THE INSIDE PITCH
The Cardinals filled two of their several bullpen openings by signing free-agent left-hander Ricardo Rincon to a two-year, $2.9 million contract and then bringing back right-hander Braden Looper, a free agent who signed for three years and $13.5 million.
With right-hander Julian Tavarez defecting to free agency, left-hander Ray King being traded, right-hander Cal Eldred retiring and right-hander Al Reyes undergoing serious elbow surgery, the Cardinals had four bullpen spots open, meaning they still have more work to do.
But Looper, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Cardinals who struck out three hitters in one inning in his first big-league game for the Cardinals on Opening Day in 1998, gives them protection at the closer spot for Jason Isringhausen. And he also gives them a strikeout-type pitcher to bridge for as much as two innings between the starter and closer.
Looper, a member of the 2003 world champion Florida Marlins, had 57 saves in the last two seasons with the New York Mets but fanned just 27 hitters in 59 1/3 innings last season while pitching with some soreness in his shoulder. He has had some cleanup surgery in the offseason but said he would be ready for spring training.
"He's young. He's proven. He's healthy," said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who increased his original offers of one year and two years to keep Looper from going to another team like the Philadelphia Phillies. "We think he'll be an ideal setup man for Izzy -- a guy who, if Izzy is unavailable on certain nights, then can close."
Looper, 31, said, "I'm much more developed as a pitcher (since 1998). I may not be throwing as hard, but I'm a lot better now."
The 35-year-old Rincon, who worked in 67 games last season for Oakland and allowed just 10 of 46 inherited runners to score, will assume King's late inning role as a left-handed specialist.
GM Walt Jocketty is still searching for an outfielder but isn't optimistic that one on the free agent market will be available in his price range. He said that player more likely would have to be acquired through trade but added, "There really aren't many alternatives in the trade market, either."
RHP Matt Morris, who was offered only two years at $13 million and then a club option for the third year, went to San Francisco at $27 million for three years but left with no outward bitterness. "I appreciated what Walt and ownership did. They treated me like gold from Day One," said Morris.
RHPs Octavio Dotel and Felix Rodriguez, both free agents, still are on the Cardinals' radar although Dotel won't be ready at the start of the season after undergoing elbow ligament surgery last season.
Jocketty said he didn't mind making a lot of offseason changes, even with a team that won 100 games. "I think you need to turn the roster over," he said. "I think turning a percentage of the roster over every year is healthy."
INF Hector Luna, who hit .285 as a part-timer last season, probably will get first shot at the starting second base job.
RHP Alan Benes, 33, has been signed to a minor league contract. Benes, a promising pitcher for the Cardinals in the late 1990s, has been trying to battle back after having had several shoulder surgeries.
GRADING THE PLAYER MOVEMENT
The Cardinals did what they had to do to get Looper back and it comes as good news for the fans waiting for something to happen. He should excel working again with pitching Coach Dave Duncan and Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa.
Miles and Bigbie came over in the trade that sent Ray King to the Rockies. Both will be given a shot at making the club in spring training, Bigbie probably has the biggest upside. The Cardinals wanted to get rid of King in spite of what was being reported in the local newspapers about kissing and making up and by gones being by gones. Personally I thought they could do a little better than they did in dealing King away.
LHP Ricardo Rincon (free agent from Oakland), B
Considering the market conditions and the need to get some help in the bullpen the Rincon deal was a decent deal. Fans expecting an improvement over the pitching of Ray King, will be somewhat disappointed. Rincon only looks better than King if you are focusing on King's record the last two months of the season. Career wise, King is a much better pitcher and he's a few year younger.
C Gary Bennett (free agent from Washington), C
Bennett is being called an upgrade over Einar Diaz and perhaps he is, but like Diaz, he won't get much playing time.
SS Deivi Cruz (free agent from San Francisco), C
Cruz will be a back up infielder that may have trouble sticking with the club.
Not a risk for the team to pick up Mateo and who knows he might become a member of the bullpen or worst case scenario he'll return to Chicago.
RHP Dennis Tankersley (minor league free agent from Kansas City). C+
Tankersley, a former top prospect will be given a chance in St. Louis to be a member of the bullpen coming out of spring training.
2B Mark Grudzielanek (free agent, signed with Kansas City), D
The Cardinals didn't make any effort to bring Grudz back, regardless of what you have heard in the media. Sources who want to remain anonymous say there were special circumstances surrounding the departure of Grudzielanek, for what that is worth. (to me nothing) Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty said it was a baseball decision to let Mark go, if that was the case, then I think it was a bad one. He signed a one year deal with Kansas City for $4-million, it's hard for me to believe he wouldn't have accepted a two year deal for $6-million to stay in St. Louis.
3B Abraham Nunez (free agent, signed with Philadelphia), C
Nunez earned a shot to get a better contract with another team than what St. Louis would have been willing to pay to keep him on as a role/bench player. Good luck to him and we'll miss his defense and arm before it's over in 2006, I'm afraid.
Personally, if the Cardinals were not going to sign Grudzielanek, I think I would have made more of an effort to keep Nunez in St. Louis. I would rather have my option at second base be Nunez or Luna, rather than Luna or Miles.
RHP Cal Eldred (retired), A
Best wishes a true gentleman.
RF Larry Walker (retired), A
Best wishes here as well. The Cardinals still need to find someone to play in right field. As far as I'm concern they haven't done it yet.
RHP Matt Morris (free agent, signed with San Francisco), C-
It became clear early on the Cardinals were not serious about bringing Morris back for next season. The idea that he was a backup plan, which was not the direction I would have taken. The team offered him arbitration at the deadline, by that time it was about a month too late to try to get him signed to a deal, to stay in St. Louis.
LHP Ray King (traded to Colorado), C
I told you he was gone, when I told you not to believe all the propaganda in the local media about the Cardinals and King, kissing and making up. I thought the Cardinals could have done better in dealing King away and I also think that the bullpen is not going to be as strong, without him. FYI - I know about August and September last season.
Mabry leaves St. Louis for a third time and I would guess for the last time. The second half of last season, Mabry's bat was basically useless. The Cardinals have some players in the system that will get a chance to make the team with Mabry gone.
They need to get younger in the outfield. For sure, a regular right fielder and left fielder are required with the retirement of Larry Walker and the defection to free agency of LF Reggie Sanders. The bullpen, the deepest in the league, has had to be retooled because of free agency and injury defections, and there is no surefire regular at second base.
LHP Randy Flores (left elbow surgery) will be out six eight to weeks but should be ready for spring training.
3B Scott Rolen is rehabilitating after a second shoulder surgery and should be ready for spring training.
RHP Al Reyes, who probably will be re-signed as a free agent even though he isn't able to pitch, might be back by August after offseason Tommy John surgery.
TOP REMAINING FREE AGENTS
There are still a lot of well-known names in the free agent market. Here is the top 20, listed alphabetically.
Player Pos. 2005 Team Statistics
Jeromy Burnitz OF Cubs .258, 24 HR, 87 RBI
Roger Clemens RHP Astros 13-8, 1.87 ERA
Johnny Damon CF Red Sox .316, 10 HR, 75 RBI
Juan Encarnacion OF Marlins .287, 16 HR, 76 RBI
Nomar Garciaparra SS Cubs .283, 9 HR, 30 RBI
Alex Gonzalez SS Marlins .264, 5 HR, 45 RBI
Kenny Lofton OF Phillies .335, 36 RBI, 22 SB
Jason Johnson RHP Tigers 8-13, 4.54 ERA
Jacque Jones OF Twins .249, 23 HR, 73 RBI
Kevin Millwood RHP Indians 9-11, 2.86 ERA
Bengie Molina C Angels .295, 15 HR, 69 RBI
Mike Piazza C Mets .251, 19 HR, 62 RBI
Reggie Sanders OF Cardinals .271, 21 HR, 54 RBI
Sammy Sosa OF Orioles .221, 14 HR, 45 RBI
Frank Thomas DH White Sox .219, 12 HR, 26 RBI
Brett Tomko RHP Giants 8-15, 4.48 ERA
Jarrod Washburn LHP Angels 8-8, 3.20 ERA
Jeff Weaver RHP Dodgers 14-11, 4.22 ERA
Bernie Williams OF Yankees .249, 12 HR, 64 RBI
Preston Wilson CF Nationals .260, 25 HR, 90 RBI
Key dates for baseball fans to remember prior to the start of spring training.
• Monday: Last day for free agents offered salary arbitration to accept or reject the offers.
• Tuesday: Last day for teams to offer 2006 contracts to unsigned players.
• Jan. 5-13: Salary arbitration filing by players.
• Jan. 8: Last day until May 1 for free agents who rejected arbitration offers to re-sign with their old teams.
• Jan. 10: Hall of Fame voting announced.
• Jan. 17: Exchange of salary arbitration figures.
• Feb. 1-20: Salary arbitration hearings.