Hot Stove Report
The Cardinals finished the regular season as the National League Central Division Champions, 11 games ahead of the Houston Astros and 19 games ahead of the third place Milwaukee Brewers.
What went unnoticed by a lot of fans is, that the Cubs finished 21 games back of St. Louis and 2 games back behind the Milwaukee Brewers.
While the Cubs were falling out of the race, the Cardinals were soaring, playing 22 games above .500 ball, against teams from the Central Division and there is nothing that has happen this winter to suggest that the Cardinals shouldn't dominate the division, again, this season.
The Cardinals will start the season with only 14 players remaining from their 25-man playoff roster last season.
I have not been completely supportive, this off season, about the direction that the Cardinals have gone in restocking the team for next season, but when it is all said and done, I don't have a problem with the moves that St. Louis Cardinals' General Manager, Walt Jocketty, has made.
There is every reason, in my opinion, to expect that the Cardinals will repeat as the Central Division Champions and make it back to the National League Championship series, this season.
I do offer one word of caution. I think that Cardinals' management and a lot of writers and fans are a little bit overly optimistic about what we can expect in terms of performance from some of our new players.
My take is, if you are going to believe all the hype about these guys, you are most likely going to be disappointed with some of our new players.
If you keep your expectations in proper perspective, you should be able to kick back and enjoy another trip back to the playoffs this year.
Here are my player notes for the week with my pithy comments.
The Cardinals avoided arbitration for a seventh consecutive season when they agreed with their only arbitration candidate, right-hander Jason Marquis, on a $5.15 million, one-year contract, as I had projected back on January the 8th. Marquis, who will be eligible for free agency after this season, will make more in base salary than any Cardinals starting pitcher other than left-hander Mark Mulder, who will receive a $7.75 million base. He can earn $275,000 in performance bonuses: $25,000 for 200 innings, $75,000 each for 210 and 215 innings and $100,000 for 220 innings.
The 27-year-old Marquis has a career 42-36 record with a 4.15 ERA in five-plus years in the majors. He went 28-21 with a 3.92 ERA in his two seasons with St. Louis and pitched a career-high 207 innings in 2005. Marquis batted .310 (27-for-87) with one home run and 10 RBI last season to win the 2005 National League Silver Slugger for a pitcher.
Marquis was the Cardinals' only arbitration-eligible player this off-season.
The Cardinals signed reliever Jeff Nelson to a minor league contract this past week. Nelson will compete for the last right-handed spot in the Cardinals' bullpen.
I tend to like this deal more than others. At best, Jeff is a situational reliever against right-handers at this stage of his career and that is how Cardinals' Manager Tony La Russa will use him.
He'll not likely to be called upon to face more than one or two batters at a time and I still think he could be effective in that role.
The flip side is, a lot of people think Nelson is already washed up. Last season his ERA was nearly four, he walked 22 in 36 2/3 innings and his WHIP was 1.47.
Don't expect the same Jeff Nelson that we saw with the Yankees from 1996 to 2000, but he could be effective in a limited role.
There was some thought that Edmonds might bat second. He still might later, but Rolen would have to prove to be productive enough to act as the cleanup hitter. For now, Junior Spivey, Juan Encarnacion and Larry Bigbie are all candidates to be second and I'm not too excited by any of those candidates batting in the number two hole.
Player Movement - Arrivals
RHP Sidney Ponson (free agent from Baltimore), - The Cardinals decided to take a chance on Sidney Ponson, signing the portly right-hander to a one-year deal. He's only had one truly good year (2003), and nearly every one of his Base Performance Indicators are headed the wrong way.
He's expected to compete for the job as the Cardinals fifth starter. In my opinion it is more reasonable to expect him to fill the role of the retiring Cal Eldred in the bullpen.
The Cardinals are hoping they signed the Sidney Ponson of 2003, not the Ponson of 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005. You figure the odds.
On a personal note, Ponson was at the St. Louis Cardinals' Winter Warm Up this past week. He signed autographs for the fans and he faced up to and addressed his past issues and problems with members of the local media. You have to give the kid, (he's still only 29) some credit for being a stand up guy this past week.
FYI - Ponson has a guaranteed contract. He'll make the team and I'll go against the mainstream thinking of the day and suggest, he'll be better off in the bullpen.
2B Junior Spivey (free agent from Washington), - isn't promised the starting job, but he should be the regular second baseman and he might get a chance to bat second. At $1.2 million, he's a bargain. The Cardinals will likely now use Hector Luna in a utility role along with Deivi Cruz. I don't see any room on the roster for Aaron Miles who came to St. Louis as part of the deal that sent reliever Ray King to Colorado.
RF Juan Encarnacion (free agent from Florida), - is not the impact player, Cardinal fans were expecting, and he is not as good as the spin that is being put out by the Cardinals.
I supported the signing of Encarnacion. He'll be fine playing in the outfield next to Jim Edmonds and hitting in a lineup that includes the likes of Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen. Just don't expect him to play better than he has in the past.
Here are a few interesting observations;
"He walks infrequently and strikes out too much, but his overall production is good enough to allow him to play every day." John Benson
"For a corner outfielder. Encarnacion simply doesn't have enough power, good enough on-base skills or hit a high enough average to be an attractive option." Ron Shandler
"He's one of the worst regular right fielders in baseball" Baseball Prospectus
I noticed, last season in 506 at bats, Encarnacion hit .287 with 16 Hrs and 76 RBI. If you are expecting more than that out of him this season, you are going to be disappointed. I'm expecting him to put up about the same numbers even with the supporting cast of the Cardinals regular lineup.
To put things in perspective, in 315 at bats last season, Larry Walker hit .289 with 15 Hrs and 52 RBI and Walker was injured most of the season. Encarnacion is not an upgrade over Larry Walker, not even the injured Larry Walker of last season.
Encarnacion is not going to win a Gold Glove in right or be a 30-30 man, but that doesn't make him coming to St. Louis a bad deal.
RHP Braden Looper (free agent fromNew York Mets), - the Cardinals will most likely carry three left-handed relievers in the bullpen. They'll need them to protect Looper from having to face left handed hitters, who hit over .330 against him last season.
Braden Looper said he's healthy now following October shoulder
Looper only had his AC joint cleaned out, so no lingering effects are expected. "I'm going 100 percent right now," Looper said. "I'm not throwing 100 percent, but I'll probably start bullpen [sessions] this week. I'm on my normal schedule of what I would do to get ready for spring training on a normal basis. I feel great. The surgery went great. I saw the doctor at the beginning of January, my final 'You're OK, go get 'em' type of thing. I'll be ready to go."
The St. Louis Cardinals recently signed Looper, who had been with the Mets, to a three-year, $13.5 million contract.
Looper will work in a set-up capacity for the Cardinals, next season,
replacing Julian Tavarez.
2B Aaron Miles (traded from Colorado), - will have a hard time making the major league club out of spring training. He's a second baseman who only played one game at shortstop last season. He'll need to prove he can play at shortstop and third if he is going to have a chance to make the team as a member of the bench.
Miles was a .321 lifetime hitter at Coors, vs. .255 on the road. If given a chance to play, you should expect him to hit around the .265 - .270 range for the Cardinals, but he's going to have a hard time getting playing time. I wouldn't be surprised to see him beat out Deivi Cruz for a job on the bench, but you'd have to give Cruz the edge if the season started today.
OF Larry Bigbie (traded from Colorado), - will be given every chance to start in left, if for no other reason, than to prove, that the Cardinals didn't make a mistake in trading Ray King away for Bigbie and second baseman Aaron Miles. He'll split playing time with John Rodriguez and So Taguchi.
Bigbie's batting average in Coors was only .205, with a normal 30% hit rate, and he had only two extra-base hits in 44 at bats. He'll need to spend a lot of time with the hitting coaches in spring training, to get some of his hits off the ground, into line drives and hopefully start pulling the ball to give him a chance to hit a few home runs.
He has the potential for more power than an average major league ballplayer, if he pulls the ball more, but he needs to increase his bat speed. Hopefully the Cardinals will address these issues early.
If not, I doubt that Bigbie will still be in the mix of Cardinals left-fielders by the All Star Break
LHP Ricardo Rincon (free agent from Oakland), - the 35 year old reliever is expected to fill the shoes of Ray King, who was traded to Colorado. The spin is Rincon is as good or better than King, that just isn't the case.
Rincon is really starting to lose his effectiveness against righties (12 BB and four HR in 14 IP), which makes him just another lefty specialist.
Rincon has been a successful lefty specialist, holding left-handed hitters to BA's of .213, .200, and .200 in 2002, 2003, and 2004. In 2005, however, lefties hit .250 against him. With a projected ERA in the mid-4's and a limited number of innings pitched, I have a hard time buying the spin that Rincon is an upgrade over Ray King.
C Gary Bennett (free agent from Washington), - the Cardinals already have a lot more confidence in Gary Bennett than they ever did in Einar Diaz. With Yadier Molina playing in the World Baseball Classic (Bud Selig World Tour), Bennett will get a lot of playing time in spring training, and that could be a good thing. He may be better behind the plate than Diaz and with handling a pitching staff, but don't expect much offense from him.
SS Deivi Cruz (free agent from Washington), - will fill the role vacated by Abraham Nunez. Hopefully, he won't be called in to play any position on an every day basis as Nunez was.
He doesn't have much pop in his bat. He hit five home runs last season in 260 combined at bats with the Giants and Nationals. You might expect more speed out of a middle infielder, but he has stolen only two bases over the past three seasons.
He hit just .236 against right-handed pitchers last season, compared to .311 against left-handers.
He'll most likely be the primary backup at second and short and see a little more playing time when the Cardinals are facing left-handed starters.
RHP Juan Mateo (Rule 5 draft from Chicago Cubs), - a low risk signing who may actually make the team.
RHP Dennis Tankersley (minor league free agent from Kansas City), - a former top prospect in the San Diego Padres organization who may surprise everyone at spring training.
1B/OF Brian Daubach (minor league free agent from New York Mets), - there is a chance he could be a left handed bat off the bench for St. Louis. Local St. Louis fans will be pulling for the Belleville, Illinois native to make the club.
RHP John Riedling (minor league free agent from Florida), will have a hard time catching on with the big club, there are just too many arms in front of him.
RHP Jeff Nelson (minor league free agent from Seattle), the Cardinals signed Nelson to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. Jeff is at best a situational reliever against right-handers at this stage of his career.
Between Nelson, Randy Flores and Ricardo Rincon, the Cardinals are going to have at least three relievers who won't often be in to face more than one or two batters at a time. Nelson has to make the team first, though. He makes quite a bit of sense as a righty specialist, there is some concern about his high walk ratio.
He'll likely make the team out of spring training. You know how La Russa and the Cardinals love to surround themselves with proven veterans. He's appeared in 16 World Series games. His record in World Series competition? It's, 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA.
Player Movement - Departures
3B Abraham Nunez (free agent, signed with Philadelphia), - left St. Louis looking for a starting job with someone, he'll probably still be a back up with the Phillies.
RHP Cal Eldred (retired), - the Cardinals offered Cal a minor league deal that he turned down. His plans are to retire and spend more time with his family.
RF Larry Walker (retired), - his agent has hinted that Larry may be interested in playing next season, if healthy. I would like to have seen him accepted a job on the bench for St. Louis as the fourth or fifth outfielder, but that was never going to happen. The smart money is on Walker staying retired.
RHP Matt Morris (free agent, signed with San Francisco), - once Morris left St. Louis, it took away any chance, in my opinion, for the Cardinals to trade a quality pitcher for an impact outfielder. Ponson is expected to replace Morris in the rotation, personally I don't see it.
LHP Ray King (traded to Colorado), - the Cardinals will miss Ray King, before it's all over. King had a 4.80 ERA in the second half of last season, including a dreadful 7.36 mark in September.
His demands for more playing time fell on deaf ears and his subsequent demand for a trade didn't.
OF-INF John Mabry (free agent, signed with ChicagoCubs), - didn't play well in the second half of last season, hitting just .188 after the All Star Break. As a result he leaves St. Louis for a third and I'm sure final time.
2B Mark Grudzielanek (free agent, signed with Kansas City), - the Cardinals offered what they thought was a fair deal to Grudz, but the lights were brighter in Kansas City.
C EinarDiaz (free agent, signed with Cleveland), - good luck to Diaz who never got much of a chance to play in St. Louis.
OF Reggie Sanders (free agent, signed with Kansas City). - we will miss Reggie, but in my opinion the Royals over paid for his services, but if you are going to over pay anyone, I say let it be Reggie Sanders.
Non Roster Spring Training Invitees
RHP Andy Cavazos
RHP Brian Falkenborg
LHP Randy Leek
RHP Blaine Neal
RHP Jeff Nelson
RHP John Riedling
LHP Richard Rundles
RHP Dennis Tankersley
RHP Brad Voyles
RHP John Webb
NRI NOTES: RHP Jeff Nelson and INF Brian Daubach are the most likely candidates to make the Cardinals roster out of Spring Training.
World Baseball Classic
Jason Isringhausen, the St. Louis Cardinals' closer has decided not to pitch for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic. (Thank You Lord) Isringhausen normally is slow to get ready in spring training.
"I just don't think it was what I first envisioned. I've got more important things to do." -- Izzy said on declining to pitch for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic.
Yadier Molina, the Cardinals' everyday catcher apparently will be playing in the WBC. It's amazing to me that the Cardinals allow him to play winter ball and then go onto play in the WBC. What's with all of this moonlighting?
Here's the bottom line - a major league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals should be considered a full time job.
I love it when a player comes to spring training and says he wants to take it easy, because he's been playing winter ball. (Julian Tavarez, last spring)
VOTE - where do I get to vote against the World Baseball Classic? If we are going to export Major League Baseball around the world, the first place I would like to start is, the Commissioner's Office.
Other players from St. Louis who may be playing in the WBC include; Sidney Ponson, Juan Encarnacion, Mark Mulder, Albert Pujols, Ricardo Rincon, and John Rodriguez.
The St. Louis Cardinals won't play the first game in the new Busch Stadium. While the club is on the road for the first week of the season, the Cardinals' Triple-A Memphis and Double-A Springfield teams will play an exhibition game on Tuesday night, April 4, as a trial run.
This is a very good idea and a good chance for Cardinal Fans to see some future stars play in front of the hometown crowd. Tickets range from $5.00 to $20.00. Don't miss this exciting event.