Hot Stove League Wrap Up with Ray Mileur

We didn't get everything we wanted this winter, but don't look for excuses here, this team is capable of winning a World Championship.


The Hot Stove League has come to a close. Here is my final report on the key acquisitions this winter and I'll take you through the spin and shed some light on what to expect this season.



In October we started our Sunday Night Hot Stove League Reports. At that time, most major media outlets had indicated that there was little to be done with the St. Louis Cardinals this offseason. One reporter from the Post Dispatch went so far as to say that the Cardinals just need just a little tune up.

Of course, as I told you, the Cardinals were in for a major overhaul. I reported in October that the Cardinals were going to need:

- two starting pitchers - (Sidney Ponson & Anthony Reyes)

- two corner outfielders - (Larry Bigbie & Juan Encarnacion)

- three new members of the bullpen (Ricardo Rincon, Braden Looper & Jeff Nelson (?) )

- second basemen - (Junior Spivey)

- back up catcher - (Gary Bennett)

- couple new members for the bench - ( Deivi Cruz, Brian Daubach & Aaron Miles)

For future reference throughout this report, we'll just assume I'm always right, to save a lot of time.



In November, the Cardinals made it clear that the doors were open for the return of left-handed reliever, Ray King, to play with the club next season. Of course, I told you not to believe the spin about the Cardinals and King kissing and making up. One month later, King was traded to Colorado for outfielder Larry Bigbie, infielder Aaron Miles and about a ton and a half of spin.

Early in November, the Cardinals made it clear they were interested in re-signing second baseman Mark Grudzielanek & starting pitcher Matt Morris. I bought into the spin on Grudzielanek, but never believed and reported Morris had played his last game in a Cardinal uniform.

My take on Grudzielanek was, if the Cardinals let Abraham Nunez go via free agency, they were likely going to keep Grudz in the fold to play at second. Nunez went to the Phillies looking for a starting job and Grudzielanek later signed with Kansas City.

The Cardinals exercised their option on Jeff Suppan, still the best "bang for the buck" in their starting rotation.

By mid-November, the Hot Stove League begin heating up with talks and rumors centered around the Cardinals pursuit of outfielders Brian Giles from San Diego, and the Minnesota Twins' Jacque Jones as well as the premier free agent starting pitcher on the market, A.J. Burnett.

Cardinal fans were hoping they would have some marquee names coming to St. Louis, giving them something else to be thankful for on Thanksgiving.

I was against the deals for A.J. Burnett & Brian Giles and against even considering Jacques Jones as an option in right field. In time, I got my three wishes as Burnett, Giles & Jones signed elsewhere. This is where I would have pointed out I was right, if we weren't trying to save time.

Around Thanksgiving, Cardinals' Vice-President and General Manager, Walt Jocketty indicated that the Cardinals would probably avoid signing a free agent to play the outfield and would go the trade route instead. As a result of his public comments, I got to begin yet another "Who Are You Going to Believe, Walt Jocketty or Me?" rant.

I didn't see how the Cardinals were going to be able to put together a trade for an everyday outfielder who would be able to fill the shoes left by the departing Reggie Sanders or retiring Larry Walker. My take was, expect St. Louis to sign a second tier free agent outfielder to play in right and look for outfielders, So Taguchi and John Rodriguez to compete for playing time in left.

Starting pitcher Jason Marquis was the subject of more trade rumors than perhaps any other pitcher in the major leagues around this time. I just couldn't see Marquis going anywhere for an outfielder.

I went so far as reporting in November and responding to readers' mail, that the Cardinals already had an outfielder in their back pocket and Marquis will likely sign a one year deal.



What did you want for Christmas?

The Cardinals had a big shopping list, by this time it had became clear to most people, that indeed the Cardinals had plenty of holes to fill, as I earlier projected. The minor tune up had turned into a major overhaul by this time..

Cardinal Nation couldn't wait for Walt's Christmas presents.

Of course we didn't get everything we wanted for Christmas, the Cardinals only had about $90 million dollars in their Christmas Club account.


Here's what we got for Christmas;

Gary Bennett (12/02): The Cardinals signed free agent catcher Gary Bennett to a contract to kick Hot Stove League off.

At best, Bennett is considered a slight upgrade over former back up catcher, Einar Diaz.

Look for Bennett getting some significant playing time, while Cardinals starting catcher, Yadier Molina is off playing (sitting on the bench) in the World Baseball Classic during spring training.


Deivi Cruz (12/05): Cruz, came next and he will likely fill the role of Abraham Nunez on the bench. The 33-year-old Cruz hit .265 in 101 games last season for San Francisco and Washington with five homers and 20 RBI. He is expected to be used in a utility role by the Cardinals but could earn an additional $50,000 for playing 120 games and $50,000 each for 300 and 350 plate appearances next season.

Over the past three seasons, he has played 274 games at shortstop and only 51 at second base, so you'll have to excuse me if I think of him as a shortstop. He's only played six times in the last three seasons at third.


LARRY BIGBIE (12/07): The Cardinals traded Ray King to Colorado for Larry Bigbie and second baseman Aaron Miles. Apparently the door the Cardinals left open for Ray King, was for him to walk through it. At least in Colorado, King is more likely to enjoy a White Christmas.

Bigbie, will get a shot to replace the departed Reggie Sanders in left field. Bigbie hit a combined .239 with five homers and 23 RBIs for the Rockies and Orioles last year.

"The Cardinals are looking to give me every chance to play left field," he said. "Going into spring training, that's what my outlook is going to be.

A .268 career hitter in five seasons (4 1/2 with the Orioles); Bigbie was limited to only 66 at-bats with Colorado last season because of nagging injuries which include a sore Achilles' tendon the final two months of the season.

Bigbie will get a chance to win a regular job in left field. He has power, speed, a good arm and the ability to play all three outfield positions.


AARON MILES (12/07): Miles came over to St. Louis in the Ray King deal. Miles may have a hard time making the team out of spring training with the signing of free agent Junior Spivey.

There is only so much room on the bench and Miles will be competing against Deivi Cruz and Hector Luna for a job. The fact that Miles basically just plays second base doesn't help his chances a lot. I like this kid and wouldn't count him out just yet.


BRADEN LOOPER (12/18): The Cardinals signed right-handed pitcher Braden Looper to a three-year contract. Looper, a first-round draft pick for the Cardinals in 1996 (third overall), made his Major League debut with the Cardinals in 1998. He was part of the Cardinals trade with the Florida Marlins that brought shortstop Edgar Renteria to St. Louis in December 1998.

Looper, 31, pitched for the New York Mets last season and went 4-7 with a 3.94 ERA in 60 games with 28 saves. The 6-3, 220-pound native of Oklahoma recorded a career-high 29 saves with the Mets in 2004 and won a World Championship with the Marlins in 2003.

The Cardinals in my opinion, overpaid ($13.5 million for three years) for a setup man who is coming off arm surgery and who has difficulty retiring left-handed hitters. On a positive note, I do believe Looper will be more effective working out of a St. Louis Cardinals bullpen.

I liked this deal, in spite of my reservations about the 3rd year of the contract and the dollar figures. The Cardinals did what they had to do to get Looper back to St. Louis and it could pay off in the long run.


RICARDO RINCON (12/19): Rincon was the second reliever in two days that week to agree with terms with St. Louis. Rincon is expected to fill the hole vacated by the trade of Ray King to Colorado.

Rincon, 35, is a nine-year veteran, his last four seasons spent with the Oakland Athletics after a mid-season trade from the Cleveland Indians in 2002. With the A's last season, he appeared in 67 games and went 1-1 with a 4.34 ERA (37.1 IP / 18 ER).

Here is another deal that isn't a bad deal, it just isn't that great of a deal. The Cardinals probably paid too much, but it seems more and more, teams are paying too much for pitching, at least that is my opinion.

Rincon will be a serviceable reliever out of the bullpen, but when Rincon and King are both on their games, King is the much better pitcher and he's five years younger than Rincon.


SIDNEY PONSON (12/21): Ponson was not what Cardinal Nation wanted for Christmas, unless he was bringing the eggnog to the party, but remember it's the thought that counts. You ought to see all the ugly ties in my closet.

Ponson's off field troubles have been well documented and there is no reason to dwell on them. He appears to be doing his best to put his past behind him and we should respect that and move on.

The Cardinals are obviously taking a gamble that Ponson can turn around his once-promising career. He will compete for a spot in the rotation, which means rookie Anthony Reyes may have to wait another year to join the starting rotation.

I was against the Cardinals pursuing Ponson a couple of seasons ago when he was the most sought after free agent after his 17 win season with the Orioles. There hasn't been much he has done on or off the field since then to change my opinion.

Don't look for the Cardinals to move Marquis this season unless Ponson is showing he can get the job done.

Personally, I would take Reyes over Ponson, as the Cardinals #5 starter this season, but I agree, Ponson is a low risk gamble that may pay off and good luck to him.

You have to give Sidney some credit for coming to St. Louis for Cardinals Care annual Winter Warm Up and signing autographs for the fans and facing the press. He earned my respect that weekend and like Cardinal fans around the world, we are all wishing him the best, not only in his baseball career, but personal life as well.

Ponson will be one of the most watched players in camp as he tries to rebound from a season filled with legal and alcohol-related problems. Ponson's weight has gone as high as 275 pounds, but he probably can't carry that much weight and be a National League pitcher because he will have to bat and run the bases, if he gets on.

The club's investment in him is minor, though. Ponson is guaranteed just $1 million and the most he can make, if he achieves incentives, is $2.5 million


BRIAN DAUBACH (12/21): The Cardinals signed left handed hitting, Belleville, Illinois native, Brian Daubach, making his Christmas special. He had a good year at Triple-A for the Mets in 2005, hitting .325 with 16 homers and 62 RBI.

Daubach will try to take the spot that John Mabry filled for the Cardinals the last two seasons, pinch hitting and playing first base and the corner outfield spots.

Probably the 25th man on the team, I gave my seal of approval on Daubach's contract (you know that gives the Cardinals the warm fuzzies, J ) and I will be pulling for the hometown boy to make good.


JUAN ENCARNACION (12/23): The Cardinals agreed to terms with Encarnacion just before Christmas. He will get $3.5 million this season, $5 million in 2007 and $6.5 million in 2008. He hit .287 with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs last season for Florida, the best season of his eight-year career, and is a career .268 hitter with 128 homers and 119 stolen bases.

He's not as good as some of my friends think, and for sure he's not as good as the Cardinals have reported, but he is a decent right fielder, considering what was available on the market.

The Cardinals' spin is that Encarnacion is a five tool player and he's an upgrade over Larry Walker in right. To put things in perspective, Encarnacion had his best season last year. His offensive numbers are comparable to the injured Larry Walker's numbers last season, it just took Encarnacion a couple of hundred additional at bats to do it.

Encarnacion was the deal with an outfielder that I thought Cardinals GM, Walt Jocketty, had in his hip pocket for weeks. "We have had Encarnacion at the top of our list among free agent outfielders this off-season," stated Cardinals Senior Vice President/General Manager Walt Jocketty.

Jocketty said earlier this winter that he planned on trading for a right fielder, while at the same time, I was reporting the Cardinals would probably go the free agent route and hold onto their pitchers.

The Cardinals decided to sign Encarnacion rather than trade a pitcher for an "impact' outfielder, this isn't a bad deal, it just isn't a great deal.


JUNIOR SPIVEY (12/23): Let's see, first the Cardinals wanted to sign Mark Grudzielanek, then the job at second was Hector Luna's to lose, then the Cardinals traded for Colorado second baseman Aaron Miles, just before they agree to sign free agent Junior Spivey to play second base.

Spivey considered the front runner as of today, is not even guaranteed the starting job..

Spivey, 30, split the 2005 season between Milwaukee and Washington, batting a combined .232 with seven homers and 24 RBI in 77 games. He was the Brewers' Opening Day second baseman for a second-straight season in 2005, appearing in 49 games before being dealt to the Nationals on June 10 for pitcher Tomo Ohka

The 6-0, 201-pound Spivey missed 63 games due to a freak injury when he suffered a right radius fracture on July 9 in pre-game batting practice. He wasn't reinstated to the active roster until Sept. 17.

"With Spivey, (Aaron) Miles, and (Deivi) Cruz, joining our team this off-season, we feel that we have a number of strong candidates not only for second base, but also for needed depth off the bench," said Jocketty.

Spivey, a native of Oklahoma City, Okla., owns a career batting mark of .270 with 48 HRs and 201 RBI in five seasons with Arizona (2001-03), Milwaukee (2004-05) and Washington (2005). He hit a career-best .301 with 16 homers and 78 RBI for the Diamondbacks in 2002, earning selection to National League All-Star team.



JASON MARQUIS (01/17) the Cardinals agreed to terms with right-handed starting pitcher Jason Marquis on a one-year contract for 2006, thus avoiding salary arbitration.

The AP reported his contract is for $5.15 million with another $275,000 in incentives based on innings-pitched.

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 subject of endless trade talks, rumors and speculation, Marquis is likely to remain in the starting rotation at least until the All Star break.


JEFF NELSON (01/16) 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.



On paper, the Cardinals are not as good going into spring training this season as they were last year.

We lost, Reggie Sanders, Larry Walker, Mark Grudzielanek, Ray King, Matt Morris, Abraham Nunez & John Mabry and we replaced them with Larry Bigbie, Juan Encarnacion, Junior Spivey, Ricardo Rincon, Sidney Ponson, Aaron Miles and Brian Daubach. It just doesn't add up.

Of course the game isn't played on paper and remember, the Cardinals may not be done making moves before the regular season starts.

Last season, the Cardinals finished 11 games in front of the second place, Houston Astros and played 22 games above .500 against Central Division opponents. I don't see any reason why the Cardinals shouldn't continue to dominate their division. Anything less than a National League Championship this year, would have to be considered a major failure.




Projected Line Up

David Eckstein SS He'll set the table again this season
Larry Bigbie LF Will bat second, Junior Spivey could see some time here
Albert Pujols 1B Back to back MVP seasons?
Jim Edmonds CF Expected to start the season batting cleanup
Scott Rolen 3B Should be 100% by the end of April
Juan Encarnacion RF I see him hitting here most the time, too many Ks, poor OBP to bat 2nd
Junior Spivey 2B Could see time batting second
Yadier Molina C Most likely will hit here most of the time
Chris Carpenter RHP Cy Young Stuff - Staff Ace
Mark Mulder LHP Write it down - 15+ wins
Jeff Suppan RHP Still the best bang for the buck on the team
Jason Marquis RHP Cardinals expecting more from Marquis this season
Sidney Ponson RHP His job to lose
Jason Isringhausen RHP He's not perfect, but he's close
Ricardo Rincon LHP An upgrade over Ray King?
Braden Looper RHP Set up man, back-up closer
Brad Thompson RHP Here to stay
Tyler Johnson LHP Facing competition from veteran Jeff Nelson
Randy Flores LHP Cardinals carry seven in bullpen & three lefties, he should be here
Anthony Reyes RHP Cardinals will ignore my advice, Reyes should start either in St. Louis or at Memphis.

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