The St. Louis Cardinals used the first four months of the 2009 season to discover some characteristics about their club. They learned the team is capable of enduring injuries to key players, as Chris Carpenter, Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Kyle Lohse, and Troy Glaus spent significant time on the disabled list. (Glaus has yet to play this year.) They learned — or better put, were reminded — that the team is centered around the planet’s best player in Albert Pujols. And they learned that, even in a mediocre National League Central Division, the team did not have adequate offensive support for Pujols to consider themselves World Series contenders. Worse, the team’s management was gaining a reputation for excess sentiment and timidity when it comes to improving the club.
All that changed with two transactions last week. In the first, St. Louis send Chris Duncan — a key contributor for the 2006 world champions and the son of Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan — to Boston for shortstop Julio Lugo (who had just been demoted to the minors by the Red Sox). After hitting 44 home runs in his first 226 big-league games, Duncan struggled with injuries in 2008 and slumped mightily this season (five home runs in 304 plate appearances), which called into question Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa’s ability to judge Duncan’s value independent of the player’s relationship to his longtime pitching coach and friend. In dealing Duncan — a natural first-baseman forced into the St. Louis outfield by the presence of Pujols — to a new home, Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak did both his roster and Duncan a favor. Chris Duncan deserves to be measured solely on his merits as a player, and he certainly will be now in the Boston system with its media crucible.
Then last Friday, Mozeliak shed the kid gloves by trading highly acclaimed prospect — and Memphis Redbird third-baseman — Brett Wallace to Oakland for Matt Holliday. A former National League batting champion during his days in Colorado, Holliday will instantly provide the cleanup support for Pujols that the Cardinals were unable to muster with Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the slot. (Consider Pujols’ numbers without the likes of Holliday hitting behind him: .325 batting average, 34 home runs, 91 RBIs.) Combined with the late-June acquisition of Mark DeRosa from Cleveland, St. Louis is investing around $6 million over the next two months in players who can each walk as free agents at season’s end. And it should be noted the DeRosa deal cost the Cardinals Jess Todd, their 2008 minor-league pitcher of the year, and the Redbirds’ sole Pacific Coast League All-Star this season.
With the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers under-performing, a post-season berth is there for the taking, so Mozeliak should be applauded for some risk-taking. Say what you will about the future potential of prospects like Wallace and Todd, teams play to win now, this season, and while the stars like Pujols are in their prime. The Holliday trade will be a good one if St. Louis reaches the 2009 playoffs. It will be a great trade if the Cardinals convince Holliday to to sign an extension and serve essentially the same role in the decade ahead that Jim Edmonds did for seven years: Ed McMahon to Pujols’ Johnny Carson. Pujols is signed through 2010, with a club option for 2011. A “hometown discount” may keep him in a Cardinal uniform, but only if the franchise shows a commitment to contending on an annual basis. Exhibit A of such commitment: the acquisition of Matt Holliday.
Having lost two of three in Philadelphia last weekend, St. Louis fell behind the Cubs in the NL Central standings. The fabled dog days of August are ahead for several clubs that still consider themselves candidates to unseat the defending champion Phillies. The season’s six-month daily grind doesn’t allow many chances for experiments with a team’s roster. Credit the Cardinal brass (perhaps with breath held) for identifying blemishes and taking action to – at least temporarily — cover them.