Sunday Morning Coffee with Ray Mileur

As the pitchers and catchers prepare to report to the spring training complex in Jupiter Florida this week, the search for a closer continues to be the club's top priority.

The snow and ice is melting as the air and ground surfaces rise above freezing temperatures, a sign that baseball is just around the corner, ending the longest winter, baseball offseason in my lifetime. Or perhaps it's just another sign that I'm getting older and the winters just seem longer.

Even thinking back to the past Baseball Winter Meetings, man, that seems like a couple of years ago already. Remember when the meetings opened up in Las Vegas with Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa proclaiming that St. Louis' top priority was to sign closer free agent Brian Fuentes. Remember how that turned out? If I had gone to Vegas, I could have made a couple of bucks betting on that deal not getting done. Not to belabor the point, because I was against signing Fuentes anyway, but, the 33-year-old closer signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels for $17.5 million.

What I'll remember most about this winter is, that while most of Cardinal Nation is up in arms about the Cardinals not making a blockbuster trade or signing a marquee free agent, I've have pretty well gotten my way this winter.

The Cardinals didn't trade Rick Ankiel or Ryan Ludwick; they didn't sign Brian Fuentes, they didn't risk waiting on the empty promise of the return of Mark Mulder, and they didn't sign starter Braden Looper or closer Jason Isringhausen, both deals I was opposed to, despite my respect for Jason Isringhausen, a stand-up guy and one of the all-time greats in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform.

The Cardinals did sign Kyle Lohse to a four-year deal and traded for shortstop Khalil Greene, both deals I would have made in a heartbeat. The club appears to have addressed the bullpen issues signing free agent lefties; Trever Miller and Royce Ring, while claiming lefty Charlie Manning off of waivers from the Washington Nationals.

So that you know that I'm not inebriated, writing while under the influence of Cardinal's Kool Aid, I was not and I'm still not completely on board on Manning and even less so on Ring, so I'm not going to try to sell you on these deals. Neither one are the solutions to the bullpen issues from last season, but on the other hand, they are a minimum risk with these contracts and under the tutelage of pitching coach Dave Duncan, they could potentially be effective members of the bullpen.

The bottom line is, I'm more optimistic than most about the 2009 version of the St. Louis Cardinals, as the pitchers and catchers begin packing for spring training. I still don't think that the Cardinals got the recognition and respect for their 86 wins last season. I know a fourth place finish is hard to swallow, especially when it's the Chicago Cubs hosting the National League Central Division pennant in Wrigley Field, but the Cardinals 86 wins would have been good enough for a NL West pennant, even though I know that doesn't bring much comfort or ease the pain for most fans.

Pitchers and catchers report in to camp this Friday with the first workout coming on Saturday, February 14th, Valentine's Day. (That must go over well with the women folk. I guess it's better being in their doghouse than in La Russa's, you have to live with La Russa longer).

Wednesday, it will be two months since the close of the 2008 Winter Meetings and the Cardinals who took a pass on Brian Fuentes are still looking for a closer as their top priority. Opting to go in-house for a closer, the team will consider young guns Chris Perez or Jason Motte, or settle for a closer-by-committee with veterans like Ryan Franklin, Josh Kinney or Trever Miller.

Every spring you hear manager Tony La Russa talk about the competition for positions is good for the club, but just between you and me, I've never bought into this spring training competition thing. Personally, I think most of the Cardinals roster decisions are made well in advance with little weight given to spring training stats, etc., unless a player/pitcher is just a total bust.

Duncan and La Russa have both expressed their concerns about having confidence in either Chris Perez or Jason Motte being the closer this season. La Russa, more so than even Duncan, has lobbied the front office this winter for a veteran closer to be signed as a bridge to Perez or Motte.

I'm getting a sense a decision has been made and that the Cardinals are leaning towards the bullpen-by- committee approach, with Ryan Franklin leading the way with fellow veterans; Josh Kinney & Trever Miller in the bullpen as his backups. I wouldn't be surprised to see Perez or Motte, or even both, start the season at Triple-A Memphis. If Perez is going to be the closer of the future, they may want to have him pitch more often then he would get the opportunity in the Cardinals bullpen and as to Motte, they want him to work on his slider to compliment his fastball or develop another secondary pitch.

Last season the Cardinals bullpen blew 31 saves and was saddled with 31 losses, with nine different pitchers collecting saves. If you ever served on a committee, nine members is about eight members too many if you ask me. Ryan Franklin led the staff with 17 saves, but he also blew 10 saves. If it wasn't for the fact that Franklin was a proven veteran, the committee approach would probably be abandoned and the ball handed over to either Perez or Motte, with me giving a slight edge to Motte. You can almost be sure Motte or Perez wouldn't be considered as potential closer candidates if either one of them had blown 10 saves last season.

It could be a very interesting spring training this year, because if Perez and Motte are both lights out, like they have the potential to be, Duncan and La Russa may be directed by the front office to carry both of them on the 25-man roster to start the season and to abandon the closer-by-committee decision.

The bottom line is, this is a better ballclub then it was last season and they should improve upon the 86 win totals from ‘08 and be competitive till the end, returning to the playoffs this year.

HOT STOVE LEAGUE UPDATE

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told reporters on Wednesday that little progress has been made with arbitration-eligible outfielders Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick. "There's not a whole lot to comment on," Mozeliak said. "Right now we're just preparing. I think if there is a settlement before we enter in, it would be a [last-minute] type of thing."

Both players are pretty far apart in negotiations with the club. Ludwick asked for $4.25MM and was offered $2.8MM, while Ankiel asked for $3.3MM and the Cardinals countered with $2.35MM. The Cardinals had hope they might come to terms with Ludwick to avoid a hearing, expecting to have to go the whole nine yards with Ankiel, who is represented by Scott Boras, but now it appears they will have an arbitration hearing on both which is outside the norm, considering the Cardinals hadn't had an arbitration hearing since 1999.

Former St. Louis Cardinals Jason Isringhausen and Braden Looper are both still free agents. Looper could end up in Baltimore or Los Angeles with the Dodgers, but I don't get a sense Isringhausen is close to signing with anyone. Could he still sign a one-year deal with St. Louis? I'd say so.

Chris Carpenter appears to be healthy and could be ready to pitch on opening day. The Cardinals won a World Series the last time Carpenter was healthy, missing the playoffs the last two seasons when he wasn't. I have a lot more confidence this time in him being ready, than I did last season.

The Cardinals had talked to free agent pitcher Randy Wolf this winter, Wolf agreed to a one-year deal for $5 million with the Dodgers on Friday. The deal contains several incentives based on innings pitched and would maximize at $8 million if Wolf reaches the 200-inning plateau - something he hasn't done since 2003.

I never thought the Cardinals were going to sign Wolf; I wasn't for the deal even though there has been a concern about Carpenter being ready to start the season. I would have gone with Kyle McClellan or even Brad Thompson, if the team needed a starter for April, until Carpenter would be ready to take the ball, rather than signing Wolf or someone else.

Talk about what a difference a year or two makes. Former Atlanta outfielder Andruw Jones is reportedly close to signing a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers, this coming after he turned down a minor league contract with the New York Yankees earlier last week.

Jones, the 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, hit a meager .158 last season after signing a two-year deal worth $36.2 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers before being released by the Dodgers this winter with a year still left on his contract.

Jones is a reminder to me why I'm a big supporter in the Cardinals focusing on developing their farm system and building from within; I can't imagine St. Louis being in the position where they would just dump somebody with a year remaining on a two-year $36.2 million dollar contract. See Adam Kennedy.

Manny Ramirez remains unsigned despite his whining about nobody wanting to sign him. Of course the Dodgers did offer him a one-year deal recently for $25 million, an offer that Ramirez abruptly turned down. Ramirez doesn't apparently feel wanted, or wanted enough.

One thing for sure is Ramirez isn't coming to St. Louis despite Albert Pujols' pleas on the behalf of the superstar slugger, who sometimes needs GPS to track down a fly ball. Ramirez is trying to pit the Giants and the Dodgers in a bidding war for his services, I don't see that happening this time around.

Other big names in the news, and signs that I'm getting older; the Atlanta Braves have offered future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine a one-year contract worth between $1 million and $2 million. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez is still without a job, but the Marlins are said to be considering him as their last free-agent signing, according to a Miami Sun-Sentinel reports. It sounds like the deal hinges on Pudge's willingness to take a discounted contract of around $1 million plus incentives.





Ray Mileur can be reached via email at raymileur@yahoo.com.

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