With the Cardinals still in position to take the NL Central in 2011, it’s time to look forward to the second half of the season. The Cards have started out great in the second half and for the future of the team by locking up Jaime Garcia today to a four year extension. It’s amazing that the Cards are still in the race, currently tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the lead in the division with the Pirates one game back and the Reds 4 games back. I say amazing because I really thought that the Brewers would have taken total control at this point. Well, it appears now they will. The Brewers just added K-Rod as their closer from the Mets, moving John Axford to the set-up role. However, if K-Rod closes 21 more games his $17.5 million option will kick in for 2012, so he won’t close too much. What’s amazing about it is that Axford was 23 for 25 in save opportunities, and struck out 53 in 41.1 innings. So, what I want to talk about today is if the Cards have all they need to continue to hang with the Brew Crew, whether or not they will be burned in the end by the games they allowed Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista to get out of hand, and some of the trade rumors.
Starting with the trade rumors, it appears Colby Rasmus might be on the move. Joe Strauss reported yesterday that the Cardinals might reconsider their stance on Rasmus, also adding that Cards GM John Mozeliak “would have to acquire a significant return for Rasmus but may be willing to plumb long-standing interest from the pitching rich Tampa Bay Rays.” I’ve been a supporter of Rasmus for a long time, and was worried last year that his feud with would Tony LaRussa get him shipped out. Rasmus started this year out great, but has been struggling for some time now. The only way I would feel good about trading Rasmus is if it brought back a dominant starting pitcher. There are rumors of James Shields being a pitcher the Cardinals covet. On the topic of trade rumors, I’m sure we’ll all be hearing 10 or 12 that have to do with the Cardinals between now and the trade deadline. I imagine if the Cards end up trading Colby, it will be with a team that’s probably not mentioned. However, its fun to fantasize a bit here and there, so let’s assume the one with Shields is true just for a moment.
The problem with that deal is the Rays probably ask for more than Rasmus. Shields is 29, has a career 4.01 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and a SO/9 rate of 7.5. Shields is owed $7, $9, and $12 million through 2014. Shields is having a career year so far in 2011, supporting a 2.33 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and 137 strikeouts in 142.2 IP. Considering Shields is pitching in the AL East, those numbers are very impressive. I think for the Rays to trade Shields they are going to have to be further than 6 games out, and 5 behind the Yankees, which is where they sit now.
I think the most important thing here is to remember that Rasmus is still only 24 years old. The problem for Colby is that he is replacing the best CF the Cardinals ever had in Jim Edmonds. The current leaders for WAR on the Cardinals are Matt Holliday at 3.9, Lance Berkman at 3.0, Albert Pujols at 2.6, and Colby is tied with Yadier Molina at 1.6. With that in mind, Colby isn’t producing as poorly as some would have you think. Every move Colby makes he is compared against Edmonds. The upside of Jon Jay is nowhere close to Rasmus in my opinion and I would like to see the Cardinals give Colby a little more time to put it all together, but again, it depends on what they can get in return. With Pujols playing his last year in St. Louis in my opinion, I think the Cardinals need to consider keeping Colby as part of the core with Matt Holliday. On the other side, if they think they can get a #1 starter for Colby, I think you have to make the deal. Pitching wins championships, period. The San Francisco Giants are leading the NL West once again in 2011, and no player on their team has more than 8 home runs.
Currently, the best three teams in the NL are the Phillies, Braves and Giants. The best team ERA in the NL is the Phillies in first with 3.02, the Braves second with 3.11 and the Giants third with 3.19. The Cardinals have a team ERA of 3.97 and the Brewers have a 4.06. Those sneaky Pirates have a 3.44.
The next question is where the Cardinals need help the most. With Eduardo Sanchez set to return soon, the Cardinals finally have a bullpen that makes sense. I’ll never fully understand why it took so long for the Cardinals to get rid of Franklin and Batista, and I beat on it like a dead horse, but at least they are finally gone. Fernando Salas is doing a great job as a closer, with a 5-2 record, 16 for 18 in save opportunities, a 2.25 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 44 innings, and a 0.86 WHIP. The Cardinals have found their closer. With Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs and Sanchez backing him up, the bullpen looks good to go for the second half. With Jason Motte as the 5th best option in the bullpen, it’s finally in good shape. The only current problem with the bullpen is from the left side. So, to answer the question of where the Cardinals need the help the most, I think the choice is clear. That clear choice to me is to acquire a starting pitcher and move Kyle McClellan back into the bullpen.
I know McClellan has longed to be a starter and is in the place he wants to be, however, moving him to the bullpen for the rest of the year makes the most sense to me here are my reasons. First off, McClellan was great at getting lefties out, holding them to lower averages than righties.
Next, McClellan had advanced in the bullpen at a rapid pace. Here are his stats in his 3 years in the bullpen along with his stats in 2011 as a starter:
As you can see, McClellan was unique as a RHP in that he fared better against lefties than he did against righties. He has continued to do that as a starter, so far holding LHB’s this year to a .208 BA. The most significant difference is that his strikeouts per 9 innings are way down. With Dave Duncan’s pitch to contact philosophy, that’s not such a bad thing, but then again, I’m not sure it’s allowing McClellan to work as efficiently as he could if he were still in the bullpen. Another thing to take notice of is McClellan’s 2nd and 3rd time through the order. McClellan is not alone in this aspect, as most Cardinals starters are losing it in the third time through the oppositions batting order this year. I’ll give the details of all the Cardinal starters here.
Here is the ERA by inning along with number of innings pitched in that inning in parenthesis:
There’s a lot of helpful information here. First of all, Kyle McClellan has the best ERA among the Cardinals starters in the first inning. McClellan also has the worst ERA in the 6th inning, normally about the time that hitters start seeing pitchers for the third time. Jake Westbrook’s numbers are bad across the board, as he has only managed to make it to the 8th inning one time this year. Kyle Lohse also starts to explode in the 6th inning, and Chris Carpenter has his bumps in the 7th inning. The problem with McClellan is that he also takes a lot of lumps in the 4th inning, when hitters are seeing him for the second time.
My point here is that moving McClellan back into the bullpen would help alleviate some of the worries and taking chances when starters are running into trouble. The Cards would have reliable arms throughout the pen, and when the starters start to fade, Tony could make the call a little sooner than he’s been doing.
Since the combination of Trever Miller and Brian Tallet are having problems this year with lefties, it would seem to make the most sense for the Cardinals to move McClellan back into the bullpen for the rest of the year for a couple of reasons already given. Another reason to move McClellan back into the bullpen is that the Cardinals cannot continue to give away games they have in hand because of shortages in the bullpen. If McClellan returns to the pen, you have him along with Lance Lynn as long men to pick up the slack for the Cards biggest weakness, which is having starters go deep into games. Another reason would be to preserve McClellan’s arm. McClellan has pitched 97.2 innings this year, and moving back to the pen would allow him to bridge the gap from 75.1 innings pitched in 2010 to a possible 200 innings in 2012. If McClellan goes back to the pen, he probably finishes with around 130 innings pitched in 2011.
The Brewers have just bridged the gap between Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum to the big 2 in their bullpen in a big way. The Cardinals have to do something to answer. I’m not sure if moving McClellan back into the bullpen and replacing him with a starter that is traded for Colby Rasmus is the answer, but I think it’s one the Cards should consider.