Wait, What? A Look Back at the Cardinals' Offseason
Aside from a role player here or a bullpen part there, the St. Louis Cardinals' roster is set for 2011. They bring back a big part of the nucleus of a team that won 86 games and finished five games short of qualifying for postseason play in 2010. St. Louis has not won a playoff game since they clinched a title in Game 5 of the 2006 World Series, and they have averaged just shy of 85 wins over the last five seasons. No shame there, but with Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup and a rich tradition of success, it's not a stretch to say that it's been a frustrating run since October of 2006. GM John Mozeliak and Manager Tony La Russa have to be feeling hungry to get back to the early-to-mid aughts glory days of 100-win seasons and perennial contention.
That desire for a return to greatness in St. Louis makes this past offseason puzzling, to say the least. Before delving into the individual moves, it's important to acknowledge the constraints St. Louis faces. They're paying Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter top dollar, Kyle Lohse is making an eight-figure salary as well. They'll pay Pujols $16 million this year, and the team payroll right now is coming in at just north of $100 million, an honest commitment to winning from a club situated in a modest Midwestern city. Throwing the biggest wrench in their plans, however, is the looming Pujols extension (or departure). Without knowing what it will take to sign one of the true all-time greats, it's difficult for Mozeliak to bring on other parts.
That's fine. I understand. But this is a roster that's a lot of the way there, building off of an 86-win season with cause for year-over-year improvement scattered throughout. Even though he was excellent, 2010 was one of Pujols's worst seasons of his career. Colby Rasmus, who has all the makings of a future star, clashed with La Russa in 2010. With that situation seemingly smoothed over, he figures to see another 100 plate appearances or so in 2011. Jake Westbrook is in the fold for the whole season, taking innings from Jeff Suppan and others who aren't as good as him. Brendan Ryan, for all of his defensive wizardry, managed just a 57 OPS+ in 2010. He's now playing for the Mariners (more on that move in a moment).
This is a club screaming for a couple of savvy tweaks on the margins to thrust them right back into contention with the upstart Cincinnati Reds. Instead, they made a big splash when they decided to add Lance Berkman to the fold. Berkman may well be a future Hall of Famer, but he has had knee troubles and is coming off his worst year. It's likely that he can still swing the bat, but he's a first baseman or designated hitter at this point in his career, and look at what the Twins just paid Jim Thome coming off a .283/.412/.627 campaign. The Cardinals saw fit to hand Berkman $8 million with no DH rule that I am aware of in the NL and maybe the best first baseman ever on their roster. He hasn't played the outfield since Curt Schilling, Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez were leading the Red Sox to another title, and over the past six seasons has played just 124 games at a position other than first or DH. With two right-handed bats in Pujols and Holliday in the middle of the lineup you can understand prioritizing a lefty, but not to this extent. An option like Magglio Ordonez or Matt Diaz or heck, waiting around for Johnny Damon, would seem to have made more sense.
The other big move was for the Cardinals to throw in the towel on Ryan, their shortstop in 2009 and 2010, in favor of Ryan Theriot. There's no excusing how Ryan hit last season, but consider that he was still a 1.0 fWAR player as a 28-year old. That's how good his glove was. What's more, it was clearly an outlier season for Ryan at the plate. He's a better hitter than he showed in 2010. When you watch this video of Mozeliak addressing the Berkman signing, there are any number of alarms that should sound for Cards fans, but the biggest red flag for me is how he says he wants to address the offense, and that the middle infield seemed like a good place to do it. My guess is that thinking led to Ryan's departure and Theriot's arrival.
Theriot has been a full-time player for four seasons now and has hit at an 87 wRC+ clip over that time. Ryan has played two full seasons in the Bigs and posted an 81 wRC+. If Theriot is a better hitter, he's only marginally so. Ryan did hit .292/.340/.400 in 2009. Since 2007, Theriot ranks 6th in plate appearances among all shortstops and 5th in games played. He's 19th in fWAR over that time. Ryan, in half the plate appearances, has posted a fWAR of 5.0 to Theriot's 6.8. Theriot will make $3.3 million in 2011, Ryan $1 million. Did I mention Ryan's two years younger? I should note, too, that I spared Cards fans the B-Ref WAR comparison. It's even kinder to Ryan. It's great that Mozeliak thought he'd try and upgrade his offense at shortstop, but even if you grant that he did so with the addition of Theriot, what good does it do when you give those runs right back in the field?
To their credit, the Cards also re-upped Westbrook at a reasonable cost, but that's really it for this offseason. For a team on the cusp, they went out and acquired what might turn out to be a big bat to play a position he can no longer play at best, and one that might force him to the DL at worst. They also swapped out a better shortstop for an older one. The Pujols situation looming might account for budget constraints - nobody is blaming them for failing to land Carl Crawford. It doesn't account for the mismanagement, though.