After the Cardinals offered $220 million to Albert Pujols and shelled out $38 million for two years of Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal, the fact that Kyle McClellan‘s relative pittance of $2.5 million stands in the way of the Cardinals upgrading their rotation with Roy Oswalt seems incongruous. Yet, it’s not McClellan but another pitcher who really is preventing the team from acquiring Oswalt.
This post isn’t intended to weigh in on Oswalt (we think he’d be a worthwhile addition) but to retrace how a bad move can have trickle-down effects into the future. And that move was giving Jake Westbrook a two-year contract with a no-trade clause. First, to be sure, the two-year contract under which Westbrook now toils is far from the worst in history. But it has had an outsized role in creating problems for the team. Let’s review the dominoes:
- Cardinals trade Ryan Ludwick for Westbrook (July 31, 2010): The trade was widely lambasted at the time (but not by this writer), though from a production standpoint, Westbrook (1.3 WAR) outperformed Ludwick (-0.2). (It’s ironic that the Cardinals wound up with Westbrook back in 2010 after missing out on a doable deal for Oswalt. As we wrote at the time, “If the team wasn’t willing to pay for top talent, it needs to resist the temptation to join the fray after they’ve missed the boat.”) If the Cardinals had left the table at this point, they would’ve come out ahead. Instead, they fell prey to the Gambler’s Conceit.
- Cardinals sign Westbrook to two-year deal with no-trade clause: Based on a small sample — 75 innings and 317 batters faced — Westbrook delighted the Cardinals into handing him a plum $17.5-million deal with that priceless no-trade power.
- Cardinals trade Colby Rasmus, et al, for Edwin Jackson, et al (July 27, 2011): In large part because Westbrook wasn’t performing — with an ERA ballooned at 4.86 (511 batters faced) — the Cardinals felt they had to upgrade their pitching staff (another storyline likely to resurface this season). As a result, they traded an asset in Rasmus for a short-term rental in Jackson. In a bit of irony, Kyle McClellan — the man that the Cardinals are forced to try to trade because of Westbrook’s no-trade clause and a player who performed admirably as a starter when the team needed him — had been pressed into the starting rotation alongside Westbrook — and posted a 4.15 ERA (470 batters) over the same period.
- Cardinals prevented from acquiring Oswalt on account of inability to divest payroll (today): This ending to this story isn’t completely written yet, but the foreshadowing doesn’t bode well. John Mozeliak may well find someone to take McClellan — he’s a reasonable buy at $2.5 million, after all — but it costs the team a more serviceable pitcher. McClellan would have essentially been punished for his yeoman’s work as a starter. He’s one of the few versatile arms in the staff, capable of starting and multiple-inning relief stints. And he’s roughly equivalent as Westbrook as a starter, and he’s only a fraction of his salary (not to mention imminently more tradable without the veto power).
So in the course of less than two years, the team’s relationship with Westbrook has led to 1) the trading of a popular if not productive player, 2) the trading of an unpopular yet very talented, cost-controlled player and 3) being a roadblock in the way of adding a helpful component to improve the team for 2012. We have nothing against Westbrook personally or even as a player — the team, however, has done the equivalent of throwing good money after not-so-good in reaping the results of an ill-advised contract based on a small sample. This is a case in which statistical production, or lack thereof, only begins to explain the full story of an investment gone awry.