There is no major question about how much money the Cardinals will spend this off-season. Their payroll for 2012 almost certainly will land in the $110 million range, give or take a few million, just a small increase from this year’s total.
The important question is, How will they spend all of those millions?
Last winter it was all about the offense. The Cardinals’ braintrust admitted they were willing to make sacrifices on defense, believing the expected extra offensive boost would make up for those shortcomings.
Through Sunday, that “extra” offense amounted to less than 1/4thof an extra run per game, an average of 4.7 runs a game instead of 4.5 runs a game scored by the Cardinals in 2010. The result is that the Cardinals most likely will fall short of the playoffs once again, now trailing the Brewers by 9 ½ games in the NL Central and the Braves by 8 ½ games in the wild card race with 22 games to play.
So as the planning begins to determine their spending priorities for 2012, here’s some unsolicited advice for Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak and company:
Go get pitching, pitching and more pitching.
All it takes is one look at the current National League standings, and a check back at the results of the past few seasons, to realize that pitching is what wins games. Home runs are nice, and fans really like the fireworks, but if a team wants to win, pitching is paramount.
The best team in baseball, the Phillies, leads the NL with a 3.08 ERA. The Giants, the worst offensive team in the league, have stayed in contention in the NL West because of a 3.15 team ERA. The Braves follow with a 3.35 ERA.
Before one thinks this is a one-year aberration, consider that the Giants led the league in ERA in 2010 and won the World Series. The Dodgers led in ERA in 2009 and 2008 and lost in the NLCS both years.
The Cardinals came into Sunday’s game with a 3.91 ERA, 10th in the NL, up nearly half a run, from the team’s combined 3.57 ERA, which ranked fourth in the league, and nearly half a run per game below the league average. If the Cardinals hold on to their current spot among NL teams, it would be their worst ERA ranking since the 2007 staff finished 11th in the league with a 4.65 ERA.
That information kind of makes their league-leading batting average and league-leading runs total a little less important.
Another fact which shows it is even more important than ever to improve the pitching staff — if the Cardinals want to contend in 2012 — is the NL trend which has seen the league’s average ERA decline every year since 2006. The 2011 season could mark the first time the league’s composite ERA drops below 4.00 since 1992 – meaning that at a time when the Cardinals’ numbers are getting worse, the other team’s numbers are getting better.
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While no one is suggesting the Cardinals come close to matching what the Phillies spend on starting pitching – a combined $65 million this year for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton – they should be able to be competitive with the other top pitching clubs in the league – the Giants, Braves and Brewers.
The Giants’ starters this year earned a combined $44 million, the Brewers $31 million and the Braves just under .$30 million, although both of those totals will no doubt increase due to raises for their own pitchers in 2012.
After picking up Adam Wainwright’s $9 million option for 2012, the Cardinals have $33 million committed to four starting pitchers for 2012 – Wainwright, Kyle Lohse ($12.2 million), Jake Westbrook ($8.5 million) and Jaime Garcia ($3.3 million). Chris Carpenter has a $15 million option, or $1 million buyout, as well.
If the Cardinals choose to buy out Carpenter, and try to re-negotiate a new contract, they basically will have about $38 million at their disposal if they keep the total team payroll near this year’s total.
That extra money, of course, comes from Carpenter and not re-signing Albert Pujols and Ryan Theriot, which brings up the biggest question facing the Cardinals this winter – do they want to keep Pujols, or do they want to win?
From a simple economic standpoint it doesn’t seem possible to do both.
If Pujols had not hit free agency until after 2013 or so, it might have been possible because the Cardinals’ farm system is loaded with young talented pitchers, but all of them except Shelby Miller are probably at least two years away from arriving in St. Louis. That stable of good, cheap talent would allow the Cardinals to spend a higher percentage of their payroll on one player, but it just doesn’t seem possible for 2012 – if the priority is to win. Those pitchers are now in Class A ball or lower, and the fact is the Double A Springfield staff, even with Miller, had the worst ERA in the Texas League and allowed the most walks and most home runs in the league this season. Their bullpen also blew 25 saves. Almost all of the pitchers at Triple A Memphis are not prospects.
There is no question that Pujols is a Hall of Fame player and a great citizen of St. Louis. But what we have learned, once again, over the past five seasons is that baseball is not, never has been and never will be a one-man game. As great as Pujols has been the last five years – including two MVP awards – the Cardinals have won zero playoff games in that time span.
If they can re-sign Lance Berkman for a reasonable increase over the $8 million he made this year, the Cardinals have a short-term answer to replace Pujols in the lineup. Their long-term answer might be 23-year-old Matt Adams, the Texas League Player of the Year this season who hit 32 homers and drove in 101 runs to go along with a .304 average at Springfield. Allen Craig can take over Berkman’s place in right field.
The Cardinals need to make the tough choice that it will be much wiser to make those moves and take the money it would cost to re-sign Pujols and re-sign Carpenter to a lesser contract, go sign another starting pitcher and a closer. A new shortstop would be nice too, but let’s try not to be greedy.
There will be four above-average left-handers on the market this winter, C.C. Sabathia, C.J. Wilson, Cole Hamels and Mark Buehrle. Because of his St. Louis connections, and the fact he likely would take a shorter contract, Buehrle has to be the focus of the Cardinals’ attention, and sooner rather than later.
Getting Carpenter to come back for less money would also be a plus, allowing the team to explore what the market could possibly bring by trading either Westbrook or Lohse. A starting rotation for 2012 of Wainwright, Buehrle, Carpenter, Garcia and either Westbrook or Lohse would definitely be an upgrade over the 2011 rotation.
How good is Buehrle, who will be 33 next March? Before having his worst start of the year Sunday night against the Tigers, he had gone 10-3 in his previous 20 starts for the White Sox and had the second best ERA in the American League since May 1. Justin Verlander was at 2.04 since that date, Buehrle was at 2.47 before the Tigers erupted for seven earned runs against him in just 3 1/3 innings.
As for the bullpen, Sunday’s 10th inning loss to the Reds marked the 22nd time this season the Cardinals have lost a game in the opponent’s final at-bat. The Cardinals’ total of 23 blown saves is tied for the second highest total in the NL, behind Washington’s 25. The Phillies have six blown saves all season.
The best closer on the market this winter will be Heath Bell, but others to consider would include Jonathan Papelbon and Matt Capps. Bell and Papelbon have had the most success and experience in their careers, but also will cost the most. Capps has not had a great year this season with the Twins, saving 15 of 23 opportunities while splitting the job with Joe Nathan, but he is 31 of 41 the last two years and is only 29 years old.
It will not be easy for the Cardinals to say goodbye to Pujols. Many fans no doubt will protest and be upset. Winning, however, will calm them down and bring them back to Busch Stadium.
And as history shows, the road to the pennant starts on the pitching mound.
Head over to RobRains.com to read Rob’s notes on the rest of Major and Minor League Baseball.