Times have been better for the St. Louis Cardinals.
After conducting an underachievement seminar over the weekend (they coughed up three straight losses to divisional rival and arch-enemy-du-jour, Cincinnati), the nauseating chain of events would continue for the Birds on the Bat.
Though winners over the NL East-leading Philadelphia Phillies on Monday, St. Louis did it while dealing with the health woes of Tony La Russa (shingles), and by moving baseball’s most immovable object (Albert Pujols) from first base to third.
All this, of course, after last Tuesday’s Pujols/Hendry Hug-a-palooza steamrolled the Internet landscape.
Now, I know a few Cards fans, and none seem too worried about any of this.
First off, St. Louis hadn’t been swept by the Reds since 2007 – so, in the brag-first-think-later world of sports fanaticism (wherein the Cards have owned the Reds recently), it would stand to reason that Cincinnati still has some catching up to do.
Second, anyone who thinks a manager like La Russa is sitting at home watching King of Queens instead of puppeteering his squad via CIA satellite is just naïve.
However, while managerial concerns and slumps come and go, the issues surrounding Pujols, the best player in the game, give reason for pause.
Certainly playing Pujols at third was a temporary fix for a temporary problem (injuries have made it difficult for La Russa to get his best offensive team on the field). Yet, the further St. Louis strays from its comfortable roost atop the NL Central (impervious for years to the adversity that inevitably affects most teams), the more tempted a guy like Pujols must be to take stock of his options.
The moratorium placed on trade/contract talks by the slugger in February has been well-documented, and has held up so far. Pujols insisted he would not discuss an extension until season’s end, and the St. Louis brass has been even more adamant about not trading their star.
Yet, one has to believe that, amidst the slow-brewing turmoil in St. Louis, gestures such as Pujols’ to Hendry warrant a revisiting of the tired theme (The Future of Albert).
Consider: an off-season that shipped out Brendan Ryan (a defensive wunderkind at shortstop) brought in Dr. Brickhands (Ryan Theriot) to replace him, and plugged a slow, aging Lance Berkman into right field. In other words, team defense was sacrificed for offensive punch.
The injury to staff ace Adam Wainwright forced the move of reliable righty Kyle McClellan (2.27 ERA in 2010) from the bullpen to the rotation. And, while 5-1 thus far, McClellan’s absence from the relief corps has left it in shambles (nine blown saves).
Eventually, logic and reason tells us that Cardinal sluggers Berkman and Matt Holliday will return from their trip to the baseball stratosphere (.344 and .373, respectively). After all, Holliday is a career .312 hitter (excellent, but not Pujolsian) and Berkman averaged about .260 in his last two seasons.
When the day comes that these two begin their descent (whether it be in a fiery haze or a slow, smoking spiral), the Cards will be left with a top heavy offense that struggles to patch the holes left by spotty fielding and inconsistent relief pitching.
While it’s too soon to confidently speculate, the Cards could well be toast by July.
Maybe then, just maybe, Pujols sees what’s going on in St. Louis and begins to re-evaluate. And, if he were to open that door, no team would be quicker to jump through with an offer than the Chicago Cubs.
Pretend that, for all the reasons previously stated, Pujols says he’d be open to a trade. Pretend, as well, that the Cardinals (smartly) realize that they cannot afford him in free agency. For, as much as Pujols loves St. Louis, he also knows what he’s worth.
If the Cubs were to pry Pujols from the Cards mid-season, it would likely be with an offer of Don Corleoneish proportions. One that Cardinals G.M. John Mozeliak would lie awake thinking about. And, one involving some combination of the following key players:
Chris Carpenter – Seemingly a perfect replacement for the better known, oft-whiny Carpenter of Cardinal fame, Chris the Lesser was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft and has pitched well since. Carpenter started the 2011 at AAA Iowa, and has posted a 6.41 ERA (all in relief). Still, Carpenter is a first round talent, and accumulated a 3.46 ERA in 2010.
Rafael Dolis – Signed as free agent out of the Dominican in 2004, Dolis hasn’t yet made it past Double-A. Despite a lack of a third pitch to go with his electric fastball/slider combo, Dolis has been effective in relief. Though tabbed as the ninth overall prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball America, command issues could mean a low ceiling for Dolis.
Trey McNutt – A bit of a puzzler, McNutt is the rare prospect that blows away all expectations right out of the gate. The 980th selection in the 2009 draft, all McNutt does apparently is win. Since joining the system, McNutt’s compiled a Minor League record of 14-4, to go with a an ERA that hovers right around 2. Oh yeah, and he can make people miss too (132 K’s in 116 2010 innings).
Brett Jackson – Recently ranked by Baseball America as Chicago’s second best prospect, Jackson is the heir-apparent to Marlon Byrd in center field. Since being acquired in the first round of the 2009 draft (31st overall), Jackson has hit .295 across three levels of the system.
Tyler Colvin – An outfielder/first baseman, Colvin was the Cubs’ first round selection (13th overall) in the 2006 draft. He made waves in 2010, hitting 20 home runs in 358 at-bats. Since a freakish, errant bat shard punctured his lung in a September 19th, 2010 matchup against the Marlins, however, Colvin has been miserable, hitting .113 in 62 at-bats this season. Colvin’s power outage earned him a demotion to the Minors, but he’s still regarded as a top talent.
Andrew Cashner- Cashner would likely be the crown jewel of this crop. A first round pick (19th overall) in the 2008 draft, he began the 2010 season as Chicago’s fourth best prospect according to Baseball America. Cashner made his Major League debut as a reliever last May, but beat out Carlos Silva for the fifth spot in the rotation this spring. Cashner went on the disabled list with a shoulder strain after just one start, but figures to play heavily in the Cubs future plans.
We’re assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Cardinals and Albert Pujols would be willing to talk trade if a number of important factors come into play. However, not even a Cubs ownership group desperate for a winner (and looking, no doubt, for someone to invigorate its disenfranchised fans) would dangle ALL of these prospects, not even for Baseball’s prince.
If trading Pujols becomes an option for all parties, you have to think the Cardinals would be looking to replenish in some areas that have been exposed this year. Lance Berkman is on a one-year deal, and at 35, only has a few good years left (if that). So, while left and center fields are set for the foreseeable future with Holliday and Colby Rasmus, the inclusion of Colvin and/or Jackson would have to be interesting.
Also, while pitching is at a premium everywhere in this rising era of mound-dominance, the Cardinals are in as much need as anyone. Adam Wainwright currently resides in a rehab facility, still fresh off Tommy John. Chris Carpenter is working on the last guaranteed year of a deal, and pitching well below his career numbers. The bullpen, without the services of McClellan, has been a mess.
If the Cubs were to package Colvin, a live bullpen arm like Dolis, and a future Major League starter in either McNutt and Cashner, you would think Mozeliak would have to listen.
Admittedly, this scenario assumes a lot. First, we count on the 2011 decline on Holliday and Berkman (back to normal, at least), which would bring a surprisingly-powerful Cardinals lineup back to where most expected them to be. We also assume that a talent-rich St. Louis bullpen (Salas, Motte, and Co. all have plenty of upside) continues to struggle. Should both trends occur, the Cardinals may be out of contention by July.
Next, we assume the Cubs have deemed Pujols to a) be desirable at the money he is requesting, and b) a risk on the free agent market. If the Cubs do indeed intend to pursue Pujols at some point (and are willing to pay), it would seem silly to empty the minor league coffers if they could just as easily sign him in November. Besides fortifying a possible 2011 contender (which, if we’re being honest, the Cubs are not), the most important reason to trade for Pujols would have to be to avoid the free agent circus altogether (and, in effect, to avoid the risk of losing him).
Still, the Jim Hendry hug gave all of us speculators fodder. Can the Cards sign Pujols at the money he deserves? Will they? And, if not, will they have the cajones to put the “for sale” sign in the window?
If that answer is yes (and there is nothing definitive saying it is…yet), the Cubs could be the first ones knocking on the door.
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