Time Machine: Oct. 2006 – "The Big Six" +1?

Continuing our series looking ahead to next year's off-season and resulting major decisions facing the Cardinals. Today: The rest of the rotation.

This is the time of year when the major decisions for next season are mostly in place – a time when thoughts can be allowed to drift forward into the future just a bit without ignoring more pressing immediate matters.


No better way to accomplish this but to step back into our time machine, again setting the dial forward to next October, following another Cardinals playoff run.


Let's get right into analysis of another of the many tough decisions facing Walt Jocketty over the next 12 months. Today's subject is…


The rest of the rotation – Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Sidney Ponson


These three guys, Marquis, Suppan and Ponson, are each on contracts that will likely end following the 2006 season. I say "likely" because in Marquis' case, he is not yet signed for this coming season. But, more on that in a minute.


What about Anthony Reyes?


Ok, in addition to Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder, there is also Anthony Reyes, part of a temporarily-oversized starting staff that Walt Jocketty has taken to calling "The Big Six". But, since Reyes is under Cardinals' control for six more seasons, I am putting him on the sidelines here.


Still, we need to make an educated guess as to the near-term future of Mr. Reyes, as it affects how the rest of the story goes.


  • Will he join the other A. Reyes on the sidelines due to injury?
  • Or, will he be traded by Walt Jocketty in a megadeal for a studly outfielder?
  • Or, will he be destined to spend another year in Triple-A?
  • Or, will he start the season in the Cardinals bullpen?
  • Or, will he gain a "guaranteed" starting spot when another one of the "Big Six" is traded or injured or by beating one of them out in spring training?


Personally, I think the final option is the most likely scenario. In fact, I list them in sort of a reverse likelihood of happening, in my opinion.


Specifically, I think Reyes will be on the opening day 25-man roster one way or another. I think it is more likely he will be in the rotation than not, though that is far from assured. I think it is less likely that Reyes will return to Memphis than for him to temporarily earn a seat in the Cardinals bullpen, and so on.


And, of course, no story about Reyes can appear without some mention of injury risk. Consider the mandatory requirement met.


What about Adam Wainwright?


Another key assumption we must make in this story is the status of one Adam Wainwright, also known as the organization's best pitching prospect not named Anthony Reyes. Or is he?


A key unanswered question is whether or not the Cardinals could ever envision a starting rotation in 2006 that might include Ponson, Reyes and Wainwright. This would never become reality by design, but could happen by necessity.


In other words, could the "Big Six" become the "Big Seven" prior to becoming the "Big Five"?


What I mean is this. Say the Cards trade off one of the incumbents, Marquis or Suppan. That opens the door wide for Reyes, but also means the large Arubian question mark, Sir Sid, is firmly planted in the rotation.


Who would then be next in line if Carpenter, Mulder or the survivor of Marquis/Suppan was to go down during the season? It is not a major stretch for at least one member of a five-man major league starting rotation to miss considerable time due to injury.


Hence, Mr. Wainwright.


Now, I will answer the question I posed earlier. I don't think the Cardinals would put themselves in the position of having three question marks among their five starters.


All things considered, I am speculating that Wainwright will never become a regular in the Cardinals' rotation. You can decide whether the reason will be ineffectiveness (Wainwright seemed to plateau in Memphis in 2005) or trade.


I think that the Cards would include Wainwright in the right deal and probably should while his value may be the highest it will ever be. However, if they do that, they are clearly exposed depth-wise if they also move another pitcher, too.


Or, of course, my guess could be wrong! A more straight-forward alternative not pursued here is that Wainwright simply puts in a good year in Memphis and slides into the back end of the 2007 rotation, much like Reyes is slated to do in 2006.


The remainder of the article that follows is only as solid as the above assumptions are about Reyes and Wainwright. But, hey, the future is not always clear, is it?


Marquis as trade bait?


As I've said before, I think the Cardinals want to move Jason Marquis. His past skirmishes with his coaches over his own stubbornness have publicly been smoothed over, but the simmering issues have neither likely been forgotten nor are immune from surfacing again in the future.


There are two things the Cardinals need to do to maximize Marquis' value.


1) Keep any discord quiet. Damaged goods draw less in return. Just look at Ray King if you doubt that.


2) Sign Marquis for 2006 as soon as possible. The uncertainty of an arbitration hearing will scare off many prospective trade partners. Of course, so will a salary that is too high. So, haste must be carefully mixed with caution.


Going even further, if the Cards really wanted to move Marquis, they could assume the risk of trying to sign him to a multi-year deal before flipping him. That way, another team considering a trade with the Cardinals would know what they would get in keeping Marquis beyond 2006 and how much they would have to pay him in the process.


However, Marquis may not want to give up his first-ever free agency opportunity coming after this coming season, knowing another good year on the mound will only increase his value at that time.


More than likely, he and the team will come to terms on his final one-year contract as a Cardinal. This will be complete one way or another next month, as that is when Marquis' arbitration hearing will be held, if needed.


Realistically, the Cards may not move Marquis until spring training is well underway, if at all. Or, should I say, they may not want to move Marquis until they know Ponson can still pitch effectively.


But, returning to where I started, if you think that Marquis would prefer to test the free agent waters next off-season and you think the Cardinals would also prefer that he moves on, the team may want to try to get something more from him than just a draft pick or two next winter. This is why I still lean toward a trade.


Trade Marquis for what?


Some assume Marquis would be traded for an impact outfielder, moving Larry Bigbie into a reserve role. That may or may not happen. I continue to hear rumors the Cardinals and Yankees have discussed the possibility of a Carl Pavano for Marquis plus prospects swap.


Pavano has joined the long list of players who did not adapt well to playing in the Big Apple. Despite the Yankees publicly stating their satisfaction with him, indications are that they are playing the same game of trying to protect Pavano's trade value that the Cards may be playing with Marquis.


This trade would enable the Cards to upgrade their rotation, and have Pavano locked up through 2009, a big improvement over today's very real possibility of having only Carpenter and Reyes remaining from the Big Six after 2006.


In this manner, trading Marquis for a pitcher is a good hedge for the Cardinals, who are also likely trying to determine whether or not they will also have to replace Mark Mulder after this coming season.


Marquis is from Staten Island, one of the boroughs of New York City, and would be very popular as a member of the hometown Yankees. Their farm system is more depleted than the Cardinals' and with a prospect or two thrown in, a deal would not be out of the question.


Suppan as trade bait?


I don't get the feeling that the Cardinals want to move Jeff Suppan. He is an ideal back of the rotation guy. Never too high and never too low; consistently above average and reasonably priced. This is precisely why other teams ask about him, though.


The only question here is whether Jocketty will make re-signing Suppan a low priority until he knows what he has with Ponson on the mound plus what he is dealing with contractually with Mulder and Marquis.


Unless all three come through, I can see Suppan being strung along not unlike what the Cards did this year with Matt Morris. They may use Suppan as a relief valve or contingency plan in case any of the other moves do not play out as planned. Odds are good that will happen, but of course, the risk in playing too long is that they lose Suppan.


Suppan probably deserves better, but even if he doesn't re-sign with the Cardinals by next winter, a Detroit or Texas will probably overpay and be delighted to get him. So, Suppan will likely win either way.


Ponson, the wild card


No, I am not talking about Sir Sidney's off-the-field exploits. I mean that Ponson's pitching in 2006 could be the key to unlock some of the other moves about which I speculated above.


If he looks good this season and he meshes well with the organization, perhaps the road to signing him beyond 2006 would be easier for Jocketty to navigate. And if not, then the Cards are far less likely to want to trade Marquis or Suppan despite them being in the final years of their contracts. In fact, a struggling Ponson might prove to be better for Jeff Suppan's chances of staying around beyond 2006.


However, if Ponson is worth keeping, he will surely remember his recent days of being paid over $10 million and may expect a return to that kind of salary level starting in 2007 after his financial step backward in 2006. That success could easily price Ponson out of the Cardinals' willingness to spend, not unlike what has happened at second base the past two seasons.


I am not at all sure if one year's worth of goodwill is enough to keep Ponson in the fold via a "home town discount" rate starting next season, anyway. My sense is that all things equal, keeping Ponson would be the Cardinals' lowest priority, too.


In other words, at this point, I see Ponson and the Cards as a marriage of convenience with a healthy dose of skepticism as to its depth and staying power.


Another variation


The Cardinals decide to keep Marquis all season. He becomes a free agent after the season, as does Ponson and Suppan. The team decides to keep two of the three for 2007. I feel this is lower odds, as I think they want to move Marquis sooner.


The crystal ball says…


Reyes – stays and starts

Wainwright – traded

Marquis – signed for 2006 and traded

Suppan – re-signs next off-season to remain beyond 2006

Ponson – leaves as free agent after 2006


The time machine's possible 2007 rotation



Mulder (if re-signed)

Pavano (if traded for Marquis)

Suppan (if re-signed)



Walt Jocketty would have to get going, but if he puts his mind to it, he could move starting pitching contracts from being a point of weakness after 2006 to one of strength. As noted earlier, today only two of the Big Six are assured of being under Cardinals' control for 2007.


Still, if you've followed this logic, Walt could move from having two signed to four of five signed in the upcoming months. Specifically, Suppan might be the only one who by the end of this coming season has not yet been re-signed.


I previously explained why I think the Cardinals should make a good-faith attempt to sign Mulder to an extension as soon as possible. They either have to sign Marquis before or as a result of arbitration and I predict he will be traded following.


In closing, please remember that trying to forecast all of this accurately is still just a crapshoot at this point. Yet, some combination of these actions could be a likely occurrence.



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


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