The Cardinals were beginning to slip in the standings as two soft areas of his club as constructed were exposed – left-handed relief pitching and power-hitting offensive depth, while a third, closer, remained unsettled almost all season long. In addition, his injured starters were spending more time in the trainer's room than on the mound.
To that point in time, the rookie GM had received generally-positive marks in this space and around The Cardinal Nation. His non-flashy, but effective off-season moves were positively summarized by the Scott Rolen – Troy Glaus trade, in which a disgruntled, fading player was jettisoned for a more-productive one.
Even when his winter moves didn't work out, Mo came out smelling like a rose. For example, the gamble on bad-shouldered starting pitcher Matt Clement was not terrible in itself. The problem was in the fact the organization had unrealistically penned his name into the middle of their projected 2008 rotation.
As history will remind us, Mr. Clement never once mounted the Busch Stadium mound prior to being released.
In mid-March with his club one starter short and Joel Pineiro dealing with a shoulder problem, Mozeliak went bargain shopping and luckily, the racks were not bare. Kyle Lohse (right) was still looking for a 2008 home and found a match with the Cardinals.
While the Scott Boras client could be playing elsewhere next season if his salary expectations are beyond the Cardinals' willingness to pay, Lohse's fast start (10 wins by the end of June) and durability (a team-leading 33 starts with one more remaining) made him a generally-unheralded lifesaver for this year's Cardinals.
Other players had breakout seasons, especially 36 home run-hitter Ryan Ludwick, while Aaron Miles, Skip Schumaker, Todd Wellemeyer and Yadier Molina each brought their game to a higher level. Veterans like Glaus and Russ Springer quietly delivered day in and day out while Albert Pujols continued to be the most potent offensive force in the game today.
As the deadline approached and the Cardinals were still well-positioned to at least take the wild card if not to threaten for the division lead, their top three National League Central rivals each made strong, aggressive moves to improve their clubs.
First, the Milwaukee Brewers set the tone, trading several top prospects, including their number one, outfielder Matt LaPorta, to the Cleveland Indians on July 7 for less than half a season of reigning American League Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia, an impending free agent.
There is little doubt in my mind that this addition kept the Brew Crew in the hunt longer than they would have been able to sustain without him. Yet the final assessment of this trade may be negative if Milwaukee can't finish strongly enough against the Cubs in Chicago this weekend to finally make the post-season.
The Chicago Cubs responded to the Sabathia trade within 48 hours by prying starter Rich Harden from Oakland in return for little. Sure, Harden is a bonafide injury risk, but like the Brewers' Ben Sheets, when he is pitching, he can be dominant. Unlike Sabathia, Harden is assured of being back next season, too.
When the Houston Astros, languishing in the lower half of the NL Central, traded for left-handed starter Randy Wolf, much of the baseball world asked, "Why?" Anyone familiar with the current standings is aware of the fact that the Cards are now looking up at the Astros in the division.
The Cardinals stubbornly hung their hats on the return of ace Chris Carpenter and emerging ace Adam Wainwright, not to mention the final glimmers of hope that lefty Mark Mulder could return from his shoulder woes. That was clearly not enough to respond in kind to their competitors' moves.
Manager Tony La Russa told me this on July 8. "If we would add another key guy to our club; that would be nice. We've talked about it; you've talked about it…"
After the Cubs trade the next day, La Russa said this. "Both those two teams improved themselves with quality depth in an area they needed it. It is not the best news we've had this year."
Ironically, that was the very same day Mulder (right) was shelled in his only start, in Philadelphia. Yep, the Cubs were saying "hello" to Harden while the Cardinals were whispering "goodbye" to any chances of Mulder helping again in 2008.
La Russa went on to recognize the time value for his rivals in getting their reinforcements early. "Those guys (Sabathia and Harden) are here now. That is a big edge to have the help. I don't get comfort in knowing we have guys coming back later."
Carpenter was able to start only three major league games before being diagnosed with a nerve problem for which the treatment plan is still unclear.
At one point early this month, an overly-optimistic La Russa suggested Carp could become his club's closer for one game per series. Instead, the right-hander pitched in one relief contest, then was promptly shut down for the season.
Wainwright missed two-and-a-half ever-so crucial months with a finger injury. The time was interspersed with not-so-intriguing episodes of "Will he be placed in the bullpen?" Some anxious fans hoped for a reprise of Wainwright's late-season 2006 relief heroics, as those Cardinals steamed to an unlikely World Series victory.
It was not to be, as Carpenter's exit sealed the need for Wainwright to take the ball every fifth day. While the latter pitched admirably in August and early September, it was too little, too late in terms of buoying the sinking ship.
La Russa didn't get that "key guy" he had hoped for, but should receive some votes for Manager of the Year based on his club's results over the initial five months. Without an intimidating roster and dealing with the uncertainties noted above and other injuries not mentioned here, La Russa kept his team in contention into September and mathematically alive until this Tuesday.
With a rotation unable to consistently pitch deep into games, the team's bullpen was regularly needed to get the job done. Too many times they did not. It has been hashed and rehashed, but here are the gruesome facts.
The Cardinals are tied for the Major League lead in games lost by the bullpen with 31 and are second with 30 blown saves. The Cardinals have fallen 12 times in extra innings and have lost 13 walk-off games, both tops in MLB.
This season, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan seemed very sluggish in dealing with the obvious problems of veteran closer Jason Isringhausen. While Izzy was called upon early and often to start the season, he was clearly in trouble by May. It is admirable to stand behind one's players, but that loyalty should not be maintained to the detriment of the team.
Veteran set-up man Ryan Franklin was inserted into the ninth-inning role and despite it being clear the fit was not there, Franklin was sent out again and again. (Even with his Wednesday late-season save, Franklin is just 17 for 24 in save opportunities this season and his ERA as a closer is vastly inferior to when he sets up others.)
Ultimately, Franklin yielded to the return of Isringhausen, who had been sent to Florida for a month to get his act together. Izzy, Part II was as disastrous as Part I. Only then was a non-Franklin alternative tried, rookie Chris Perez, in addition to the Wainwright and later, Carpenter dalliances noted above.
Other needs unmet
Any Tony La Russa club depends on having a pair of left-handed relievers capable of getting one or more outs in a crucial point late in games. Randy Flores held that job in past seasons, but a combination of ineffectiveness and injury landed him in Memphis. A spring non-roster invitee, veteran Ron Villone, was the last lefty standing, but was far from lights-out.
Offensively, for much of the year, the Cardinals were in the unenviable position of being the National League leader in runners stranded on base. A lack of timely hitting has been a constant undercurrent all season long. Time and time again, the runners were there, but no one could get them home.
As the club tried nearly a dozen first-year players called up from Triple-A Memphis in repeated attempts to shore up their offense and pitching, ultimately the in-house help was not enough.
There were no impact players, like a Ryan Braun, waiting in Memphis to become a rookie MLB difference-maker, though Perez and Jason Motte have the potential. So does top prospect Colby Rasmus, out of the 2008 picture due to ineffectiveness, then injury.
Offensively, Joe Mather, Nick Stavinoha and others proved they are not able or at least yet ready to shine in the bigs in a leading role. This led to the unusual situation of La Russa trying four different middle infielders in the outfield during the final month of the season.
While Arizona acquired Adam Dunn, the White Sox traded for Ken Griffey, Jr., the Angels picked up Mark Teixeira and so on, the Cardinals added power threats Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel - to their mounting "lost for the season due to injury" list, that is.
This is where I think the season got away from the Cardinals.
"No trades available"
Ideally, they needed a reliever, a bat and in hindsight, a proven starter to soak up the outings missed by waiting for Wainwright and Carpenter. Mozeliak admitted he tried and failed to acquire a reliever.
The reason stated was that the asking price for such players was too high and the organization would not alter their strategy and risk mortgaging their future. One cannot argue with the concept, but it was always presented as an all or nothing proposition.
To support the position, details of one potential trade were carefully leaked out. The Atlanta Braves allegedly wanted Motte in return for lefty Will Ohman. Wisely, the Cardinals passed.
Yet, I cannot reconcile that EVERY trade possibility was as imbalanced. Not every deal would have had to include one of the organization's top up-and-comers. The team's own recent history confirms that.
Just one year ago, the Cardinals picked up Pineiro (right) off the Boston Red Sox' scrap heap for outfielder Sean Danielson, by my assessment about eighth in the organization's minor league outfield pecking order at the time and surely not ranked among anyone's top Cardinals prospects. Pineiro came in last season with six big wins down the stretch and parlayed his success into a two-year contract.
The year before, in July, 2006, the Cardinals added Jeff Weaver, on the outs in Los Angeles, in return for former 47th-round draft pick, outfielder Terry Evans, who two years later seems to be on a John Gall career path. Everyone knows the spark Weaver added to the 2006 World Champs.
I find it very difficult to accept that there wasn't at least a Pineiro-for-Danielson or Weaver-for-Evans kind of deal out there to be made in the summer of 2008. Did losing Danielson or Evans affect the Cardinals' precious prospect pipeline?
No, such a transaction would not have rocked the baseball world like the Sabathia trade did, but it would have both improved the team and sent a positive signal to players and fans alike.
Even a marginal improvement to a club that was so close to making the playoffs could have been enough. Today, though already eliminated, the Cardinals sit just five games out of the wild card lead.
No one knows the psychological impact to the Cardinals players of seeing their opponents adding key components for a playoff run while they stood pat. As noted above, I was with La Russa after the Brewers and Cubs' deals and his on-the-record comments made it clear that he wanted help for his club - help that did not arrive.
The skipper said this on July 9, "We had our meeting the other day. They (the front office) asked me what I thought (about team needs) and I told them."
At least one team broadcaster tried to smooth this over by suggesting that a club like the Cardinals with so many young players would have preferred to stay together and not see any of their peers traded away.
I say "hogwash!" Chemistry is improved by winning. Getting better players, the right ones at least, increases the chance of winning.
The 2008 Cardinals didn't get that help and at least partly as a result, have missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Some are content knowing the scrappy club remained in contention five months longer than many national pundits predicted, but I will be among those forever left to wonder, "What if?"
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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