Cardinals Working to Strengthen Bullpen

The Pittsburgh Pirates' left-handed closer Mike Gonzalez and the New York Mets' right-handed reliever Aaron Heilman are reportedly among the St. Louis Cardinals' top trade targets as Monday's 4:00 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline approaches.

Mike Gonzalez

The Pittsburgh Pirates being mired in last place, 19 games out of first in the National League Central, means they should be sellers as Monday's non-waiver trade deadline approaches.

The Bucs have a number of free agents to-be that they would reportedly like to move, including first baseman Sean Casey, third baseman Joe Randa, outfielders Jeromy Burnitz and Craig Wilson and pitchers Kip Wells and Roberto Hernandez.

However, sources have informed me that the Cardinals' trade target is none of the above, but is instead the Pirates' first-year closer, left-hander Mike Gonzalez.

That the Pirates would consider trading him is a mild surprise. That the Cardinals apparently want him is not.

The 28-year-old left-hander has a fastball that hits 98 miles per hour, complimented by a sharp slider. However, his bugaboo is lack of control. Gonzalez has allowed 40 hits and 29 walks in 45 innings pitched this season.

Over his two-and-a-half year career, Gonzalez is carrying a nifty 2.52 ERA and can get the key strikeout when needed. The Texas native has fanned 168 batters in 146-2/3 innings pitched.

Coming into this season, his career marks against lefties (.184) and righties (.212) are both impressive. Gonzalez does it in the clutch too, with a .188 opposing batting mark with runners in scoring position and an even .200 with the bases loaded.

Gonzalez aspired to become the Bucs' closer and accomplished his goal when their top fireman in 2005, Jose Mesa, was not retained. Gonzalez was originally drafted by the Pirates in both 1996 and 1997 and has been in their organization his entire career except for one week in July, 2003. He went to the Red Sox in a trade, only to come right back to the Pirates a few days later as Jeff Suppan and others headed to Boston.

The Cardinals are motivated to augment their left-handed relief. Free agent acquisition Ricardo Rincon was lost for the season due to injury and Randy Flores has had a balky elbow. Rookie Tyler Johnson has not demonstrated the necessary consistency to be counted upon in October and would seem to be the odd man out if Gonzalez is acquired.

If Gonzalez makes it into the fold, he offers Walt Jocketty some interesting flexibility.

From a salary perspective, Gonzalez would be a great acquisition. With only two years of service coming into this season, Gonzalez is making just $347,000. He becomes arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, but cannot become a free agent until after the 2009 season.

Assuming Gonzalez will still want to close, could he become the heir-apparent to replace Jason Isringhausen? Though respectable this season, Braden Looper hasn't yet looked like closer material in his second Cardinals tour of duty.

While Izzy is under contract through 2007 with a 2008 option or buyout, could he be moved in the off-season to free up salary to address other team needs?

Aaron Heilman

Baseball Prospectus reported Sunday night that the Mets are discussing shipping reliever Aaron Heilman to the Cardinals in return for free-agent-to-be Jason Marquis.

I don't have confirmation of this deal, but it makes tremendous sense for both teams.

Despite the Mets having the best record in the National League, most observers believe they need to shore up their starting pitching. Marquis is a native of nearby Staten Island, New York and would be a great match for the Mets.

Earlier rumors had the Mets pursuing Barry Zito of the A's, but apparently the asking price of top prospect Lastings Milledge plus Heilman isn't going to fly. Instead, have the Mets lowered their sights to Marquis?

For the Cardinals to be willing to trade Marquis, it says two things. First, either they have another deal for a starter lined up or they think Mark Mulder can return to the rotation from his shoulder ailment and contribute down the stretch. It also may signal that the Cardinals believe Marquis' upcoming free agency could price him out of their salary comfort zone.

Heilman, a 27-year-old right-hander, was the Mets first-round pick, 18th overall, in the 2001 draft after spurning the Twins when drafted in the first round in 2000. He reached Triple-A by 2002. By 2003, Baseball America tabbed Heilman as the Mets' #3 prospect, just after Jose Reyes and Scott Kazmir and just ahead of David Wright.

He throws a 92-93 MPH sinking fastball, with a splitter as his out pitch. Heilman also has a slider and a change up in his repertoire, both considered above average.

At that time, 2003, BA forecast Heilman having the potential to become the Mets' #2 starter by 2006. However, something happened along the way. He was given five starts in 2004 and seven in 2005 by the Mets before being put in the bullpen, where he has thrived. Yet, Heilman had been quoted in the past as saying that he prefers to start.

With four-fifths of the Cardinals' current rotation free-agent eligible at the end of the season, could they be thinking of Heilman just like Adam Wainwright - a reliever today and a low-cost, high-upside starter in the future?

If I have figured this out, you can bet the Cardinals have, too.

On the salary front, Heilman makes just $359,000, but may become a Super Two at the end of this season, in which case he would become arbitration-eligible for the first time. Even so, he would be under team control until at least 2010.

This deal makes so much sense for both sides that it probably won't happen. But, it should.

In conclusion

Both of these rumored acquisitions would help the Cardinals staff get younger and better, addressing needs today while setting up the future, and also stretching salary dollars in the process.

Assuming the cost of acquiring Gonzalez in terms of prospects is reasonable, I endorse both these rumored deals.

Will one or both actually occur? We'll have to see what Monday brings.

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

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