Recent comments by St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak that included the word “aggressive” in the context of his off-season plans to retool his club for 2009 received wide media attention.
Since then, “Mo” has moderated his public remarks somewhat, seemingly preferring to dwell on the descriptor, “creative”, instead.
One area the GM, heading into his second winter at the helm, plans to address is his closer situation. The organization, from the top down through the manager and pitching coach, seem hesitant to fully turn over the ninth inning reins to 23-year-old Chris Perez or rookie Jason Motte, wanting to augment the relatively inexperienced youngsters with a veteran hand.
One line of thinking is to offer deposed closer Jason Isringhausen an incentive-laden, no promises deal to return for his eighth season in the Cardinals uniform. I think that is a bad idea, both in terms of where the 36-year-old is in his career and because of the conflicting expectations that come built-in with him.
Others drool over overly-extravagant free agent options such as the Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez, a player whose price tag the Cardinals freely admit will be out of their comfort range.
The struggles of the St. Louis pen in 2008 have been well-documented, but here are some brief reminders. If you have small children looking over your shoulder as you are reading this, you may want to cover their eyes for protection.
The Cardinals tied for second in the majors in games lost by the bullpen with 31, behind only the woeful 99-loss San Diego Padres (34). They tied with a 101-loss club, Seattle, for the most blown saves in MLB with 31. The Cards lost 12 contests in extra innings and were defeated in walk-off fashion an astonishing 13 times, both the worst of the 30 teams in the majors. They finished just five wins away from competing in the post-season.
If that isn’t screaming out for attention for change in 2009, what is?
Whether considered aggressive or creative or both, Mo needs to shake things up among his relief corps. He needs to do more than retain the status quo, more than a simple re-arrangement of his bullpen deck chairs.
While he can’t afford a K-Rod, what about this solution?
Sign the Chicago Cubs’ Kerry Wood.
It’s not like the Cards haven’t made a similar move before, albeit not a direct broadside to their top divisional antagonist as this proposed move would be. Yet, the Cardinals are hardly known for splashy free-agent signings, either.
One has to go all the way back to the 2001-2002 off-season to find any Cardinals free agent signing that could be considered a major acquisition.
Perhaps not coincidentally, that pick up was a former starter-turned closer, one Jason Isringhausen, a pitcher with a checkered injury past that included multiple elbow and shoulder surgeries. Izzy had last closed for the Oakland A’s, but originally came up to the bigs in 1995 as a much-heralded member of the New York Mets’ “Generation K”.
The knock on Wood
Sure, the knock on the ex-starting fireballer Wood is detailed in his own six-inch thick medical dossier, headlined by several major surgical events and countless disappointments and delays.
The first was 1999 reconstructive elbow surgery that included a torn ligament repaired and wrapped with a graft from his right forearm. In 2005, after three DL stints, Wood’s shoulder surgery included reinforcement of the labrum and debridement of the rotator cuff and bursa. He would essentially not make it back until August, 2007, and then remolded into a reliever.
No, Wood will surely never again strike out 20 batters in a single game as he did in just his fifth MLB start back in 1998, a feat that rewrote the National League record book. Yet, carefully deployed, the 31-year-old has become a very effective ninth-inning man.
The good from Wood
In his first season closing, Wood’s 34 saves in 40 opportunities in 2008 were seventh-highest in a single season in franchise history and the most by a Cub since 1998. He came on strong, converting 30 of his last 32 opportunities.
In fact, the closer was on the Wrigley Field mound on September 20 when Jim Edmonds caught Aaron Miles’ fly ball and the Cubs clinched their second consecutive National League Central crown while the Cardinals were forced to watch.
Wood did log some DL time for the fifth consecutive season in 2008, but this time it was nothing of the magnitude of past maladies - just a finger blister. With an inning of relief in the Cubs’ loss to Los Angeles on Thursday, Wood became the 14th Cub to play in four post-season series and their first since 1945.
Since moving to the Cubs’ bullpen late in the 2007 season, Wood has posted a 3.16 ERA in 98 relief appearances, in 75 of which the opponents did not score against him. Wood the reliever has yielded just a .203 batting average to opposing hitters.
What would it take?
A free agent last off-season, too, Wood inked a one-year deal to return to the North Side for 2008. His base salary was $4.2 million with almost $3.5 million additional in incentives rolled in based on games pitched, finished and awards won. That compares most favorably to Izzy’s $8 million 2008 salary.
There seems no reason the Cardinals couldn’t take a similar incentive-driven approach, with the necessary sweetener added to lure Wood away from coming back again to Chicago. The Cardinals would improve their club while weakening their top rival at the same time.
It might not be easy to lure away the senior Cub in terms of tenure, though. In each of the last two off-seasons, Wood basically let Cubs GM Jim Hendry fill in the details of his contract, only asking that it be fair. Other clubs reportedly offered more money.
Why shouldn’t the Cards go for it?
To be successful in 2009, the Cardinals not only need to improve, but the Cubs need to decline – from their 97 regular-season wins, at least. (In the post-season, they can’t decline, as there’s nothing worse than being on the wrong end of a three-game NLDS sweep – unless they are able to reprise the feat for a third straight season, that is.)
Even if the Cardinals lost a compensatory 2009 draft pick in signing Wood, they have enough free agents of their own to allow restocking of any picks lost if they so chose by offering arbitration to departing players.
With Wood having just concluded his 14th season in the Cubs’ organization, wouldn’t it be just as distasteful for the “Go, Cubs, Go!” singers to see him in a Cardinals uniform in 2009 as it has been for St. Louis fans to experience the sight of Jim Edmonds in Cubbie blue while still partially on the Cards’ payroll this past season?
Even more importantly, though clearly a high-risk acquisition, Wood could fill an important need for the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals. With alternatives like Perez and Motte in place, the team could carefully choose their spots to use Wood and would not be caught with the cupboard empty if (or when) the closer takes his annual detour to the disabled list.
C’mon, Mo. Think about it. What could possibly be more “creative” than signing Kerry Wood?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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