The Cardinals finally made it official Sunday, confirming what many fans had feared was the case: The Ryan Theriot trade was bad.
But right up until the moment they traded Brendan Ryan, it didn’t have to be. Let’s review: Entering the offseason, John Mozeliak’s to-do list looked something like this:
- Solidify the rotation
- Find some insurance at third base and elsewhere in the infield
- Extend Albert Pujols‘s contract
Perhaps he had other items on it, like figuring out the right-field situation, but those were the high-level tasks. Rewind the tape on this winter a bit, then:
- Nov. 11. They signed groundball specialist Jake Westbrook to a two-year deal. Cost: $8 million in 2010, $8.5 million in 2011. The move solidified both the rotation and its reputation for groundballs — and consequently, its dependence on infield defense. It achieved the rotation goal, but the payroll ticked up higher.
- Nov. 30. They dealt reliever Blake Hawksworth for Ryan Theriot. Sure, Theriot would cost more than $3 million, but his versatility made him an excellent choice as insurance at third base and as potential platoon at second base, fulfilling goal #2. So far, so good, though, again, the payroll continued to leak.
- Dec. 4. They signed Lance Berkman for $8 million to play in the non-Matt Holliday corner outfield. Berkman’s bat certainly upgrades the offense, but again, the price tag raised the question whether this was really a team trying to save any money for the Pujols contract. After all, if your no.-1 focus over the next two winters is figuring out a way to fit a Pujols extension into your budget, don’t you want to save money where you can in other positions? Isn’t that what the farm system is for? Still, the offense-minded Berkman was more than enough to offset the lack of hitting the team expected from Ryan at shortstop, and they could’ve quit while ahead.
At that point, the Cardinals had undoubtedly improved their team, albeit by adding a chunk of salary to the payroll and thereby making the highest-priority goal seem even less likely to occur. But then, by trading Ryan, they undid any benefit they might’ve attained from the Theriot trade and made themselves worse. A further irony is that Mozeliak, who can’t see the forest for the trees, now finds himself in need of someone to spell Schumaker, whose defense renders him less valuable than Ryan’s bat does him, and to fill in at third.
So let’s get this straight: The groundball-pitching Cardinals, who in re-signing Jake Westbrook became even more defense-dependent, proceeded to trade their starting shortstop, who averaged 1.85 WAR over the last two years and whose specialty is defense, for a sketchy defender who averaged 1.15 and is three years older. They traded a player who will make around a million dollars in 2011 and has three years of team control remaining for a player making $3.3 million in 2011. And in the process, they exchanged a reliable major-league reliever for a pitcher unlikely to ever see the light of Triple-A.
When we wrote that, by opening their big mouths and annointing Theriot as their starting shortstop, the Cardinals had reduced Ryan’s value to that of a bag of balls, we weren’t far off. As Jack Moore noted, "Cleto, the prospect heading to St. Louis, is a high-risk project at least two or three years from the majors who seems destined for the bullpen." You know that the short-lived Moneyball era in St. Louis is over when the general manager is touting "a power arm that at times has reached 100 [mph]." It’s not even a matter of scouting over analysis these days — it’s cult of personality over everything. The autocrat Tony La Russa has killed the Cardinals’ knowledge-based revolution.
We hope it’s worth it.