How Do You Work This Thing Again?

It’s been a terrible offseason.

Not for the Cardinals, who for the second year in a row took care of their most pressing business before the turkey was placed on the Thanksgiving table.  Not for baseball, with a flurry of moves that stoked the furnace warmer than Nebuchadnezzar on a bad day.  Not even for me personally, as the Christmas season was wonderful for my family, with blessings beyond anything I could ask for.

For me as a blogger, though, it’s stunk.

I wrote the day of the Jason Heyward deal on November 17.  Since then, I’ve had a roundtable transcript, a Q&A post with the answers from John Mozeliak, a song parody, my Cardinal Blogger Awards ballot and a podcast announcement.  That’s it.  Perhaps somewhat interesting each in their own way, but not exactly a lot of discussion or writing there.

It’s been very hard to wake up early, get out of a warm bed on a cold morning, and come fire up this six-year-old computer to write about little activity.  The Cards did sign Matt Belisle and Mark Reynolds, which I should have commented on and will below, but other than that, they’ve not even been really tied to any interesting rumor.  I appreciate those that have been able to write regularly during this time–you are much more creative than I, able to make bricks without straw.

However, the new year approaches and I’ve gotten terribly slack in a lot of things, so it’s time to try to see if I can remember how to ride this horse.

Let’s talk about those minor signings a bit.  Belisle gained a $3.5 million contract from the Redbirds, who are doing some serious gambling that a lot of his problems have been Coors Field related.  Belisle has never pitched his home games in a non-hitters park, having spent time in Cincinnati before Colorado, so it’s tough to really know what his talent level is.  He did put up three straight years of under-4.00 ERAs in Colorado, including one year under three, so that’s encouraging.  The problem is the last two years haven’t been nearly that good.

For his career, he’s been a little better away from those home parks, but it’s not a striking contrast.  He’s also been pretty even against righties and lefties, meaning he’s not the inverse of Randy Choate, even if they have similar contracts.  It would seem that Belisle will see the sixth and seventh innings of games, helping transition from the starters to the back of the pen.  It’s a fairly expensive deal for a guy that might have been a non-roster invitee for someone else.  We don’t know what Belisle’s market was and it would seem strange if Mozeliak misread it that badly, but it’s hard to believe there was just a ton of demand for him.

If nothing else, there’s another Matt on the team and that hardly ever goes wrong for the Cards.  He also gives them another righty in the pen, something that they really needed.  We tend to assume that bullpens are dominated by the right side, but with Sam Freeman, Choate, Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales and Kevin Siegrist, the portsiders were winning this battle.  (The Cards also are lefty-heavy in the lineup, which makes you wonder if that’s the new market inefficiency or something.)

As for Mark Reynolds, I’ve got some concerns.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was a bad deal–two million for one year is pretty much minimum for a guy like that–and I think he can help this team.  Obviously he can hit the long ball, which is something this team had issues with last year.  He hit a home run in 5% of his plate appearances last year, which shows that when he makes contact, the ball goes a long way.

The problem, of course, is that contact isn’t necessarily his best friend.  More like a distant relative he sees only a couple of times of year.  He’s friends with it on Facebook, but he has to try to remember what the relationship is when it shows up in his feed.  When you strike out 28% of the time, it’s not great.

I know the current trend is to discount strikeouts–they only count as one out, after all, which could be better than the numerous double plays we’ve seen Redbird hitters roll into over the past couple of years–and to claim that batting average isn’t a great marker to understand a hitter.  I agree with both of those claims for the most part, but that doesn’t mean that both categories don’t still have something to tell us, even if it’s not as overarching as maybe we treated it 25 years ago.

What worries me about Reynolds is that, if he’s out there every day, you get four chances for him to make contact.  Granted, a lot of days, he’s going to put up 0-4 and if he’s your regular first baseman, you are probably going to be hurt more than you are helped by him.  I get that and I assuredly wouldn’t want to see some sort of platoon between him and Matt Adams.  However, Reynolds is going to be probably the biggest threat off the bench, depending on who might be resting that day.  He’s going to come up in situations where the Cards need him to get a hit and, if the stats are accurate, more often than not he’s going to fail.  Sure, he might hit a couple of pinch-hit HR over the course of the season, but will that make up for all the times he strikes out with the tying run on base?  We’ll have to see.

It reminds me a lot of Mark McGwire‘s final season.  Tony La Russa had to figure out just when to use McGwire, because he was hurting too much to run or play the field.  McGwire was still a threat to hit a home run, but that was about it and figuring out just when to use that threat was an interesting managerial challenge.  Obviously, Reynolds is more of a player (overall) than McGwire was in 2001, but the similarities are there–odds are a pinch-hit appearance ends in a home run or a strikeout, little in between.

I started this post wanting to talk a little bit about Max Scherzer and I think I still have time before I head to work.  I’ve seen a few items over the last week or so talking about the Cardinals and the Missouri native.  As far as I can tell, there’s nothing really tying St. Louis and Scherzer, more the fact that he’s not signed yet and there’s really not much to talk about the last week or so of December.

When this offseason started, I mentally toyed with the idea of signing Scherzer and then trading one of the young starters for a hitter.  Obviously, Mozeliak didn’t wait for Scherzer to be signed to do that, moving Shelby Miller for Heyward.  I’m not opposed to him doing my plan out of order, of course, but things have changed.  Heyward will need an extension and my original plan, of course, didn’t account for that but expected Oscar Taveras to be manning right field.

Could the Cardinals afford both Heyward and Scherzer over the next few years?  They could, I think.  The FOX Sports Midwest deal will be up in a couple of years (though I’ve seen indications in places that they might already be negotiating to end that deal early) and you have to figure much more revenue will be coming that way.  If they feel confident in their minor league system continuing to produce solid to above-average players for the big club, Heyward and Scherzer wouldn’t necessarily sink the payroll.

Will they do that though?  It seems unlikely.  Not only because of the money, but because Scherzer has a draft pick tied to him as well.  The Cards hoard those things like Smaug hoards gold, so it would seem pretty strange for them to not only give out a record (for them) contract to a pitcher but also give up a chance to help refurbish the minor leagues.  If they weren’t planning on keeping Heyward (and figuring they’d get a pick back when he walked next off-season), they might go that way, but there’s no indication they think they can’t keep the outfielder.

Scherzer’s a great talent and you wonder how much better he’d be moving into the National League.  Honestly, I’d love for the Cards to make that over-the-top move to really try to go for a title this year.  However, the long-term planning method of putting together this team has done pretty well over the past 15 years and you’d hate to see that go by the wayside.  As healthy as Scherzer’s been, pitchers are made to be broken.  It seems unlikely that he could get a five-year deal from anyone and stay healthy and effective through the whole thing.  Some teams can handle a chunk of their payroll being on the DL and the Cards well might be one of them, but I’d hate to find out they aren’t.

There’s logic to pursuing Scherzer but there’s much more in letting him go, especially with the surplus of arms in the system.  They may not be ace material, but they also don’t cost $25 million a season either and they get the job done reasonably well.  As much as I’d like to see Max in Cardinal red, it just doesn’t seem to be a move John Mozeliak would make.

The UCB project of the Top 5 Stories of 2014 comes your way Wednesday.  I’ll try to keep the momentum going and not let another couple of months get by!

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