In this article, I offer up 15 questions members of the Cardinal Nation are asking themselves about the addition of Braden Looper to the bullpen, followed by my commentary on each.
1. Was there external pressure?
Some think the Cardinals acted too quickly and paid more than they should have for Looper as a direct reaction to all the recent criticism in the media and from vocal fans.
Commentary: I don't buy it. While I haven't been as critical of ownership and management as many others, if they had made the Looper signing with that motivation, I would quickly join the ranks of the rabble-rousers. Of course, no one would ever admit this as the reason for the signing, even if it had a shred of truth.
2. Too late in the signing season?
Did the Cardinals wait too long to sign Looper, increasing his price?
Commentary: It seems the Cardinals could have done better pricewise by making signing a reliever a higher priority earlier in the offseason. Clearly, their focus was elsewhere and it is more than fair to wonder if they ever had a fighting chance in their time-consuming pursuits of Brian Giles and A.J. Burnett.
Others can argue the relative stats of these and other players. I assert that Looper has greater value given his seasons of closing experience.
3. Too much money?
Looper's deal will pay him $3.5 million in 2006, $4.5 million in 2007 and $5.5 million in 2008. He can earn another $1 million in performance bonuses, some of that based on closing games.
Commentary: Deals that came after Howry and
Eyre demonstrated a further escalation in the market. Tom Gordon averaged $6
million per year from
Do I like what the Cards paid Looper? No. Was it the necessary amount to get him? Yes, I think so.
Was he the best player for his role remaining on the market? Perhaps. While the Cardinals are still talking with Octavio Dotel, there is no assurance he will sign with the Cardinals. And, even if he does, he would likely be gone after one year.
4. Competing against closer money elsewhere?
Looper said the Phillies and Indians made him closer offers.
Commentary: Seems a lot like a feel-good rationalization to me. Perhaps the Phils offered Looper big money before signing Gordon, but once Gordon was signed and promised the job, it surely didn't look like Looper would get a chance to close there.
5. Contract duration too long?
The Cardinals had reportedly been offering Looper a one year plus incentives deal, but the bid was then raised to two years. Once the Cards added a third year, it was completed in just two hours, a source told me.
Commentary: One year ago, on a similar deal, I was down on the Cardinals giving a third year to David Eckstein. Now, I am pretty sure that looking 12 months more into the future, I will turn out to be happy that the Cardinals have locked up Eckstein for 2007.
What will the market for relievers look like in two years? We shall see if we feel the same way about Looper in 2008.
6. Compensation to the Mets due?
Though Looper was a Type A free agent, the Mets did not offer him arbitration. That means the Cardinals do not lose an amateur draft pick for signing him.
Commentary: Since the Cardinals did not try to collect extra draft picks as they did not offer arbitration to Tavarez and Reggie Sanders, it does behoove them not to burn all their own picks – especially on relievers. From a draft pick perspective, this was an efficient signing.
7. Roster impact?
Looper's addition to the Cardinals roster puts it at 40.
Commentary: We have now officially arrived at the point at which players will need to be dropped from the 40-man to make room for additional signings. Rhett Parrott, Bo Hart, Mike Mahoney and Scott Seabol are among those who may be on the bubble.
8. Closer or setup?
Said Walt Jocketty, "If Izzy is unavailable certain nights, then Braden can close." But, in his remarks, Jocketty made it clear that Looper's role is the primary right-handed setup man.
Commentary: Let's be honest; Jason Isringhausen is never a sure thing medically. Just 12 months ago, Izzy was coming off hip surgery, while the season before, he did not appear until mid-June and he also missed time in 2002. Izzy is 33 years old now and is under contract for three more seasons.
Looper provides an important insurance policy. I believe that is built into the price and length of his deal.
For the first time since 2000, last season Looper pitched fewer than 70 innings. One reason was that late in the campaign, Looper admitted that he had been trying to pitch through shoulder soreness. His strikeouts had dropped to a career low (27 in 59-1/3 innings) and his walks increased in 2005. Looper underwent relatively minor arthroscopic surgery at the end of the season to clean out the AC joint in his right shoulder.
Commentary: All indications are that Looper passed his Cardinals physical with flying colors and should be able to carry the load expected of him in 2006 and beyond.
Glass half full - Looper had 98 saves in 120 opportunities over the past four seasons. Glass half empty - In other words, he blew 22 of them.
Commentary: I was amused by those who feel that Looper probably won't give the Cardinals quite what Julian Tavarez did the last two years. Since Tavarez is a head case, that is probably good. On the other hand, Looper did have a lot of blown saves.
11. 2004 or 2005 as the comparison point?
Looper's best year statistically came two seasons ago, when he had a 2.70 ERA and 29 saves in 34 opportunities for the Mets. In 2005, Looper converted 28 of 36 save opportunities with a 3.94 ERA.
Commentary: Normally, one season is not an insignificant sample size. Yet, if you believe that Looper was pitching while injured in 2005, it certainly could have had a marked impact on his results last season. The Looper of 2004 was obviously quite a bit more effective than the 2005 model.
Part of Looper's difficulty has been with left-handed hitters. Critics point to his 2005, when lefties ripped him at a .336 clip with an on-base-plus-slugging mark of .979. His previous three-year (2002-2004) average against lefties was better, though not stellar, at .303 and .855 respectively.
Commentary: Over 48% of Looper's batters-faced last season were lefties. Will Tony La Russa, with his incessant matching up of pitcher versus hitter, ever allow Looper to face almost as many left-handed hitters as righties? I think not.
As a point of comparison, Julian Tavarez, the man Looper is viewed to be replacing, faced fewer than 28% lefties in 2005. See what I mean? With the Cardinals, I predict Looper will be put in situations where he has a greater opportunity to succeed.
Looper posted at least 28 saves in each of the past three years and a sub-4.00 ERA in six of his seven seasons as a major leaguer.
Commentary: This is another reason Looper should be considered an insurance policy.
Over his career, Looper's control has been decent. In 534 career innings, he walked 193 batters and struck out 333.
Commentary: His 2004 strikeout to walk ratio of 3.75 (60:16) was the best of his career, while his 2005 ratio of 1.23 (27:22) was his second-worst ever. Again, which Looper will we see in 2006? The 2004 version would be just fine.
15. Ground ball pitcher?
We've seen the Cardinals' preference for ground ball pitchers. Over his career, Looper has a 2.00 GB/FB ratio. In 2004, he had the second-best mark of his career at 2.70, but last season, he had his lowest ratio in three seasons at 1.79.
Commentary: I feel like a broken record here. Thumbs down on the 2005 Looper and thumbs up on the 2004 one.
Conclusion: Considering where they are and to where they need to get, the Cardinals' signing of Braden Looper seems like a decent move.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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