Why I don't want Billy Wagner in Cardinal red

Brian Walton provides seven reasons why a Wagner trade is not in the best interests of the team.

The Cardinal Nation has been consumed with trade rumors in recent weeks. First, it was longing for Roger Clemens, then wishes for one of three or four Cincinnati Reds outfielders. Last week, the Post-Dispatch fingered Texas outfielder David Dellucci among others as a possible acquisition target.

Now, Philadelphia Phillies' closer Billy Wagner is the object of Redbird trade lust.

Unless Wagner can play the corner outfield positions and can sustain his season batting average of .500 (1-for-2) while learning how to switch-hit, he doesn't meet the Cardinals' most glaring need, a right-handed power-hitting outfield bat who can remain with the club beyond this season.

Just for the record, in a career that has spanned 530 games, Wagner has only 19 official at-bats with just two hits, for a .105 mark. Jason Marquis, he ain't.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Billy Wagner. He is a very, very fine pitcher.

Ten years' experience blowing away the toughest hitters the National League has to offer has enabled Wagner to build an impressive resume. He owns 266 career saves, including his best year ever with 44 saves just two years ago. His lifetime ERA is 2.50, with his season mark each of the last three years even lower than that.

Wagner has collected his share of awards, too. He was Rolaids Relief Man of the Year in 1999 and is a four-time All-Star (1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005).

However, there are a boatload of potential problems, any of which could derail a Wagner-to-St. Louis fantasy trade.

Problem #1. Who says Wagner is available? The Phillies have not given up on the season. Even with their big bopper, Jim Thome, having been injured and/or ineffective for months, the team comes into the break above .500 and 7.5 games out of first. And they are only five games out of the Wild Card lead. That does not make the Phils look like a seller.

They recently traded former Cardinal Placido Polanco to Detroit for another experienced closer, Ugueth Urbina. However, he does not seem to be a potential replacement for Wagner. Urbina has struggled in the Phils' bandbox home park and some rumors have him being moved soon.

Problem #2. Could the Cardinals outbid a number of other teams who are in dire need of a closer, not just a set-up man? Several teams in the playoff hunt, including the Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins, may be active in the trade market as they look to upgrade at the closer position. Not only may their need be greater, but others' willingness and ability to ante up the package of prospects required to get Wagner may put the Cardinals at a decided disadvantage.

Problem #3. Would the Cardinals pay the price for a player who can be a free agent in a few months? Sure, Wagner is quoted as saying he would like to play in St. Louis. So did Mark Buehrle right before he signed a megabucks extension to remain with the White Sox.

Seriously, given the expected competition for Wagner if he were to be made available, one would have to assume that the Cards would have to give up top young pitchers Adam Wainwright and/or Anthony Reyes as part of a package of top prospects and also have to pay Wagner's remaining salary.

Problem #4. Would Wagner be satisfied not being a closer? Not for long. Wagner might be fine with setting up Jason Isringhausen for the remainder of this season just for the chance to earn a ring.

But, next year and beyond? Forget it. A top set-up man might make $3 million a year while top closers easily make $8 to $10 million or more. Let's also not forget the fact that Izzy just signed a new contract extension. Not even the $200 million-plus Yankees budget enough salary to play two closers.

Problem #5. The Cards have to take care of their own first. Even forgetting the problems above, there is no way the Cards could even consider talking extension with Wagner while Matt Morris remains unsigned for next season. Morris is now one of the team's elder statesmen and has proven that he is deserving of a new deal. Can you imagine what it would do to team morale to trade for and re-sign Wagner during the World Series run and not ante up for Morris?

Granted, there are young arms at Triple-A who may be nearing the point to finally earn a major league tryout. But that is very different from unproven rookies stepping into the rotation. And, as noted above, one or more of those youngsters would likely be leaving to land Wagner in the first place. That would make keeping Morris for 2006 even more important.

Problem #6. Can the Cardinals afford to take on more big salaries right now? On the positive side, the P-D story noted above said that "…Jocketty acknowledges he is equipped to pursue a high-dollar player."

Wagner, who makes $9 million this season in the final year of his contract, certainly fits that bill.

However, what the above quote does NOT say is that Jocketty has been given the means to pursue TWO high-dollar players. That is just too much to expect, bringing me back to my fundamental point.

Problem #7. The Cardinals need outfield help more than anything. At some point in time this season, Larry Walker's body may get tired of being a human pincushion. Reggie Sanders is far from a lock to complete the campaign unscathed and I know I am not the only one who holds their breath every time Jim Edmonds dives for a ball and lands on his ribs.

I am not going to rehash previous columns here, but again, what this team needs far more than anything else is a younger, dependable, power-hitting, right-handed outfielder. That won't come free, both in terms of trade and salary.

Just for fun, ignoring that he hits lefthanded, let's take Cincinnati's Adam Dunn. He makes $6 million this season and as that P-D story points out, will likely increase that salary by 50% or more next season.

Does anyone think the Cards can afford to trade the prospects it would take to get both Dunn and Wagner PLUS play another $7.5 million this season ($3 + 4.5) to cover their salaries PLUS $18 million more next year ($9 + $9) to keep them around for 2006?

And, don't think for one minute that the Reds or the Phillies would ever agree to pay one dime of these guys' salaries just for them to get the chance to play in St. Louis. They won't have to, as other teams would be happy to pay the full price if the Cards won't. We are not talking bloated contracts for aging, declining players. That is not the kind of players the Cardinals want.

Could Walt Jocketty pull off one deal? Yes, perhaps so. But both seem highly unlikely. If I had to choose, it would be an easy decision.

Sorry, Billy.

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

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