That is a question on many a Cards fan’s tongue as the season winds to a close.
As Braden Looper prepares to take the mound tonight, in the Cardinals’ final series of this wildly entertaining (and similarly frustrating) season, it could be his final appearance wearing the Birds-on-the-Bat.
It can be argued that Looper’s conversion from reliever to starter has been a rousing success. Braden has posted a 24-26 record over the last two seasons, sporting a 4.49 ERA. Perhaps just as importantly, Looper has averaged 183.1 IP over two seasons, a number that is obviously certain to increase based upon tonight’s start. Durability has become a very valuable commodity among starting pitchers, and Looper has been durable while at times showing flashes of brilliance.
Looper is 33 years old, not young by any stretch, but by today’s pitching standards certainly not ready to hang ‘em up either. Again, even at age 33, Looper has shown no signs of serious arm trouble, fatigue, or losing his stuff. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that Looper is still settling in to being a starter, still learning how to manage a game, etc.
The Cardinals find themselves in an all-too-familiar precarious position heading into 2009. It is safe to say that most Cardinal fans have adopted Adam Wainwright as the de facto ace of this pitching staff, with Chris Carpenter’s status again up in the air, depending on his pitching shoulder. That leaves Joel Pineiro and the arbitration-eligible Todd Wellemeyer as the only remaining holdovers from this year’s rotation. That means there are two spots to fill, because I will go ahead and pretty much guarantee you that John Mozeliak is not going to pay what Scott Boras wants for Kyle Lohse after the Cards resurrected his career in 2008.
So what to make of Looper in the situation? It would be foolish at this point, given history, for the Cardinals to count on Carpenter for any sort of contribution in 2009. They were burned by that premise this season, and can ill afford to do so again. So that leaves Waino, Pineiro, and Wellemeyer. The Cardinals have indicated that a top-flight starting pitcher is atop their wish list this off-season, and with a lot of expiring salary to spend, one would hope they could accomplish that goal.
So assuming that they sign someone to fill a #2 or #3 slot in the rotation, that still leaves one more open slot. Jaime Garcia seemed to have the inside track to the best shot at filling it, but he is now facing a long-term absence with a Tommy John elbow procedure. Mike Parisi didn’t impress starting at the big-league level. Mitchell Boggs could fill the spot in a stopgap role, but I’m not sure the Cards are ready to hand him the job full-time just yet. Chances are that someone could impress at Spring Training a la Kyle McClellan, but by that time the ship will have sailed on most other available free agent starting pitchers. (Notice that I’m not even giving any credence to the idea of McClellan starting?)
So again I ask, how does Looper potentially fill in? I have to admit that I hated his deal when the Cardinals originally signed him. I thought they were paying far too much to a guy who wasn’t going to be a closer, and for that matter hadn’t been 3 years/$13.5 million worth of impressive as a reliever period. In hindsight, his deal (from Cot’s Baseball Contracts):
Braden Looper rhp
3 years/$13.5M (2006-08)
- signed as a free agent 12/05
- 06:$3.5M, 07:$4.5M, 08:$5.5M
- $1M annually in performance bonuses (GF & other categories)
hasn’t been too bad. Obviously, had Looper known he was going to be starting those last two seasons, he may have negotiated differently. Therein lies a big part of the problem with resigning Looper, however. Loop is bound to command far more than the $5.5M he’s earning this season as a starter next year. He has professed his preference to remain a starter, and I’m sure some team, whether the Cardinals or not, is sure to oblige.
So what could Looper be looking at for a payday? Given his age, I can only assume he’d be shooting for another three year contract. Certainly within reason. The money is a bit more cloudy. He has, after all, only been a starter for two seasons.
One quick comparison that is easy to make is Pineiro. Joel has struggled this season both with injuries and on the mound. He has given the Cardinals far less than Looper at around the same payday ($5M for Pineiro). The difference is that Pineiro has another year on his deal at $7.5M. So let’s assume that’s at the very least a jumping off point for Looper. Can the Cardinals afford to sink that much into a guy at the back end (maybe #3) of their rotation? I’ve argued all season that the Cardinals have more needs to fix than just one or two arms or positions (please stop with this ridiculous ‘Cardinals should sign Francisco Rodriguez stuff).
So is it worth the Cardinals to give Loop somewhere from $7.5M-$9M for the next three years? I’m not sure what I think, but I know Looper has earned my respect by how he has taken on this new challenge in his career. It’s soon to make him a much more wealthy man.