Should Cardinals Outfield Riches Claim Skip?

Should Cardinals Outfield Riches Claim Skip?

The Tampa Bay Rays may be interested in St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Skip Schumaker. If so, should the Cards listen?

A weekend article in the St. Petersburg (FL) Times should serve as a reminder to the St. Louis Cardinals of the risks of dealing away too much of a team strength – in this case, outfielders.

The Times, one of the home papers of the Tampa Bay Rays, point out the club's current dilemma with their outfield due to a combination of recent trades and injury. Those factors have left the club with a dearth of fly-chasers. In the process perhaps they have opened the door slightly for the likes of John Rodriguez, who was not retained by the Cardinals over the winter.

The artist formerly self-titled as "J-Rod" signed a minor league deal with an invitation to Rays' spring training camp in January. However with a .176/.300/.206 (not a typo) line this month, Rodriguez is likely cementing his reputation as a player to come off the bench rather than to deploy as a big-league starter.

The Cardinals were prominently mentioned in the article due to their having a player who meets the profile of the Rays' need – a low-cost, speedy, left-handed hitter who can cover enough ground and with a strong enough arm to handle any of the three outfield positions in a starting role.

Among the four names across MLB suggested as potential prime Rays' trade targets is a current Cardinal – Skip Schumaker.

The only desired criteria mentioned in the article that does not fit Skip is ironically the one factor that could limit his future in St. Louis. Schumaker has exhausted all three of his minor league option seasons.

After his first MLB appearance in 2005 and earning a spot on the big league club in each of the last two springs, Schumaker eventually made the trek back down Interstate 55 to Memphis each season. Skip must again make the Cardinals this spring or be placed on irrevocable waivers and clear unclaimed before being able to report back to Triple-A.

Who knows how many anxious clubs like the Rays might be out there, ready to snatch Schumaker up as soon as his name appears on the wire?

No, that may never actually happen. The fact is that Schumaker has played well again this spring, so well he would most likely make the Cardinals' opening day roster for the third consecutive season.

So, what's the buzz, then?

The Cardinals have eight players in camp competing for five outfield jobs. In addition to Schumaker, several others in the Cardinals current outfield scrum also have roster limitations that must be dealt with.

For this exercise, I have separated the eight into four categories with regard to my projection of their opening day roster status:

Locks: Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan

Stick or may be gone: Ryan Ludwick, Brian Barton, Schumaker

May go down, but are knocking on the door: Colby Rasmus, Joe Mather

Decision possibly delayed due to injury: Juan Gonzalez

In my view, Ludwick remains the solid fourth outfielder among the projected reserves. Like Schumaker, he cannot be assigned to the minors without clearing waivers first. Even worse, he could elect free agency instead.

The Rule 5 pick Barton, perhaps the biggest offensive surprise in a Cardinals spring camp with a number of them, also cannot be sent down. Some think all the Cards need to do to be able to stash Barton in the minors is to work out a trade with his former club, the Cleveland Indians. They are wrong.

Even if the Indians would consider it, which is far from assured, Barton would also have to clear waivers before a trade could be executed. His spring line of .349/.391/.674 is probably catching other clubs' attention, too.

Barton, 25, speedy like the 28-year-old Schumaker, offers more offensive upside. He leads the Cardinals this spring in RBI and triples and is tied for second in slugging and runs scored, third in home runs and OPS and fourth in batting average. His defense is among the weakest of the group, however.

If the Cards broke camp today, I would forecast the "Locks" and the "Sticks" to hold down the five jobs, which by the way is the same forecast I made as early as February 20. Perhaps that is the way it will fall at the end of this month, too, but isn't it just delaying the inevitable?

What has changed in the last month is that Rasmus and Mather have made their cases that they belong.

Maybe Colby still should go to Triple-A for awhile despite being one of the best, if not the best defender among the lot - as well as leading the world in spring walks with 12 - plus topping the Cards in on-base percentage at .500. His overall line is now .300/.500/.567. Yes, the sample is small, but look at those numbers again. His current OPS is second only to the great Pujols among the Cardinals.

Even if they hold firm and send the 21-year-old down, how long can the Cardinals keep their top prospect there? How long until Rasmus puts up numbers in Memphis that scream for the call to be made? Then what? Who goes?

Sure, maybe Mather can wait awhile, as his success is still fresh. Yet it is hard to ignore "Joey Bombs'" 31 home runs last season between Springfield and Memphis. This spring, he has posted a very solid .278/.381/.500 line. If he could keep it up, one might think the Cards would want to find a way to keep a .881 OPS player around somewhere.

There are some other big advantages to keeping the 25-year-old Mather, despite his current long-shot status. Having a power bat off the bench late in the game and a true back up for Albert Pujols at first base on those growing number of days he is rested would seem very interesting to Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

Other than Duncan, who is dealing with issues of his own this spring, Mather is the only one of the eight outfielders, or anyone else in camp for that matter, with extensive experience at first base.

Ok, I will stop beating around the bush and say it straight up.

Given the realities of the Cardinals outfield pipeline, the time may be right to trade Schumaker.

It's not the popular player's fault. He has done all that has been asked of him – but even more so in the month of March than over the subsequent six months. The numbers show that Skip is a better spring player than a regular season one, at least at the major league level.

MLB Spring Season
BA OBP SLG BA OBP SLG
2005 0.348 0.348 0.385 0.250 0.308 0.392
2006 0.281 0.333 0.391 0.185 0.254 0.259
2007 0.388 0.455 0.551 0.333 0.358 0.458
2008* 0.333 0.391 0.452 TBD
* thru 3/16

While Schumaker is far from alone in this situation, the roster considerations noted above may combine to illustrate precisely why there is no better time for the Cardinals to act.

Yet, one only has to look as close as their prospective trade partner, the Rays, to see the downside of perhaps being too aggressive in dealing from a position of perceived strength.

The news that oft-injured Rocco Baldelli is going to be out indefinitely due to a metabolic problem that leaves him fatigued was the crowning blow for the Rays. It came on the heels of their off-season trades of three young outfielders - Delmon Young (pictured) and Jason Pridie to Minnesota and Elijah Dukes to Washington.

Another outfield prospect, Shaun Cumberland, went to Cincinnati last July, the same month Ty Wigginton, a versatile infielder who could also play in the outfield in a pinch, was dispatched to Houston.

It goes on. Andrew Lopez, like Cumberland a former member of the Rays' top 30 prospect list, was sent to the Cubs last February. In June 2006, they dealt speedburner Joey Gathright to Kansas City.

Now, the Rays are in search of just what they had in abundance not all that long ago.

Certainly, the Cardinals haven't traded away six or seven outfielders in the last two years - nor should they.

On the other hand, the time might be right to relieve a bit of their outfield logjam by listening carefully if the Rays call asking about Schumaker. If they don't call, take the initiative. Leverage Skip's value when it may never be higher.

While the Cardinals' minor league system is improving overall, large amounts of help are not considered by a number of experts to be close to St. Louis. Other than Rasmus, the organization lacks top position player prospects at the higher levels of their system and no club has enough pitching. The Cardinals seem especially needy from the left side.

Perhaps the two sides can find a match in a deal that can truly work out for all. If so, Skip Schumaker can feel disappointed, but he shouldn't feel unwanted or unappreciated. It's not his fault he has played himself into having decent trade value nor should the Cardinals be faulted if they decide to deal him.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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