Fernando Salas could be St. Louis Cardinals most important reliever in late-July

St. Louis Cardinals right-handed reliever Fernando Salas returned to the team Friday to start the second half of the regular season after a 56-day stint on the disabled list.  The results of his first outing weren’t pretty but the Cardinals need Salas to pitch well possibly more than any pitcher in their bullpen.

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Salas allowed a run on two hits and a walk in the eighth inning Friday in a 9-6 win over the San Diego Padres in his first appearance since he went on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation May 22 after the Cardinals finished a three-game series against the Padres in San Diego.

Up to that point, Salas had plenty of less-than-stellar performances. He took a 3.86 earned-run average to the disabled list with him, and that was his lowest ERA of the season. He allowed runs in three of his first four outings but then settled down to become positive part of the bullpen.

He needs to pitch to that form to help the Cardinals in the second half of the season, but he could also be a valuable trade chip if he pitches well in the next two weeks.

The Cardinals had the best record in the Major League Baseball at 58-36 heading into play Saturday but still have room to make some improvements. They could use another starter or a shortstop, but any team on the other end of the deal is almost certainly going to ask the Cardinals to part with one of their dominant, young pitchers.

Whether it’s Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, Michael Blazek, Michael Wacha or Keith Butler, the Cardinals have an incredible stockpile of pitching talent in their organization that could keep the team competitive for years to come, or the Cardinals could use it for short-term gains that could be the difference in a run toward the 2013 World Series championship.

The Cardinals would likely have to part with at least one of those afore-mentioned pitchers to complete a trade for a top-tier player such as Philadelphia Phillies left-handed starter Cliff Lee or Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubel Cabrera, but Salas might provide enough value to lessen the load of young pitchers the Cardinals would have to give up in a trade.

Although Salas has been a valuable part of the Cardinals bullpen for the past three seasons, he does not have the potential of nearly all of the Cardinals rookies who could be the core of one of baseball’s best pitching staffs since the Phillies loaded their rotation with Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.

And the Cardinals group would have youth on their side. None of the six rookie pitchers are older than 24 years old. Right-handed starter Shelby Miller is just 22 years old, but he and 23-year-old right-handed reliever Trevor Rosenthal have made so much of a positive impact already the Cardinals would be very unlikely to make either available in a trade.

Salas is 28 years old and hasn’t ever shown the dominant stuff many of his younger teammates bring into a game on a regular basis, but he has been a solid reliever for the Cardinals throughout his career and even saved 24 games in the 2011 season that ended with a World Series title.

But it was Jason Motte who closed out games in the World Series, the postseason and much of the final month of the season when the Cardinals made their remarkable comeback from 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the wild-card spot with about six weeks to play.

What was true then is true now. Salas pitches well more often than not, but the Cardinals have more talented pitchers around him. And that makes him expendable.

The big question is if any team would find Salas to be a quality piece to a trade. He almost certainly isn’t valuable enough to warrant a one-for-one trade. The Cardinals would probably have to add him into a trade with one of the other young pitchers.

Whether or not they decide to make that type of move will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the next 10 days.

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