Four in the outfield is not too many

Brian Walton increases the volume of his ongoing pleas for a fourth regular outfielder.

Four outfielders are needed. Period. No, I am not talking about beer league softball here. When healthy, the St. Louis Cardinals' three outfield regulars, Reggie Sanders, Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker, can cover considerable ground, as much as any trio around. The need for a fourth outfielder, a "short fielder", is non-existent in their game. However, the ongoing questions that surround the three's advancing age and decreasing durability cannot be waved off so easily.

Up until now, I've only scanned conversations in the various reader forums about the need for outfield help for the Cardinals. Yet, I have noted increased fan discussion activity lately, driven as much as anything by the timely appendicitis attack bestowed upon Reggie Sanders this past week. I say "timely", as March is far preferable to any time in the subsequent seven months to be stricken.

A Sunday night note from Birdhouse contributor Jerry Modene got me back on my high horse, or at least standing up straight on my podium. Jerry pointed out the recent struggles of Roger Cedeno and John Gall, noting that they do not seem to be the answer to the question, "Who is going to step up and be the reliable fourth outfielder?"

So far, so good. But, specifically what set me off was when the logic was asserted that the Cards cannot acquire a "really good outfielder" like a Randy Winn or Eric Byrnes because of egos. Either their egos would be bruised because they would be slated to be only semi-regulars with the Redbirds or the real starter's egos, Sanders and Walker (plus I add Edmonds) would be damaged, since they would have to share their precious at-bats with the newcomer.

What a complete load of bull.

Have you ever seen a team that is crying out more for a dependable fourth outfielder than the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals? OK, the 2005 San Francisco Giants are close. Their Geritol flycatcher trio of Barry Bonds, 40, Moises Alou, 38, and centerfielder Marquis Grissom, who turns 38 next month, make the Cards' gang look like mere late-middle agers, still too spry to get a price break at the local buffet.

However, in all fairness, I can at least comprehend possible concern about not acquiring another outfielder now. This hits home especially as I have just started reading Buzz Bissinger's new book written with and about Tony La Russa, "Three Nights in August" or oddly "3 Nights", as the dust jacket says. In fact, I am at least a little ticked that I had to put the book down to write this. Yet, I will be in a better state of mind to read once I get this rant off my chest.

Anyway, early on in "Three Nights", in the third of three openings, after the "Preface", "Foreward", and in the "Prologue" (34 pages of opening - whew!), the reader is reminded of the egotistical nature of today's ball player and the manager's challenge in managing them.

Still, I think Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa could rationalize to Sanders, Walker and Edmonds the need for adding help. After all, the first major downtime, Sanders' appendectomy, has already occurred and spring camp has not yet broken. Reggie is the only one of the three with a World Series ring and both Edmonds and Walker must know their time is running out if they hope to join him as a world champion.

Modene mentions the Giants' fourth outfielder, Michael Tucker, as an example, suggesting that he may be no better than the guys the Cardinals already have on the bench. I do buy that. In fact, I submit that the Cardinals do not need another Tucker, as they have one of them already. Tucker is a guy who averages 350 at-bats per season and hits a dozen home runs and drives in fifty. That is precisely the profile of John Mabry. Already have one of them, but more is needed.

That is not a slam on Mabry. It's just that he also covers for a first basemen with bad heels and a third baseman whose knee may not be right, in addition to both corner outfielders. Mabry is a good utilityman, but is not starting material for a long stretch. It would weaken the team in other areas. Plus, remember that Mabry is a journeyman and was toiling in the minors as recently as a year ago. Mabry is clearly necessary, but not sufficient.

Based on recent comments from Tony La Russa and a side conversation with a Cardinals executive, it seems clear that Roger Cedeno will never be the answer. After they've watched him up close for a year now, I get the feeling they believe that somewhere along the way, Cedeno lost his edge, his will to strive to improve. While no one came out and said it this blatantly, I walked away with the distinct impression that Cedeno is just punching the MLB time clock, quietly serving out his days and collecting his huge paychecks written by the New York Mets.

Until that point, I was still hoping that the old passion, from the Cedeno who stole 66 and 55 bases in a single season, might be rekindled. Instead, that optimism has been replaced with reality and a new hope; hope that Cedeno will lose his job to someone who truly values it. The only problem is that there is no one on the current roster who can take it away. Outside help is clearly needed.

So Taguchi remains a fine outfielder and solid defensive replacement, especially for Jim Edmonds in center. But, in my book, he will remain the fifth outfielder for the duration of his Cardinals career. To steal another line from "Three Nights" which was made about Eduardo Perez, but also fits here: "But, if in the baseball vernacular, he got too "exposed" – if he was playing so much that pitchers started routinely exploiting the holes in his swing – his effectiveness could be curtailed."

Instead of Tucker or another Mabry however, the kind of guy I want is a fourth regular, not a career reserve. I have said all winter long that a player like Jay Payton would have been perfect. Payton serves the exact same role for the World Champions that the current runners-up are lacking.

These types of players are out there. If attitude was not a huge problem, it could be a Carl Everett from the White Sox, who was angry when the Cards did not sign him before when Sanders was brought in, or Raul Mondesi, who is actually going to start in outfield-starved Atlanta. Or, how about one of a pair of Jose's? Guillen who moved from Anaheim to Washington or Cruz, Jr., who was shipped from Tampa Bay to Arizona. These are guys who have starred previously; know how to drive upwards of 100 runs in a season and who are capable of starting still.

I am talking about their being in the lineup not for just a day, but for several weeks or a month or more at a time with no substantial drop off in productivity. And, none of these guys make huge salaries, at least huge by today's standards.

Since those specific players are not likely available, go out and get someone who is available like Randy Winn from Seattle or Eric Byrnes from Oakland. Do something. And don't wait too long to do it.

And, speaking of contracts, be aware of all the five Cardinals outfielders, only Edmonds is under contract for 2006. Another benefit of bringing in another player now is to better prepare for 2006 and beyond. Certainly, either Sanders or Walker or both could return next season, but not only is that not a given, but without change, the same arguments I am presenting here will be all the stronger in 12 months in the future.

Mark my words. At least once, and likely more than once during the 2005 season, the Cardinals are going to need a real fourth outfielder for a long stretch of time. I have asserted all along that this fourth regular is going to get 120 starts.

If the Cardinals choose to wait to acquire this player until he is needed, in other words, when one of the starters go down, the price extracted by their trading partner will be considerably higher. Granted, the team could gamble and hope they can make it until nearer the trading deadline, when the supply of options goes up and cost of acquisition goes down. The problem in March is that every team still feels they have a chance. The environment is much different in July.

What about second base, you might ask? At 34, Mark Grudzielanek remains fragile. As a result, that is another position where a veteran backup was needed coming into camp. However, based on spring training performances, Abraham Nunez seems to have stepped up and demonstrated decent play with the glove and bat. As a result, in my pecking order of urgency, I rank outfield help a higher priority than second base at this point.

When all is considered, I still believe the time to act to acquire another outfielder is over the next two weeks. While I have no evidence that Jocketty is considering such a deal, I have confidence that he realizes the deficiency as much or more than I do. And as a result, he will make that trade when the time is right, not waiting until it will be an absolute necessity.

Watch this space.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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