Entertain this post in the hypothetical, if you will. Its July 12th, 2010, the All-Star Break, and all is terribly wrong in the world of Cardinal Nation. Forget the relatively frigid weather of the winter and indulge yourself in a warm summer day. Don’t get too comfortable though. After all, it’s not the Winter-Warmup that has just passed, but instead an intense series in Houston, where an inferior Astros team gave the Cardinals all they could handle, taking 2 of 3 from a meandering St. Louis club. Define meandering you ask? Let’s say they’re still in first place due to their superior front face talent but they are holding a slim 1.0 game lead above the Chicago Cubs (gasp).
Why is this happening?
Well, Jaime Garcia just blew out his elbow, David Freese had another… incident and is currently providing nothing more than replacement level value. Oh and Ryan Franklin is already having trouble, being a closer who can’t miss bats.
Ok. Take a deep breath. Even if all these hypotheticals actually happened, St. Louis has a strong enough core to be a a playoff team, but when has being just a playoff team good enough for Cardinals fans? The 2009 Cardinals were a playoff team, quenching the thirst of a two-year playoff drought, but a three-game sweep at the hands of Los Angeles Dodgers left fans, and the team, hungry for more. In order to make a playoff run deep into October, it is necessary that St. Louis get regular level production from third base and the fifth starter position, the two roster spots that are considered the most glaring of holes for the 2010 team. Let’s take a look at a few of what I think are best options at the two most pertinent positions of need:
Ben Sheets (31, Free Agent RHP): In a high risk, high reward roll of the dice, Sheets has the highest upside of the remaining free agent arms left on the market. Sheets has always showed resilience after injury, coming back mid-season multiple times and pitching with success. After a full year off, I expect Sheets to thrive. Sheets has been a No. 2 starter in the past, and he still has it in him to produce that type of value again if healthy.
Jon Garland (30, Free Agent RHP): Garland is a Dave Duncan pitcher if there ever was one. He lives for low contact, resulting in a solid career GB% of 45%, and a GB/FB ratio of 1.29. He’s not going to blow anyone away. At this point in his career his fastball is topping out around 90 mph, resulting in a low K/9 of 4.72, but he uses his fastball more as a contact bait for ground balls because of its late cut movement. If nothing else, Garland can eat some bulk innings, he’s been right around 200 innings every year since 2002. Couple the innings with coaching from Duncan, and we may be looking at a season similar to Joel Pineiro’s career year of 2009.
John Smoltz (42, Free Agent RHP): At 42, he’s a little old. Ok — he’s really old – but bear with me. Smoltz’s value rests in what I see as versatility. He still has the ability to strike batters out — he had a 9.47 K/9 rate in his stint with St. Louis in 2009. Where he did struggle was eating innings, something that is certainly understandable for a pitcher of Smoltz’s age. Smoltz’s ability to miss bats gives the Cardinals an alternative as a closer that I think they will eventually need, should Franklin have his traditional second half slump. Say Franklin’s struggles come in late July, given that Garcia doesn’t have injury problems because he didn’t have to pitch more innings than he is probably capable of over the course of an entire season in the big leagues, he can take over the fifth starter role for the remainder of the season. There are also other in house options that can cover if Garcia isn’t ready to take on the starts, such as Kyle McClellan or Blake Hawksworth.
Joe Crede (31, Free Agent): After a tough span of three seasons at the plate, Crede is available on the cheap, and could be a steal for someone like the Cardinals, a team that needs nothing more than regular value at third base because of his excellent fielding. Crede was exceptional at third in 2009 for Minnesota, 12.5 fielding runs above average good. Maybe moving to the inferior National League will help him at the plate.
Kevin Kouzmanoff (28, OAK): On Friday, Kouzmanoff was traded to the Oakland Athletics, but don’t put it past Oakland GM Billy Beane to move Kouzmanoff at the July trade deadline for more prospects. Kouzmanoff has struggled at the plate recently, gradually declining in OPS over the past three seasons, but that is in large part to playing at the pitcher friendly PETCO Park. If the Cardinals are having trouble getting production from Freese, an affordable option like Kouzmanoff who is an above average fielder with good power would be a good fit for St. Louis. If they can acquire him in a trade without giving up top level prospects, I’d go for it.
Felipe Lopez (29, Free Agent): Lopez had a career year in 2009. He started the season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he posted a .364 on-base-percentage, but then he exploded after a mid-season trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, putting up .407 OBP and .448 SLG. Lopez isn’t the .855 OPS player he was in Milwaukee, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good player who fits the Cardinals needs. His versatility is a big plus, having spent time in the field at second, short, third and left field. Lopez is also a switch hitter, something that could be intriguing to St. Louis given their right handed heavy lineup.