looper seems a surprisingly counter-strategic decision.

If fact, 2009 will be the first time since 2004, before Jeff Luhnow assumed the role of farm director for the Cardinals, that they will have no extra picks coming into the draft.

Perhaps anticipating this kind of move, not ninety days ago, I asked Luhnow if the Cardinals could ever have too many compensatory picks.

“No, absolutely not. Those picks are valuable and you just have to figure out how to turn those assets into something that you need. I am speaking as the scouting director now, but even speaking with my global hat on, we like those draft picks and will take as many as we can get,” Luhnow declared.

Fear of being locked into arbitration with their compensation-eligible free agents clearly altered the organization’s intent this year.

Yet, the Cardinals are not unique. Along with St. Louis, at least ten other clubs, perhaps concerned about the economy, excluded all their six-year-plus veteran free agents from arbitration offers.

No sandwiches would leave system hungrier

To provide a reminder of the quality of players that have joined the Cardinals as supplemental picks, I offer their most recent sandwich round selections, with the bonus amounts awarded each:

2008: Lance Lynn – $938,000

2007: Clayton Mortensen – $650,000

2006: Chris Perez – $800,000

2005: Mark McCormick – $800,000 and Tyler Herron – $650,000

All in all, would the Cards rather have these players than not? It would certainly seem like it.

Though the jury is still out on the 2005 and 2008 sandwich players, the major league club already began reaping the benefits of Perez less than two years after he was pitching in the College World Series. Mortensen is also on the fact track to the big leagues, starting in Triple-A before he had even one full year of professional experience.

A misdirection play being run?

As they pump more money into their growing Latin American operations, could the Cardinals be changing their strategy by passing up comp picks, while routing more money away from the June draft in the process?

Think of it this way. Had the Cardinals landed 16-year-old Venezuelan centerfielder Yorman Rodriguez in August instead of former GM Walt Jocketty’s Cincinnati Reds, by my calculations, the Cards would have spent more 2008 bonus money overseas than they did in the regular First-Year Player Draft. The Reds reportedly dished out $2.7 million to Rodriguez, a record for a Venezuelan-born player.

Furthermore, consider the Cardinals’ top 2008 international signing, Roberto De La Cruz. The third baseman received more in bonus than any other Cards player taken in this June’s First-Year Player Draft not named Brett Wallace, a polished college hitter five years older than he. In fact, the Dominican Republic native fetched the same bonus as the number 29 pick in the first round!

Since at least 2005 and probably much longer, only Wallace and Pete Kozma (2007) received more in bonus from the club than did De La Cruz. Among the recent first-rounders who brought home less than the third baseman are Adam Ottavino (2006) and Colby Rasmus (2005).

That is uncharted territory for an organization that didn’t even have an international presence outside of the Dominican Republic just a few short years ago.

Increasing confidence in growing overseas budget

I asked the Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development about the significance of the escalation of the Cardinals’ international spending on players and whether my estimate of their shifting balance toward a majority spent in Latin America and a minority in the US is accurate.

“Correct. There are a couple of clubs teetering on that edge and a couple that have already gone over (spending more outside the US). We wouldn’t be afraid to do that.

“I think Mr. DeWitt and Mo now have the confidence that we have the right scouting resources in place and the right infrastructure in place that it makes sense to deploy the bonus dollars there and wait for the return. It is a bit more of a long term investment, so you have to look at the whole portfolio,” Luhnow explained.

Type A free agent signing carries big downside

The final ramification of not having that supplemental selection is that the Cardinals may be more reluctant to sign Fuentes or any other of one of the top free agents, called Type A, this despite the club needing help at several positions at the major league level.

Examples of Type A players offered arbitration that might previously have been on the Cardinals shopping list include:

Infielders Orlando Hudson and Orlando Cabrera

Left-handed relievers Fuentes and Darren Oliver (AA*)

Starting pitchers A.J. Burnett (SS**), Derek Lowe and Oliver Perez

Outfielders Raul Ibanez (SS**) and Milton Bradley

* arbitration offered

** signed since

(The above list excludes high-end Type A’s that were in the same situation but likely priced outside the Cardinals budget, players such as C.C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Manny Ramirez, Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez. (Yeah, I heard the rumors about an offer to K-Rod, but I don’t believe them.)

The Looper situation indirectly suggested that the remainng Type A players have an uphill chance of becoming Cardinals in 2009. Either the players accepted the offer of arbitration, as did Oliver, taking them off the market by tying them to their old clubs, or if they declined, compensation from the signing organization will be required. As an aside, of the 25 players offered this year, only Oliver and Cincinnati’s David Weathers accepted.

If the Cardinals do go ahead and sign any Type A, it would seem their plan to focus on improving the farm system via the First-Year Player Draft would be taking a one-year hiatus as a result.

Again, here’s why. If a Type A signing is made, the Cardinals would forfeit their first round pick for next June.

Is signing a Type A worse than not?

We’ve already seen why the Cards will have no supplemental pick in 2009. Add to that the potential loss of their first-rounder in this scenario and the chances of the organization nabbing an impact player in the 2009 draft will be greatly diminished.

Though the specifics of the supplemental round are not yet defined, I currently estimate the Cardinals’ second-round pick should be somewhere between 65th and 70th. That would be their very first selection in the 2009 draft in this case.

Not pretty, nor is it a normal situation for the Cardinals.

In fact, the last year the Cards went into a June draft without either a first-rounder or a supplemental first-round pick was way back in 2002. That was due to the club having signed Type A free agents Isringhausen and Tino Martinez during the previous off-season.

The 2002 scenario could repeat this year if the Cards signed two Type As such as Fuentes and Perez. Losing both their first and second-round picks would ensue.

Rewriting history isn’t pretty

In a world where the Cards would have no first or sandwich round picks, their top selections in recent drafts would have been the following players. They represent the organization’s initial second-round picks in these years:

2008: Shane Peterson

2007: David Kopp

2006: Brad Furnish

2005: Josh Wilson (retired)

Nothing against any of these young men, but would anyone feel as good as they do about the much-ballyhooed improvement in the Cardinals system had these players been the organization’s highest picks in the last four drafts?

Methinks not.

Money potentially saved

If one subscribes to this action being a part of an expense-adjustment strategy on the part of the Cardinals, consider this. The organization could avoid spending as much as $2 million next June just by not having to bonus both a first-round and a sandwich pick.

Another potential factor is sheer roster space to put all their players. While the Cardinals’ system is the youngest of the 30 organizations in aggregate, it is reaching its capacity, says Luhnow.

With fewer minor league free agents and better quality players, it is becoming more difficult to determine who should be pruned from the system. As a result, fewer can enter.

Here is Luhnow’s recent observation.

“I look at next year’s draft and look at all the players in our system and I am not sure we are going to need to sign as many as we did this year. I said that this year, too, so we will have to see,” the farm director explained.

There are several potential ways to achieve financial benefits. For example, they could shave off the high-end picks as discussed here, they could draft more players with signability issues, and/or they could refuse to pay over slot value for any draftees.

In conclusion

The Cardinals’ decision to not offer Braden Looper arbitration either eliminates their signing of a Type A free agent or dooms them to waiting and waiting to make their first 2009 draft selection until the 65-70 range.

There is a possibility that the club could divert unspent bonus money into their Latin American signing budget, but that is not assured.

Cardinals increasing ticket promotions acknowledge the economy

Some think Major League Baseball clubs will be impacted by the Nation’s economic problems while others wonder if families cutting back on expensive travel might decide to rediscover their local team during the summer of 2009.

Major League Baseball is clearly concerned. About six weeks ago, Commissioner Bud Selig sounded a stern warning to club general managers. Later, he spoke to the Associated Press.

“We’re living in a tumultuous economic period. Many economists believe that we’re going to have significant problems. Maybe this could turn out to be the most difficult period since the Great Depression. I view these coming months with trepidation,” Selig mused.

It is not clear how the above statement was directed, since “Bud Light’s” focus has always seemed to be more on the relationships between ownership and players than any legitimate concern over the game’s fans.

Some professional teams are getting more creative than just turning up the volume on the annoying rock music blared out during every break in the action, and sometimes during the game, too.

BusinessWeek recently picked up on a unique promotion the Blues first staged on November 29th. The NHL club kicked off the first of 11 “Fannie and Freddie Mortgage Saturdays.” A winning fan from a drawing held at each game gets his or her rent or mortgage payment paid by the team. The value is up to $1,000 per month for four months. Blues officials estimated the promotion sold about 500 extra tickets for the first installment.

The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t sitting still, either. And it is good they aren’t.

Since opening the smaller Busch Stadium (III) in 2006, the Cardinals have drawn over ten million fans. Regular season home attendance has been relatively flat though, ranging from 3.41 million in the inaugural season (in 80 games instead of 81), to 3.55 million in 2007, likely fueled by the 2006 World Championship, back down to 3.43 million last season.

In the recent 2008 Turnkey Team Brand Index, which includes all major professional sports, football, baseball, hockey and basketball, the Cardinals ranked a very respectable tenth. Across MLB, they followed only the Boston Red Sox (2nd overall). The Green Bay Packers of the NFL are number one.

The Index maps a team’s brand in its home city in the areas of Team Popularity, Fan Loyalty and Grade of Ownership. At least in off-the-field areas, the Cards don’t seem to be making any assumptions about those high levels of popularity and loyalty.

Since the start of November alone, the Cardinals have sent out over a dozen email offers specifically focused on ticket sales. I do not ever recall such a concentrated blitz of sales promotions so early. At this point, the selling point is more price than promotion, though.

They have marked the opening of season ticket sales, which offer a 50% discount over face value with a post-season purchase option, to packages that feature 12 games for the price of ten and up to ten for the price of five. They start at $109 and go up to $1,389.

Extras galore are offered, from Holiday deals that include a free stocking (whoopee!) to others that provide free access to the All-Star Fan Fest, to be held during the July All-Star Game break.

Next, single game tickets went on sale, but only for the ever-popular “pig out plans”. Or in more politically-correct speak, the “all-inclusive areas” that offer “a delicious buffet and complimentary beer and soda”.

The next set of email blitzes were around party rooms, ideal for businesses to entertain clients, at least those without deep enough pockets to acquire luxury suites, that is. You can also get tickets via packages offered by “preferred hotel” partners.

Then there are the 27 game plans (which not surprisingly are no longer branded “Rolen Plans”) as well as Share-a-Seat Plans.

Last Thursday, the team offered a one-day only pre-Holiday sale in which either $30 or $60 would be taken off the prices of the two flavors of package deals from 12 games down.

The most recent one-day-only offer came in just this morning, blaring this message, “$25 Discount on Cardinals All-Inclusive Tickets for April-May games”.

In their packages, the Cardinals already either include certain “premium games”, such as with the Cubs or weekend games, or offer more tickets for the money for games deemed less desirable. Take Pittsburgh on a Thursday afternoon, for example.

Going one step farther, now the team is trying to fill seats for “most” pre-summer games while filling up fans (with the all-you-can-eat chow and unlimited Anheuser-Busch products).

I am not pushing any of these packages or deals, but instead, just noticing a blitz that doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon. Yet, if you are price-sensitive (and who isn’t?), I suggest you subscribe to the team’s email notifications – if you can stand the volume of mail, that is!

It’s only December 16 and plain old-fashioned single-game tickets haven’t even gone on sale yet!

Mark Mulder: What comes after “fooled me twice”?

Recently,’s Ken Rosenthal apparently had a nice chat with Gregg Clifton, the agent for former St. Louis Cardinals left-handed starting pitcher Mark Mulder.

Guess what news Clifton relayed about his currently unemployed and therefore non-commission-generating client?

Of course! Mulder is “making significant progress in his recovery”. He’s been working with a pair of celebrity personal trainers in Arizona.

“Dr.” Clifton assured Rosenthal that Mulder’s shoulder is “fine, but that he is just now starting to build ‘functional strength’ — in other words, the muscles that will enable him to pitch successfully again.”

Let me translate that. Mulder is probably looking very buff these days, but no one still knows if he can pitch a baseball worth a darn.

Rosenthal dutifully reported that the 31-year-old Mulder “will not begin throwing until December”. His article was posted all of nine days before the month began.

The writer closed his probing interview with a sales pitch suggesting that the lefty “could prove a reasonable one-year risk for a team in need of starting pitching”.

I have a suggestion for Clifton. Dial 1-800-Walt-Jocketty. Call now!

They say that lightning does not strike in the same place twice, but it clearly did in St. Louis. And now fortunately, Walt has since moved up river to Cincinnati.

Some think that internal friction over the building of the farm system versus the trading of prospects for established minor leaguers was the spark that burnt down Jocketty’s comfy 13-year-old St. Louis mansion.

If so, Mulder lit the match.

Fooled once

In what is unquestionably the most disastrous trade in Jocketty’s St. Louis reign, he dealt Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton to Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s for Mulder in December, 2004. At the time, much of the fan fury was over losing top prospect Barton, who has been a washout so far, while Haren has become one of the best young starters in the game.

Though Mulder had been the American League’s starting pitcher in the 2004 All-Star Game, there were whispers all over baseball as he went in the tank big-time after the break that season. His second-half ERA was an alarming 6.13 with a 1.59 WHIP and he posted a below-.500 record. That compared to 3.21, 1.19 and a 12-2 record prior to the break.

Was that screaming “buyer beware” or what?

Still, the post-trade Mulder started ok, bagging his fifth straight 15-game winning season in his St. Louis debut in 2005. But the next year, his troubles more than returned. The lefty logged 85 days on the disabled list in 2006 due to left shoulder impingement. That culminated with surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum in September of that year.

Any time “rotator cuff” is mentioned in conjunction with a pitcher, be concerned. Be very concerned.

Fooled twice

Walt could have walked away from the whole mess as Mulder was a free agent following the 2006 season, but he didn’t. Presumably with the support of the Cardinals medical staff, Jocketty doubled down on his Mulder gambit, laying a fat, juicy, two-year, $11.5 million offer chock full of incremental incentives on the table.

What a surprise! Mulder took it, though he probably had to sign with his right hand.

Not surprisingly, Mulder made none of his over $10 million in additional performance bonuses in that albatross of a contract over the next two seasons. In fact, the Cards got 12 2/3 innings total of over-ten ERA pitching in 2007 and 2008 combined for their increased investment.

Mulder missed 135 games in 2007 and for the second consecutive year, had surgery in September. The labrum was now fine but the rotator cuff had only partially healed. He actually managed to top that in 2008, as he missed a total of 149 games.

I was there in the Philadelphia clubhouse before Mulder’s Waterloo, his one and only 2008 start as a major league pitcher, on July 9. I remember vividly Mulder’s excitement as he told us the day before that he had finally located a new, comfortable arm slot and he couldn’t wait to try it out in the game.

After throwing just 16 pitches in live action, the big lefty trudged off the mound with more shoulder discomfort. After the contest, a disappointed, frustrated and bewildered Mulder simply said he felt pain and was unable to throw the way he wanted.

The next day, Mulder said he had absolutely no idea what the next steps would be. Back onto the DL he went, never to be seen on the mound again. This time, everyone seemed to agree that more surgery would likely not accomplish anything.

To add insult to injury, in the January, 2007 deal, Walt gave Mulder an $11 million option for 2009 that cost the Cardinals another $1.5 million to extract themselves from. That made Mulder’s meter run up to $13 million for the two washed out seasons. His stint with the Cardinals officially ended in October when this last buyout check was tendered.

Fooled thrice?

Part two of the agent’s current awareness campaign seemed to focus on the Winter Meetings and was delivered through the Boston Globe, who on Sunday quoted Clifton saying this: “He’s ready to go for any team right out of the chute.” There had been some talk that teams would have to wait until May or June (before Mulder would be ready to pitch in 2009). “Not true,” said Clifton.

It is most assuring to learn that the agent has recently added fortune-telling to his medical credentials.

At least the Globe writer had the common sense to include the Mulder blurb in an article entitled “Beware of warning signs”.

So all in all, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t start doing backflips over Mulder’s exciting “progress”.

Don’t get me wrong. I bet Mulder wants nothing more than to be an effective major league pitcher again. It’s just that he may not be able to do it. I imagine his agent wants to score another big contract for Mulder. It probably isn’t going to happen.

The reaction of many Cardinals fans when Mulder is mentioned is very similar to how those rabid Boston Red Sox fans feel about Matt Clement. Go to any BoSox board and look up Clement or ask about him. A vast majority of the posters’ remarks I viewed were from fans sick of the years of injuries and ineffectiveness. They just wanted him to go away.

The Cardinals obliged last winter. Do you remember how well that worked out?

Maybe GM John Mozeliak, who was with the Cardinals throughout the entire Mulder saga, will have the guile to immediately forward any calls from Clifton over to his old boss Walt.

Let’s see. There’s “fooled me once”. There’s “fooled me twice”. Let’s just hope the Cardinals never write the definition of “fooled me thrice”!

Cardinals: Where are they Now? – Ken Oberkfell

“Once a Cardinal, always a Cardinal”, is the way I have always seen things.

To wit, I read with interest this news item: The Mets’ new Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, will formally name Ken Oberkfell as their 2009 manager this coming Tuesday, December 16.

Being old enough to have remembered the great era of the 1960’s when the St. Louis Cardinals played in three World Series, winning two, then suffering through the 1970’s positioned me as one of millions of Cardinals fans excited when Whitey Herzog’s 1982 Cardinals finally made the playoffs after a 14-year drought.

Along with Keith Hernandez, my favorite Cardinal at the time, another of the most prominent of the players that bridged the gap from the awful 1970’s to the fantastic 1980’s was their second/third baseman Oberkfell.

Who can ever forget Ernie Hayes cranking out the “Star Wars” theme on the Busch Stadium organ every time “Obie” came to bat?

Oberkfell as a Cardinal

Oberkfell was a free agent signing by the Cards in 1975 and remained in the organization for almost the next ten years. He made his major league debut via a brief cup of coffee at the age of 21 in 1977. In two more seasons, the Highland, IL native had taken over at second base before moving over to third in 1981 when Tommy Herr came onto the scene.

Probably my favorite Obie moment was in Game Two of the 1982 National League Championship Series. (In those days, there was no Divisional Series, as there were still just two divisions. In an alignment that only MLB is capable of devising, the Cards were the Eastern Division Champions, while the Braves represented the West.)

Always difficult to strike out, the Cards third sacker came up in a crucial situation with one out in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game. Obie promptly singled to center off Braves closer Gene Garber. That scored David Green, who had singled and was sacrificed to second, with the winning run as the Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves, 4-3.

What could be more exciting than a home walk-off win in the playoffs?

That put St. Louis on the way to a sweet three-game sweep of “America’s Team” and silenced annoying Skip Caray for yet another winter. (Realize this was in the early days of cable television, when the Braves, Cubs and Mets were pretty much the only teams on.)

More importantly, it helped get the thirsty Cardinals to the World Series, where they topped the then-American League champion Milwaukee Brewers.

Obie, who never hit more than three home runs nor drove in as many as 50 in a single season during his time with the Cardinals, was known most for his solid fundamental play and especially, his glove. He led the NL in fielding percentage as a second baseman in 1979 and at third both in 1982 and 1983.

Post-St. Louis playing days

In June, 1984, Herzog/GM Joe McDonald traded Oberkfell to the hated Braves. The return was lefty reliever Ken Dayley (I wonder if he is available today?), who would become a key contributor to Whitey’s 1985 and 1987 champs, along with first baseman Mike Jorgensen.

“Jorgy” was near the end of the line as a player but stayed around. He later managed in the Cardinals farm system, reaching Triple-A, then becoming the director of player development. He temporarily added the role of major league skipper for part of the 1995 season. Jorgensen remains with the Cardinals organization to this day with the current title of Special Assistant to the General Manager.

In addition to the Cardinals and Braves, Oberkfell played for the Pirates, Giants, Astros and Angels. Oberkfell was a member of the 1989 NL champions from San Francisco that fell to Tony La Russa’s Oakland A’s in the infamous “Earthquake Series”. He ended his playing days with the then-California Angels at the conclusion of the 1992 season.

Always in charge

In 2009, the 52-year old will be entering his 13th season as a minor league manager in affiliated ball and his fifth at leading the Mets’ Triple-A team, first in Norfolk, most recently in New Orleans and now settling in Buffalo.

Coming into the season, Oberkfell is 812-803 (.503) as a manager.

He began his managing career in the independent Northern League in 1995 and 1996 before joining the Philadelphia Phillies the next season. Obie skippered Phils farmhands in the Sally and Florida State Leagues from 1997 through 2000.

Obie the Met

Though Obie never donned the New York Mets uniform as a player, he has been a most loyal employee since 2001.

Oberkfell moved over to the Mets organization that season, where he first led the Capitol City Bombers of the Sally League. In the second of his two seasons with St. Lucie club of the FSL, his 2003 team was the league champion. An assignment up the ladder to Double-A Binghamton for the 2004 season ensued.

Oberkfell was recognized as Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year in 2005 when he was leading the Norfolk Tides, but he has never received the call to manage in the big leagues.

He was most recently the Mets’ first base coach under Jerry Manuel, who became the team’s interim manager upon the firing of Willie Randolph in June. Oberkfell received a promotion to the bigs from the New Orleans’ managerial role that would last only half a season as he was reassigned following the 2008 campaign. Coincidentally, in moving to New York, Oberkfell had replaced another ex-Cardinal, Tom Nieto.

Obie interviewed for the top job with the Mets several times, including when Randolph was hired prior to the 2005 season. Previously, he had also been passed over for at least two other coaching spots on the big league club in Flushing.

Future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was brought in to be first base coach in the summer of 2007 instead of him and the prior off-season, Obie interviewed for, but did not win a spot on the Major League staff when Manny Acta moved to become the Nationals’ skipper. Howard Johnson got that job.

Interestingly, Oberkfell’s reputation with the tough New York press seems to be that of a low-key, nice guy who prefers to remain in the background. As such, he does not seem to be considered to be the next in line to manage the Mets.

On a personal note, Obie was sidelined for a considerable time in 2006 with serious leg circulatory problems and complications from surgery. Hopefully, those health issues are totally behind him now.

Yet, through all the twists and turns, ups and downs, Oberkfell clearly remains loyal to the Mets organization.

Despite that, Cardinals fans from the 1980’s surely still hold a soft spot in their hearts for the former second/third baseman.

Best of luck to Obie with his 2009 Buffalo Bisons!