Welcome home, Cardinals -- a mostly familiar, notably improved crew
ST. LOUIS -- You might not need a new scorecard when the Cardinals return to Busch Stadium on Friday night. But if you plan to stick with your old one, you'll need a good-sized eraser.
There have been some changes going on in the nine days since the Cardinals left town, and another move or two are still to come.
First, bid a fond farewell to Allen Craig and Joe Kelly and say so long to we-hardly-knew-you George Kottaras.
Next, welcome new starters John Lackey and Justin Masterson and catcher A.J. Pierzynski, though it feels like he's been with the club for longer than a week.
Now, prepare for more changes. A pitcher must go off the 25-man roster to make room for a position player unless the team stays with 13 pitchers and 12 position players, which is not the brain trust's preference.
After all this roster upheaval, the big question, of course, is this: Are the Cardinals' chances of playing in October better today than they were before the non-waiver trade deadline?
The answer: Absolutely.
Start by looking at how little their division rivals accomplished before the deadline. The Cubs were busy, but they have their eyes on the future. They gave up on 2014 before Opening Day. The plucky Pirates, rumored to be in the chases for Jon Lester and David Price, were unable to bring in a single reinforcement. The development was disappointing enough in their own clubhouse that manager Clint Hurdle called a team meeting.
"Our focus needs to be on the players we have here," Hurdle told Pittsburgh media. "There's got to be trust at all levels: The GM doesn't come down here and question the guys on what happened during the game. He trusts what we do and we trust what he does."
You can't fault the fading Reds for standing pat. So much of their present and future is tied to Joey Votto's ailing legs there was no need for Cincinnati to be a buyer. The Reds reportedly were looking to deal outfielder Ryan Ludwick and his six home runs, but even with little offense available on the trade market, they had no takers.
Milwaukee was looking to improve its pitching staff, but the Brewers managed only to trade for a lefty-hitting outfielder, Gerardo Parra. You can count on seeing him in their lineup Saturday when Masterson makes his Cardinals debut. Even as Masterson has struggled this season, he has remained tough on right-handed hitters (.214 batting average and one homer allowed in 203 batters faced) and the Brewers' lineup is stacked with right-handed hitters. But with six homers and a .667 OPS, Parra hardly qualifies as an impact bat. He figures to platoon with Khris Davis, who has 17 homers and a .782 OPS.
As for the Cardinals, giving up on Craig could be a move they regret, but with their surplus of outfielders, one of them was bound to leave at some point. No team was eager to take Peter Bourjos (I heard he was available, too). So why not depart with the one who will be owed $26.5 million after this season? Besides, if Oscar Taveras comes close to living up to the hype, he should make up for Craig's departure. At least the .237, seven-homer version of Craig we've seen in 2014.
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Adding Lackey not only beefs up the rotation for this season, but next year, too. If everyone is healthy, the Cardinals will enter next spring training with at least as many starting candidates as they had this past one.
Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Lackey are pretty much certainties. If Michael Wacha is not, it's only because his right shoulder will have become a far bigger issue than anyone believes, or at least hopes it will be. If Wacha is Wacha, he's a sure thing, too.
That leaves Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales and the other farmhands vying for the last spot. And, you never know, Jaime Garcia could turn up healthy and give them another proven starter.
The rotation could have been just as deep if the Cardinals had not moved Kelly for Lackey. But for at least the next 15 months, they have to feel more comfortable with the veteran over the 26-year-old still trying to establish his career. Lackey is a proven big-game pitcher with a Chris Carpenter-type attitude on the mound whose game should not be discounted much, if at all, for being 35.
When the clubhouse opens Friday afternoon to give the media a chance to talk to the newcomers, there could be a familiar face returning as well. That would be backup outfielder Shane Robinson, who would be on his third recall of the season. With no obvious backup first baseman in St. Louis, though, the Cardinals could turn to Memphis for Xavier Scruggs.
Deciding which reliever to send down poses an even more difficult decision than choosing which position player to promote. Lefty Sam Freeman's performance has slipped a bit since the All-Star break and with Kevin Siegrist back, the club could send Freeman back to Memphis and still have two lefties in the bullpen. Another candidate, believe it or not, has to be Jason Motte. He has yet to find much consistency in the two-plus months since returning from Tommy John surgery. To walk into the clubhouse and not see Motte would be as stunning as the absence of Craig and Kelly.
But after all the changes in the past week, keep that eraser handy.