Looking for a Lefty

The St. Louis Cardinals want a left-handed starter in their 2007 rotation. But, who might it be and how could he be acquired?

My sources tell me that the St. Louis Cardinals badly want to have a left-handed pitcher as a part of their 2007 starting rotation. This isn't a big stretch to believe, as it is a hallmark of a balanced staff anywhere and a consistent La Russa-Duncan desire, as well.


Now, I am not talking about 1998, a time when the Cardinals had three lefties open the season in their five-man rotation (Kent Mercker, Darren Oliver and Donovan Osborne), but more often than not in the years before and since, they've had their lefty ready to go every fifth day.  


The last two seasons, that role has been played by now-free agent Mark Mulder. The big left-hander has elicited a lot of interest around baseball despite the recovery from his recent shoulder surgery expecting to carry well into the 2007 regular season.


Whether or not the Cardinals offer arbitration to Mulder on Friday, odds remain better than 50-50 that he will be wearing another uniform come 2007.


For those who think Chris Narveson has a good chance to make the rotation next season, you may be too optimistic. Righthanders Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright (if he is returned to starting) will experience enough growing pains for one manager and pitching coach to stomach as it is.


As one would expect, the Cardinals have reportedly already been working on left-handed starter alternatives. The purpose of this piece is to widen the nets to see if we can surmise who Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty might be considering.


While what left-handed suspicions that have been voiced elsewhere have mostly been about free agents, I remain less convinced the Cardinals can compete there. With the amounts involved in each free agent signing more absurd than the ones preceding it, I am not sure the Cards can land one of the top lefties on the open market. And, to be honest, I am not sure I want them to overspend by the amount necessary to do so.


Top free agent lefties


In addition to Mulder, the top four left-handed starting pitchers on the market are Andy Pettitte, Barry Zito, Tom Glavine and Ted Lilly. Three of the four, except Lilly (Type B), are Type A free agents, meaning the signing team will likely forfeit a first or second round draft pick as compensation.


Each of these players' situations has its own idiosyncrasies, making the free agent unlikely to become a Cardinal.


Zito, a former member of Oakland's vaunted "Big Three" like Mulder, is expected by many to break the bank this off-season. Agent Scott Boras is expected to extract a minimum of $15 million per year on a multi-year deal for Zito, perhaps from the New York Mets or another deep-pocketed team. Along with righty Jason Schmidt, Zito is expected to define the market for the rest of the free-agent arms.


Pettitte, late of the Houston Astros, has been afflicted with the same indecision disease that his close buddy Roger Clemens has suffered from in recent years. Will he come back or will he not? Fact is that according to the Elias Rankings used by MLB, Pettitte is the top-ranked free agent at any position across the entire game this off-season. It won't be Zito money, but it will be big.


Tom Glavine says he wants to either come back to the Mets or return to his original club, the Atlanta Braves. Turning 41 before next season and just ten wins away from 300 in his illustrious career, Glavine deserves to do just that and retire to a likely Hall-of-Fame bid.


Ted Lilly, formerly of Toronto, seems a bit like Chris Carpenter was a few years back. Folks know he is there, but have not yet seen a demonstration of excellence to excite them. However, in today's crazy market, contract estimates for the career 59-58, 4.60 ERA pitcher are in the four years, $40 million range already.


OK, so if Walt can't (or won't) sign a portsider, from where will he get one?


The trade market


The most likely source is via trade. With most of the rest of his 2007 roster locked up and money still to spend, Jocketty could go after a big-bucks free-agent righty and trade for his lefty. His primary bargaining chits may be a bullpen arm or two plus disgruntled outfielder Juan Encarnacion, whose contract with two years remaining has become a relative bargain.


So, where do we begin? Well, my crack research assistant Woody identified 31 left-handed starters from across the game who are not free agents.


We have broken them down into the following categories:


Too important – anchors their team would likely not trade (8):

C.C. Sabathia, Kenny Rogers, Dontrelle Willis, Johan Santana, Scott Kazmir, Jarrod Washburn, Randy Johnson, Chris Capuano.


Too inexpensive – young guns not yet arbitration eligible their team will want to keep (10):

Eric Bedard, Rich Hill, Jeremy Sowers, Joe Saunders, Gustavo Chacin, Francisco Liriano, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Cole Hamels, Chuck James.


Recently re-signed a big contract extension, so probably not moving (3):

Cliff Lee, Jeff Francis, Jamie Moyer.


Not good enough, too old or injury-prone to matter (6):

Sean Marshall, Glendon Rusch, Casey Fossum, Brad Halsey, Joe Kennedy, Mike Hampton.


Possibilities (4):

Mike Maroth, Eric Milton, Mark Buehrle, Horacio Ramirez.


Sadly, most of the lefties are removed from consideration, but there are a few decent names remaining. Let's look into each of this last group further.


Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox – All things considered, the Missouri native would definitely be choice number one. The 27-year-old is part of a Sox organization looking to move a starting pitcher. Buehrle's 2007 deal is for $9.5 million, but he will be free-agent eligible next fall.


On the downside, Buehrle is coming off a rough 2006 during which he posted his first-ever losing record (12-13) and worst ERA (4.99) by a substantial margin. Especially troubling was his 36 home runs allowed. Buehrle has been known for his command and durability, but has having pitched almost 230 innings per season on average over the last six years taken its toll?


Mike Maroth, Detroit TigersSlated to make $2.95 million in 2007 and will also be under control for 2008. The innings-eating lefty only made nine starts due to injury in 2006 and might not have a place in the Tigers' rotation next year. Despite a career 45-60, 4.78 ERA mark for some bad Detroit teams, the 29-year-old is very intriguing possibility, especially if Detroit could get interested in some of the Cardinals' relief arms.


Horacio Ramirez, Atlanta Braves – Earned $2.2 million in 2006 and may be making the Braves very nervous right now over how much he could fetch in an arbitration hearing come February. Would remain under control for 2008 season, too. The Braves and Cards have traded with each other before and the Bravos might be in the market for bullpen help. 


The 27-year-old first burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old in 2003, when he won 12 games and lost just four. However, after posting a stellar 2.28 ERA in the early going in 2004, he missed four months due to shoulder tendinitis. While he won 11 games and pitched over 200 innings in 2005, the sinkerball specialist had three trips to the disabled list in 2006. First, he had a recurrence of a hamstring injury, then his season ended after 76 innings due to a finger tendon problem.


Eric Milton, Cincinnati Reds – When last a free agent two years ago, the Cardinals were reportedly after the now-31-year-old, who has one year to go on his current deal. Pitching consistently well and remaining healthy for the Reds has been a problem for Milton the past two years as it was during his time in Minnesota and Philadelphia previously. I have no inclination the Reds are considering trading Milton and he has $9 million due on his contract for 2007. Let's hope it doesn't come to this.


So, there you have it. Either Jocketty tries to sign an expensive free-agent, or he blasts a decent middle-of-the-rotation starter loose via trade. I am betting on the latter.

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

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