Released with little fanfare from his assignment with Triple-A Memphis, nine-year MLB veteran Matt Clement’s seven months in the St. Louis Cardinals organization officially came to an end this past Sunday.
Yet, in a roundabout way that I will explain in the following, Clement’s ups and (mostly) downs may have contributed even more to the 2008 Cardinals’ major league club than had he actually been able to pitch.
Despite his best attempts, the right-handed pitcher who turns 34 next week was unable to reclaim his past glory, shackled by a shoulder that no longer fires as baseball as hard and as accurately as it once did during his years starring with the Cubs and Red Sox.
The reality of the situation is that despite Clement having been converted from starting to relieving, he never received the call to St. Louis this summer. Surely if there was deemed to be the slightest chance he could help the struggling Cardinals pen in 2008 as much or more than the likes of Kelvin Jimenez, Clement would have been called upon.
With a 4.61 ERA and ten walks compared to eight strikeouts in a dozen Triple-A appearances, it was clear that Clement didn’t have what it takes anymore. While all indications are that he was a solid veteran presence and good teammate, results ultimately made the decision.
While fan debate ensues over the level of setback this release represents for the John Mozeliak-led Cardinals regime, I am actually at ease over the bottom line from the Clement situation.
That doesn’t mean I am happy with how they got there. In my view, here is where the Cardinals went wrong and how they lucked into an even better answer.
Faced with a rebuilt rotation coming into 2008 and knowing the eventual returns of Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder were written in pencil at best, the Cardinals made no move over the winter to improve their starting staff, other than to re-sign Joel Pineiro to a two-year deal.
Mozeliak then announced the signing of Clement on January 3. While they could have made the deal low-key, keeping expectations firmly in check for a player with a very questionable medical situation, instead both the words used and the financial terms of the deal indicated the Cardinals had unrealistically-elevated hopes for Clement.
Even I, not being trained in the medical profession nor having examined Clement’s shoulder, knew from the descriptions of the severity of the damage and from past cases that his chances of returning as an effective major league hurler were low.
He underwent three procedures to repair tears in both the labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder back in 2006. Clement began throwing again last summer, but the Red Sox let him go.
Yet, Mozeliak happily pronounced Clement ready to join his big-league rotation to start the 2008 season. “Based on our findings from his rehabilitation last season and his recent physical, we feel that he can be a solid addition to our starting rotation and should have no limitations upon reporting to spring training,” said the GM on signing day.
Mo went on to tout how the righty helped bring together the club’s starting pitching. His exact quote: “When you look at Pineiro and Clement with a more seasoned Wainwright and Looper, it's coming together as a solid, legitimate rotation,” gushed the GM.
As soon as players reported to camp in February, the news changed. Clement would not be ready to start the season, after all. In March, I recall pitching coach Dave Duncan telling me he was surprised the righty was not ready to go, based on what he had been told previously.
As hindsight indicates, Clement would never be ready.
The man expected to be a part of a legitimate MLB rotation to start the season finally began a minor league rehab assignment in early June. After a series of disappointing outings, Clement was moved to relief, then passed through waivers at the completion of his maximum-allowable 30-day rehab period. He remained in the Memphis bullpen until his release.
The second area of unrealistic expectations was in the contract given Clement. While his base salary was relatively low at $1.25 million, there were significant incentives at 160, 180 and 200 innings and a ludicrous 2009 club option that started at $8.75 million and could have escalated to $11 million.
Right. Who was kidding who back in January?
In my book, the issue here isn't about the money, though. The Cardinals got out from under the contract by paying Clement only the $1.25 million plus a $250,000 buyout for next year.
Again, my concern is over how the Cardinals' optimism seemed unrealistic from the very start, which set them up for criticism when their lofty expectations were unmet and more importantly, positioned them with a major hole in the their 2008 rotation from the get-go.
Now, let’s return to mid-March. On the 11th, Joel Pineiro came down with a shoulder ailment that would eventually cause him to miss much of spring training and extended into the first two weeks of the regular season. The nature and severity of the injury was unclear at the start, however.
The prospect of no Pineiro and no Clement finally led to a substantive action by the Cardinals. Two days later, on March 13, Mozeliak cut a deal with agent Scott Boras for one year of 29-year-old Kyle Lohse’s services (right).
Only by the grace of unrealistic contract demands earlier in the winter and a strangely disinterested market in Lohse was the right-hander still available on the bargain rack almost a month after other players had reported to camp.
Cardinals fans are well-aware of Lohse’s contributions to the 2008 club, including 12 wins against just three losses and a 3.68 ERA.
While Lohse will most likely be pitching elsewhere in 2009, I attribute his fortuitous signing with the Cardinals to be as much about Clement not being able to pitch as advertised as I do to Pineiro’s then-injured shoulder.
When closing out the Clement era in St. Louis, I mentally tack on the $1.5 million lost on him to the amount due Lohse, which will be $4.75 million if he remains on pace to pitch 204 innings this season.
$6.25 million for a 12-win starter through July still doesn’t sound too bad. Again, if Matt Clement had been ready, I don’t think Kyle Lohse would have been a 2008 Cardinal. Even looking through the most optimistic red-colored glasses, one could never have projected Clement to deliver results as strong as Lohse’s this season.
As a result of these happenings, the Cardinals look good in the overall picture, but in reality, it seems to be much more a matter of good fortune than good planning.
Still, I am sure they will take it, but will the positive outcome just reinforce the behavior?
I can’t help but wonder who will be the next Matt Clement this coming winter. Maybe he won’t be a starting pitcher. Maybe he will be anointed the 2009 shortstop or the next closer.
But what will happen if there isn’t an unexpectedly-productive Kyle Lohse conveniently available next March to step in and erase the mistake? Taking calculated risk is fine, but only if there is a clear and viable Plan "B".
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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