Never underestimate Cardinals GM
A few weeks back, a high-ranking Cardinals official said that the team’s strategy at the July 31 non-waiver deadline would hinge largely on the health of right-hander Chris Carpenter.
Well, that strategy is now defined.
The Cardinals announced Tuesday that Carpenter will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a nerve condition in his shoulder, putting the team in the market for at least one starter and one reliever.
The rotation already is without left-hander Jaime Garcia, who is recovering from a shoulder strain. Two of the current starters, All-Star right-hander Lance Lynn and rookie righty Joe Kelly, eventually could move to the bullpen.
The Cardinals are deep in potential trade chips, and general manager John Mozeliak is skilled at the art of the deal — he acquired right-hander Edwin Jackson and relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski from the Blue Jays for outfielder Colby Rasmus and two relievers last July, a move that helped the Cardinals win the World Series.
The landscape is different now — the Cardinals traded Rasmus in part because they knew they would receive four draft picks when Jackson and Dotel departed as free agents. Mozeliak might be less willing to acquire such rentals this season. Under the new labor agreement, teams no longer will receive draft-pick compensation for players traded in the middle of the season.
Still, the Cardinals clearly need to do something, and probably more than one thing.
Their rotation is full of questions. Their bullpen ranks 14th in the NL in ERA, ahead of only the Marlins and Mets. And their top pitching prospect, right-hander Shelby Miller, isn’t prepared to help — he’s 4-7 with a 6.00 ERA at Triple A.
Cardinals fans who lamented the team’s failure to sign free-agent right-hander Roy Oswalt might want to reconsider their position — Oswalt has allowed 35 hits in 17 1/3 innings since joining the Rangers, and his ERA after three starts is 7.79.
So, what is the Cardinals’ next move?
Their farm system, ranked 10th in the majors by Baseball America at the start of the season, gives Mozeliak the ability to play on virtually any pitcher he wants. That would include the three biggest potential prizes — Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke and Cubs righty Matt Garza.
Greinke, who began his career in Kansas City, would be particularly intriguing — he likely would welcome a trade to St. Louis and a chance to sign with the Cardinals long term. It is not known whether the Brewers would be willing to trade Greinke within the division, but they should be if the deal would work to their benefit.
Greinke, Hamels and Garza aren’t the only available options, however. The Astros, who are prepared to move left-hander Wandy Rodriguez and right-handed reliever Brett Myers, among others, would appear an obvious partner; their GM, Jeff Luhnow, drafted many of the Cardinals’ top prospects during his tenure in St. Louis.
Mozeliak, though, can be full of surprises.
He acquired Jake Westbrook in 2010 in a three-team trade that cost the Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick. The Rasmus deal also was a three-team concoction, one that initially drew heavy criticism within the industry — the Cardinals parted with a talented outfielder, albeit one who couldn’t get along with former manager Tony La Russa, for what appeared to be a number of modest parts.
As for the future, the Cardinals might not want to invest $20 million per season in a starting pitcher such as Greinke, but they will gain flexibility after both this season and next.
First baseman Lance Berkman ($12 million) and right-handers Kyle Lohse ($11.875 million) and Westbrook ($8.5 million) are potential free agents this offseason.
Carpenter ($12.5 million), outfielder Carlos Beltran ($13 million) and shortstop Rafael Furcal ($7 million) will be in the final years of contracts in 2013.
The Cardinals have prospects to spare. They’re shedding payroll. And their GM is bold enough to make major moves.
Can’t wait to see what they come up with.
RASMUS: SELL HIGH?
Don’t look now, but Rasmus is rapidly evolving into the player that the Cardinals envisioned. He is on a 32-homer, 101-RBI pace, and is batting .310 with a .981 OPS since moving to the No. 2 spot in the lineup full time on June 5.
The Brett Lawrie-Rasmus combination at the top of the order has made a strong offense even more dynamic; the Jays ranked a close second to the Angels in runs per game in the AL in June. So, it’s understandable that GM Alex Anthopoulos told Rogers Sportsnet on Tuesday that he wants to upgrade.
The Jays’ immediate strategy might be to acquire a modest rotation upgrade, someone who could help compensate for the losses of three starting pitchers to injuries. Anthopoulos then could reassess at the deadline, knowing that righty Brandon Morrow is likely to return in August.
Still, talk of the Jays as sellers is not far-fetched, in part because they’ve got attractive potential free agents (most notably first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion) and in part because they’ve got prospects with higher upsides than some of their regulars.
Which is why trading Rasmus for a starting pitcher with comparable service time could make sense, particularly when so many teams are looking for center-field help.
Blue Jays Triple-A center fielder Anthony Gose likely will be ready next season, and the team has another highly regarded center-field prospect, Jake Marisnick, at High A.
Rasmus is a free agent after 2014. Obviously, the Jays could keep him, move him to left and put together a terrific outfield of Rasmus, Gose and right fielder Jose Bautista. But trading Rasmus also is something they should consider, if not before the deadline, then during the offseason.
BOURJOS: THE ANGELS’ WILD CARD
Speaking of center fielders, teams continue to call the Angels on Peter Bourjos, who remains the odd man out in an outfield that consists of Torii Hunter and All-Stars Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo.
Bourjos is an elite defender, and interested clubs recall that he had a .765 OPS last season. Some rival executives even believe he could be the centerpiece of a deal for a quality starting pitcher, except for two things:
The Angels still view Bourjos as a building block, the likely replacement for Hunter next season. And they do not appear to be in the market for a starter, despite the ongoing struggles of right-handers Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.
Key word: “Appear.”
Haren told reporters Tuesday night that he has been bothered all season by lower back pain, and will be evaluated by a doctor in Los Angeles.
The Angels are reluctant to their $154.4 million payroll, which is a franchise record and the fourth highest in the majors.
The loss of Haren, however, could alter their plans.
And, at the very least, the Angels could be a player for Hamels or Greinke in free agency, particularly if the team declines its $15.5 million option on Haren and $13 million option on Santana.
Right-hander Garrett Richards would take one of those spots, joining C.J. Wilson and right-handers Jered Weaver and Jerome Williams. The other spot would be open, and the Angels would gain additional flexibility by shedding Hunter’s $18 million salary.
Could get interesting, perhaps sooner than later.
A TAXING QUESTION FOR CARLOS LEE
The difference in state income taxes was an issue for Carlos Lee when he balked at a proposed trade from the Astros to the Dodgers, according to a major league source.
Texas does not tax personal income, while California’s rate is one of the highest in the nation. The Dodgers, however, might have been willing to help bridge the gap if Lee had shown enthusiasm for the trade, the source said.
Instead, Lee gave off a vibe of “apprehension” while deciding whether to invoke his limited no-trade clause, prompting the Dodgers to eventually call off the deal.
The Astros were prepared to include significant cash to cover much of the approximately $9 million left on Lee’s contract — and to secure Class-A right-hander Garrett Gould, the Dodgers’ No. 6 prospect at the start of the season, according to Baseball America.
The Dodgers liked Lee in part because of his immediate availability. A number of other potential sellers, however, are waiting until after the All-Star break to determine their fates.
Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie is not an option; he is essentially unavailable, sources said. And while some with the Dodgers question Dee Gordon’s instincts, the team is prepared to stick with him at short.
The Dodgers clearly want to see improvement out of Gordon, who entered Tuesday batting .227 with a .555 OPS. But they do not view him as the issue, believing that his shortcomings will receive less attention once second baseman Mark Ellis, center fielder Matt Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier return from injuries.
ADDING CHIPPER: WHY THE DELAY?
A question arose Tuesday after NL manager Tony La Russa named Braves third baseman Chipper Jones to the All-Star team as a replacement for the injured Kemp.
Why didn’t La Russa include Jones on the original NL roster Sunday and open a spot for another player on the Final Man ballot — say, Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto?
That’s the approach that the AL took with injured Yankees lefty CC Sabathia, naming Angels lefty Wilson as his replacement the day the rosters were announced.
The difference, according to one major league official, is that baseball did not receive immediate word on Kemp from the Dodgers, and confirmed that he would miss the game only after an executive contacted the team on Tuesday.
By then, with the Final Vote in progress, it was too late to add another player to the five-man ballot to replace Jones.
METS’ HARVEY: FUTURE RELIEVER?
A scout who recently saw Mets Triple-A right-hander Matt Harvey believes the pitcher could become a closer rather than a starter.
Harvey, the scout said, is a definite major leaguer, but not as polished as the Mets’ other top pitching prospect, Double A righty Zack Wheeler.
“He’s very reliant on his fastball — and there is not a lot of life to his fastball,” the scout said. “He threw all fastballs in four innings — that’s ridiculous.”
The scout added that Harvey’s breaking stuff is inconsistent, comparing him to injured Mets righty Mike Pelfrey.
The Mets expected Pelfrey to develop into an ace. Instead, he turned out to be a back-end starter.