Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are a prime example of the importance of a team’s bullpen. They’ve got Albert Pujols, who is probably the best player of our generation. They’ve got Yadier Molina, the NL Gold Glove winner at catcher for the last three years and a starter in the All-Star game for each of the last two. They’ve got Chris Carpenter, a former Cy Young winner who came in second to Tim Lincecum in voting for the award in 2009, and Adam Wainwright, who finished third in ’09 and then stepped up to second place behind Roy Halladay last season. However, each of these All-Stars watched 2010’s postseason from the comfort of their couches, largely due to the fact that the Cardinals’ bullpen was the third-worst in baseball last year.

Cardinals relievers put up only 0.3 WAR last season, led by Jason Motte’s 0.6. Closer Ryan Franklin had a WAR of 0.3, and other than that pretty much everybody was at or below replacement level. The bullpen put up only 6.74 K/9, worst in the NL. Clearly, it’s an issue, but so far, the only addition to the bullpen they’ve made is Brian Tallet, who was outrighted by the Blue Jays after putting up a FIP of 6.96 and –1.3 WAR.

Although this year’s relief market got a little crazy, the Cardinals should’ve dipped in and strengthened the weakest facet of a team with every opportunity to contend for a playoff spot. They’re already above $100 million in payroll for 2011, marking the first time they’ll break the 9-digit barrier. They added Lance Berkman for $8 million, and re-signed Jake Westbrook for $8 million this year and $8.5 million in 2012. That money could have been better allocated to the bullpen, either between a few pickups or by making a big splash on a multiyear deal for a big name.

They could have added any of a few guys on one-year deals for a chunk of that $16 million. Hard-throwing Kyle Farnsworth will be making $3.25 million next year in Tampa, after putting up a stellar 3.06 FIP with 8.49 K/9 in 2010. Jon Rauch is getting $3.5 million after a 2.94 FIP in 2010. Digging deep into the bargain bin, Denny Bautista signed a minor league deal with the Mariners after experiencing a spike in his walk rate that jumped his FIP from 3.61 in 2009 to 4.68 in 2010. However, he’s got NL Central experience, as he spent 2009 with the Pirates, and his 11.76 K/9 was one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball last year. On a minor league deal, there’s really not a lot of downside, so he could have been a very solid add for the Cards.

However, if they wanted to dive in a little deeper, several ace relievers hit the market and received three-year deals for $4-5 million per year. While that’s a little steep, these are proven relief aces with the ability to singlehandedly solidify a bullpen. Rafael Soriano was probably out of their price range, but Joaquin Benoit, Scott Downs, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier were all attractive options in the $15 million for three years range. Downs and Guerrier were both Type A’s, meaning they would have taken a draft pick to sign. For me, that makes them much less attractive options, as next year’s draft class is one of the strongest in years. Benoit went for $3.5 million more than Crain, but for me, the difference is worth it. Benoit had a FIP of 2.43 last year, with a stellar 11.19 K rate to go along with a strong walk rate and ridiculous peripherals across the board. Crain’s 3.45 FIP and 8.21 K/9 were solid, but I’d pay the extra million or so a year for Benoit. Though $16.5 million is a little absurd for a non-closing reliever, Benoit is the Cardinals’ Perfect Pickup, because on a team as relief-starved as St. Louis, he’d be worth the cash.

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