Izzy or Isn't He Worth the Cash? – Part Two

Continuing the series on the value of the Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen compared to the marketplace and recommending what could be done about it.

In Part One of this report, the Rolaids Relief Man Award standings were used to illustrate something most Cardinals fans already know all too well – among baseball's top closers, Jason Isringhausen is the worst value around.

"Tell me something I don't already know", you ask.

OK, but first of all, I need to modify a statement I made in Part One. I suggested that New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is overpaid, just like Izzy.

On a level playing field, looking at all closers relative to each other, that would be an accurate observation. However, team payrolls across Major League Baseball range on a scale from one to an incredible 13 times higher. Specifically, the $15 million Florida Marlins are dwarfed by the $195 million New York Yankees. (Not to belabor the point, but the Yanks have added considerably more payroll since that $195M mark was calculated in April.)

At any rate, I divided the salary of the top ten closers from the Rolaids standings into their teams' total payrolls. This illustrates what percent of the teams' spending is used on the closer position. In that analysis, Rivera and the Yankees together are only ranked sixth in the game, with the closer receiving just 5.4% of the Yankees' bloated payroll.

Closer to home, not surprisingly, Jason Isringhausen's salary, taking up 9.9% of the Cardinals' budget, is second-highest in the game as a percent of the total team payroll. That is between two and three times higher than the average team with one of the top closers (3.9%).

'06 Rank Name Team % Team Salary
1 Billy Wagner Mets

10.4%

2 Jason Isringhausen Cardinals

9.9%

3 Todd Jones Tigers

7.0%

4 Trevor Hoffman Padres

6.4%

5 Joe Nathan Twins

6.0%

6 B.J. Ryan Blue Jays

5.6%

7 Mariano Rivera Yankees

5.4%

8 Tom Gordon Phillies

5.1%

9 Brian Fuentes Rockies

4.9%

10 Ryan Dempster Cubs

4.6%

11 Brad Lidge Astros

4.3%

  Top 20 MLB average  

3.9%

I will let others continue to rattle their sabers attacking Cardinals ownership on the team's total salary budget. For the subject of Izzy's contribution, it doesn't really matter that much. Here's why.

For the percent of Izzy's salary to drop just a bit in compared to the Cardinals total salary – say to the 7% level of the next highest-paid closer compared to his team, the Detroit Tigers' Todd Jones – the Cardinals payroll would need to be increased to a totally-unrealistic $125 million.

As a side point, but a very important one, let's not forget that the paying the existing players doesn't stand still from year to year. Most of the incumbents on the Cardinals roster are due increases for 2007 already built into their contracts. That includes core players Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter, as well as key cogs like David Eckstein, Juan Encarnacion and Braden Looper.

Since the Cardinals payroll isn't going to increase by $30 million or more next season, what could be done to get the closer's salary into line and potentially assist in covering increases to these other players or increase the coffers to acquire help via trades or free agency? That is why we're here.

I think you have figured out by now that my basic premise remains that the Cardinals simply cannot afford Jason Isringhausen. I believed that to be the case three years ago and I still believe it today.

While it won't happen during the season, I believe the Cardinals should trade Izzy as soon as possible.

By the time the 2007 season rolls around, Izzy will have become a "ten-and-five man". That means he has at least ten years of service as a major leaguer, at least five of which with his current team. Unless the new labor agreement between MLB and the players due this December changes this, soon Izzy could not be traded without his permission.

What makes this an easier discussion now is that there are readily-available alternatives for a post-Izzy Cardinal team.

Last off-season, Braden Looper was signed to return to the Cardinals and has been given much of this season to recover from his off-season surgery and grow accustomed to his new-old team and role. While his start to the 2006 season was spotty, recently Looper has been effective in crucial situations, including two excellent outings against his former team, the Mets, in New York last week.

If Looper can handle the screaming, booing New Yorkers, he may in fact be ready to return to his closing duties. After all, the Cardinals have committed $4.5 million in 2007 and $5.5 million in 2008 to him.

Put another way – only three closers in the game make more in 2006 than Looper's 2007 salary as a set-up man – Rivera, Billy Wagner and of course, Izzy.

But, what about Looper's Achilles heel - his well-documented difficulty with left-handed hitters – a problem that contributed mightily to him being run out of Flushing last season?

That is where Walt Jocketty and the Cardinals screwed up big-time, if one of my sources is accurate. As noted here on July 31st in the story "Cards Working to Strengthen Bullpen", the team was after not only lefty Rheal Cormier, who ended up in Cincinnati, but also Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez, who also throws from the port side.

I cooled on Cormier when I learned that he wanted a 2007 contract extension for $2.25 million as a condition of approving his trade from Philadelphia. After all, Cormier turns 40 next spring. If I was Jocketty, I would not give a multi-year deal to a 40-year old relief specialist. Let him come in, prove himself and if he did a good job the rest of the way, I'd talk 2007 after the season.

That could be why Cormier isn't a Cardinal today, as I was told the Cards had the first rights to the deal but walked away from it. That is ok, but the Mike Gonzalez story is far more troubling.

My source indicates that like Cormier, the Cardinals could have had Gonzalez but Walt declined to pull the trigger. The reason offered was that Tony La Russa's and Dave Duncan's input was not supportive. Incredibly, the presented argument was that the coaching braintrust didn't want three potential closers on the team at the same time.

I have to hope that isn't true.

After all, the 28-year-old Gonzalez has a fastball that hits 98 miles per hour, complimented by a sharp slider. He is adept at getting both lefties and righties out, has very good numbers in the clutch and averages considerably higher than one strikeout per inning.

He is also a bargain. Gonzalez had only two years of service coming into this season and 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.

Trading Izzy over the winter for salary relief makes all the sense in the world in this scenario. Letting Gonzo and Looper battle it out for the closer's role or go with them as a lefty and righty combination in 2007 would make perfect sense.

And here in 2006, the team would have addressed a major problem with left-handed relief that neither Randy Flores nor Tyler Johnson seem able to handle.

But, it didn't happen. Gonzalez remained with Pittsburgh and with just a few precious hours remaining in the trading season, it looks as if Jocketty is standing pat with his current pen.

But, would Walt ever trade Isringhausen, a La Russa and Duncan favorite, anyway?

Think about the trades over the years that have made Jocketty famous. With the exception of the deal for J.D. Drew, about whom anyone who has read "Three Nights in August" knows had lost the respect of his manager, can you name one where Walt traded a star away from the Cardinals? 99% of the time, it seems that he scores an Edmonds or a Rolen or a McGwire in return for spare parts.

I asked a former Cardinals player what insiders have observed about the dynamics around the team's decision-making. He senses that Jocketty is often handcuffed between having to get approval for moves with ownership while catering to the wishes of La Russa and in matters of pitching, securing Dave Duncan's view, also.

Of course, this is an educated opinion, as none of the parties involved would ever confirm this. But, it is a very plausible situation, even though it makes me extremely uncomfortable.

Let's just hope that Walt Jocketty is not as hamstrung as this player thinks he could be or another long, cold winter may be in store for Cardinals fans. Though it was not directly represented this way, taking the worst case, despite the many benefits of Tony La Russa in the dugout which have been well-documented, if the GM doesn't make moves unless the manager approves, the Cardinals cart has clearly been placed in front of the horse.

Now, in all fairness, I feel it necessary to note that that the Pirates placed Mike Gonzalez on the 15-day disabled list this week with left elbow tendinitis. And, Gonzalez has had arm and back problems in the past. But, what players don't have medical risks? Certainly, Izzy and Looper do, too.

As early as at the conclusion the 2003 season, I raised the idea of the Cardinals trading Izzy to help the team elsewhere. Initially, I suggested trying to acquire a second baseman and outfielder from Baltimore back before Tony Womack and Reggie Sanders arrived.

Almost three years later, the names have changed, but the need is pretty much the same. Trading Jason Isringhausen for salary relief to restock second base, bolster the outfield and/or re-arm the rotation for 2007 would be a wiser use of ownership's money than retaining their high-priced closer.

But, the question is, would Walt do it? Could Walt do it? It is soon going to be time for some very tough decisions to be made regarding the future of the Cardinals. I hope he's up to it.

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

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