St. Louis Cardinals: Onward Ho!
While the Redbird Nation rightfully celebrates its World Series championship, I'm going to jump ahead and take an in-depth look at the future of the Cardinals.
The fact that St. Louis won the World Series shouldn't have come as a complete surprise to anyone. The Cardinals made it to the Fall Classic in 2004 and the National League Championship Series in 2005. Before the season began, the Cardinals were the heavy favorites to win the NL Central and appeared to have the easiest road to this year's World Series of any team in baseball.
The club's roster was lined with several stars, including Albert Pujols, the best player in the game today, and Chris Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner. The Cards also had veterans Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, possessors of 14 Gold Gloves between them and still among the best at their positions in the league, as well as a solid #2 in Mark Mulder (16-8, 3.64 in 2005) and a proven closer in Jason Isringhausen (2.14 with 39 saves).
If anything, the Cardinals were a bit top heavy going into the season. The team was noticeably weak at 2B, LF, and the 5th SP. Junior Spivey was signed in December but had a terrible spring (10-for-68 with only 2 XBH and 20 SO) and was cut. Manager Tony La Russa then turned to Aaron Miles and utilityman Hector Luna as a stop gap until GM Walt Jocketty acquired Ronnie Belliard at the trading deadline. So Taguchi and John Rodriguez took turns in left during the first half, while rookie Chris Duncan, who turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and Scott Spiezio split time down the stretch.
Sidney Ponson was given first crack at the #5 spot in the rotation but was released in July. St. Louis picked up Jeff Weaver, who put up numbers (5-4, 5.18, 1.50 WHIP) more similar to Ponson (4-4, 5.24, 1.62) than not, yet survived the season and wound up winning one game in each of the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series.
As things turned out, it wasn't so much that the Cardinals won it; rather, it was how they won it. Pujols slugged 25 HR in April and May, then went on the DL and missed 15 games with a strained right oblique. Rolen, who was relatively healthy in the aftermath of an injury-plagued 2005, played with a bum shoulder in September (.227/.299/.398) and was benched twice in the playoffs. Edmonds was sidelined for six weeks with post-concussion syndrome and World Series MVP David Eckstein sat out more than a month, not starting 35 of the final 40 games of the year.
Mulder missed all of July, came back and got ripped in two abbreviated starts in August and underwent shoulder surgery in September. Isringhausen went down with a bad hip and also had a season-ending operation the same week as Mulder.
It took everything the team had just to hold off the Houston Astros at the wire and put itself in a position to win the city's first World Series championship in 24 years. Suffice it to say that more people saw it coming in April than in September.
With that backdrop, let's drill down into the roster and examine how things stack up for next year. The Cardinals have eight players under contract for a total commitment of $58.2 million. (The team's opening day payroll in 2006 was approximately $89M.)
Player Salary Status
Albert Pujols $15.00M Signed thru 2010 (club option for 2011)
Scott Rolen 12.00 Signed thru 2010
Jason Isringhausen 8.75 Signed thru 2007 (club option for 2008)
Chris Carpenter 7.00 Signed thru 2007 (club option for 2008)
Juan Encarnacion 5.00 Signed thru 2008
Braden Looper 4.50 Signed thru 2008
David Eckstein 4.50 Signed thru 2008
Ricardo Rincon 1.45 Signed thru 2008
The Cardinals also control a number of players, including pitchers Randy Flores, Josh Hancock, Tyler Johnson, Josh Kinney, Anthony Reyes, Brad Thompson, and Adam Wainwright; catcher Yadier Molina; infielder Aaron Miles; and outfielders Chris Duncan, John Rodriguez, and So Taguchi. Other than Taguchi ($825,000), all of the above players earned no more than $400,000 (with 10 of the 12 within 10% of the minimum salary of $327,000). Only Taguchi and Miles are eligible for arbitration.
Based on the above, the Redbirds - absent trades, non-tenders, or outright releases - could return 20 players from the 2006 championship team. With the minimum salary increasing to $380,000 next season, the Cardinals are already on the hook for roughly $65M in 2007. This figure is based on the $58.2M plus the following estimates:
So Taguchi $1.000M
Yadier Molina 0.800
Adam Wainwright 0.650
Anthony Reyes 0.500
Chris Duncan 0.500
Aaron Miles 0.500
John Rodriguez 0.425
Randy Flores 0.425
Josh Hancock 0.425
Tyler Johnson 0.425
Josh Kinney 0.425
Brad Thompson 0.425
Flores, Hancock, Johnson, Kinney, and Thompson should all draw similar salaries, somewhere in the range of $400-450K. In the meantime, I doubled Molina's and Wainwright's 2006 salaries and bumped up Reyes and Duncan by 50%. If one player makes a little bit more or less than these projections, it won't have much effect on the team's total.
Should Bill DeWitt, Jr. choose to maintain a payroll in the neighborhood of $90 million, it will mean that the organization can spend approximately $25M to fill out its roster. Let's take a peek at which holes need to be filled before speculating as to where the money should be spent.
One of the first orders of business is to make a decision on whether or not to exercise the option on Jim Edmonds. The Cardinals can re-sign the 36-year-old center fielder for $10M or buy out his contract for $3M. As such, the real cost to bringing back Edmonds for one more season is $7M. Can Walt Jocketty find a suitable replacement offensively and defensively for that kind of dough? I highly doubt it. As a result, I believe it makes sense to keep Edmonds in the fold.
The club also needs to decide Wainwright's future. Should they keep him as the closer or convert him to a starting pitcher? If Wainwright can be successful throwing at least 100 pitches per outing, wouldn't it be a better use of his talent to make him a starter? Sure, he may not be able to throw that hammer curve and a 94-mph heater all game, but 91-93 with a "plus-plus" breaking ball should work just fine.
Once Wainwright's fate is determined, management will know how many starting pitchers are needed. Re-signing Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver may be the path of least resistance although I would be surprised if the budget is such as to accommodate both. Suppan is an average pitcher who could easily command a three-year, $21-24M deal as a free agent in a market that is ripe with cash. Weaver is represented by Scott Boras and is likely to seek a similar deal even though he would have been hard pressed a couple of months ago to find a team that would be willing to give him anything more than a one-year, $3-4M "take it or leave it" offer.
A starting rotation of Carpenter, Wainwright, Suppan, Reyes, and a low-cost option would be a reasonable fivesome. The bullpen is a different matter. Isringhausen, 34, is coming off his second hip operation in two years and may not be ready when the season opens next spring. If Izzy is healthy, the Cardinals should try and get one more year out of him. Otherwise, Jocketty might be well served to trade the defensively challenged Duncan to an AL team for a set-up man who could step into the closer role if given the opportunity. Brian Gunn has suggested Pat Neshek or Fernando Rodney as the type of relievers the Cardinals may wish to target.
OK, let's see where St. Louis stands with respect to that $25M in discretionary funds. Give $7M net to Edmonds and $7-8M to Suppan, leaving $10-11M for three other players - a starting 2B, a #5 SP, and perhaps a LF (to replace Duncan if traded).
Ronnie Belliard made $4M last year. I don't think the Cardinals will allocate more than that for a second baseman. Belliard didn't hit too well in his stint with the 'Birds but should be good for .270/.330/.400 type production. Other options include Craig Biggio, Ray Durham, Adam Kennedy, and Mark Loretta. Biggio, Kennedy, and Loretta all made between $3-4M last year.
With the remaining $6-8M, I might be inclined to offer Luis Gonzalez $5M for one year with a club option for 2008. Gonzo supposedly wants to stay in the NL and may value the opportunity to get back to the World Series one more time. He is obviously in the decline phase of his career but still hit .264/.345/.427 on the road. Another slightly younger and more athletic possibility would be Jay Payton (.296/.325/.418), who might be able to command a 2x5 offer.
As far as the fifth starter goes, reaching out to Mulder with an incentive-based deal seems like a prudent course of action to me. If he doesn't pan out, Jocketty could try to pick up someone else off the scrap heap or give Brad Thompson a shot. The latter throws strikes and induces a lot of groundballs. There are worse options than him.
Shake it all up and it's possible that the 2007 Cardinals could be just as good as the 2006 model. Such a team, if healthy, should win more than 83 games but not necessarily another World Series championship.
Update: For more on the Cardinals, be sure to read Brian Gunn's How the Cardinals Shocked the World and Won the World Series at The Hardball Times and Larry Borowsky's Right as Rain post at Viva El Birdos that details how the pitchers stepped up during the playoffs.