Alex Cora agrees to minor league deal

The Cardinals made it official this morning that they have signed infielder Alex Cora to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. According to Derrick Goold, the move is not only for competition, but to help provide some coaching for the younger players. Cora’s playing days are pretty much up, but he has an interest in coaching.

Cora, 36, hit .224 with 0 home runs and 6 RBI in 91 games for the Washington Nationals last season. He spent time at every infield position for the Nationals through the course of the season as well. In his 14 year career he has spent most of the last 7 as a utility infielder off the bench for the Indians, Red Sox, Mets, Rangers, and most recently the Nationals.

The move on the surface is nothing more than depth for the Cardinals as they enter spring training, just in case one of their players gets injured. However, I think there might be more of a potential for Cora to make the major league squad than we expect.

While his bat certainly won’t light the world on fire with his three-year line of .232/.296/.292, he gives the Cardinals something that the other infielders don’t. Who else plays at least a league average shortstop on the Cardinals roster? Rafael Furcal. Behind him? Tyler Greene‘s career numbers at shortstop stack him closer to Ryan Theriot than Furcal. Daniel Descalso took some time there last year and showed potential, but needs more playing time to adjust to the position.

Cora’s glove will be the second best defensive shortstop in Cardinals camp in a few weeks. I can’t be the only one who realized what effect a better shortstop had on the Cardinals pitching staff. For example, Jake Westbrook‘s ERA after the Furcal acquisition was about half a run lower than it was before the trade. That’s big. Depending on how much value the Cardinals think it might have, could end up getting interesting.

Less than two weeks away from pitchers & catchers reporting. Can’t wait.

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2012 Preview: Catcher

From Opening Day 2011 to Opening Day 2012, there are only two positions that we know will be the same, Yadier Molina at catcher and Matt Holliday in left field. Of course, saying that I’ve probably doomed them both to disastrous spring training injuries. (knock on wood)

For the 29-year-old Molina, 2011 was a big year. He led the Cardinals in batting average with his .305. For all intents, he had a career year. He set career highs in batting average (.305), slugging percentage (.465), runs (55), hits (145), doubles (32), home runs (14), and RBI (65) among others. He won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove and made his third consecutive All Star Game appearance. Picking up his $7 million option for 2012 was a no brainer for Cardinals management.

In my mind, Molina might be one of the most interesting players to watch this season. He is coming off a career year where he hit nearly double the home runs of his previous career high. Not only did he have home run power, he had gap power, notching 32 doubles as well, up from the 19 doubles he hit in 2010. For a man who is considered as slow as he is, that’s a high number, second on the Cardinals only to the other steady starter, Matt Holliday. That shows some potential that 2011 may end up being more than just a statistical fluke.

Another reason that I find Molina’s 2012 to be interesting is that his best friend on the team, Albert Pujols, has skipped town on his way to Anaheim to play for the Angels to the tune of $240 million over 10 years. How will he react after spending the previous 8 years of his career in Pujols’ shadow, will he step into the waiting spotlight or will he shy away from it?

You also have his impending contract situation, which I’ll address a little later.

Because of Molina’s defensive prowess and game calling reputation, any offense you get from the catcher position while he’s playing is a definite plus. It also means he logs a lot of innings behind the plate, 1150 innings in total last year across 137 games. Despite the fact that he logged 12 more innings in 2 more games than he did in 2010, he was used quite less than he had in previous years this season. If you remember, he was shut down for the final couple weeks of the season with knee issues at the end of 2010.

Despite those problems, Molina has been steady as a rock behind the plate for the Cardinals, notching over 1,000 innings behind the plate in 5 of the last 6 seasons. If the Cardinals are playing baseball, over the last 7 years the odds were pretty good that he was behind the plate as he’s proven himself exceptionally durable thus far.

For the Cardinals in 2012, there is no doubt that Yadier Molina goes in as the incumbent starter. The game is on, however, for the backup catcher role in 2012. Once held down by Jason LaRue and last year by Gerald Laird, the Cardinals under new manager Mike Matheny (to whom Molina was once a backup to) will be having an open competition for the roster spot. The guys who will be matched up in that battle will be Tony Cruz, Bryan Anderson, and free agent signee Koyie Hill.

Tony Cruz, 25, broke out when he got a chance to be the Cardinals backup catcher when Laird went down with a broken finger in May. While Laird was on the disabled list from May 23rd to July 5th, Cruz hit .278 with a .333 OBP over 18 games, 6 of which were starts behind the plate. His versatility was also used by the Cardinals as he made appearances during that time at third base and first base. Until 2009, Cruz had played primarily third base through the minor leagues, notching 130 games there before transitioning to catcher.

Bryan Anderson, 25, has toiled away in the Cardinals minor leagues since being drafted out of Arkansas in the 4th round of the 2005 draft. Since that time he’s played 593 games in the minor leagues and just 15 in St. Louis in 2010. Anderson has been the question mark since he was drafted. Before the 2008 season he was rated the #85 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, and that was after a fairly lackluster year in double-A Springfield. The power that many scouts talked about never developed in the minor leagues and he got off to an ice cold start in Memphis in 2011 while splitting time with Tony Cruz. However, once Cruz made the trip to St. Louis, Anderson regained his stroke and finished up the year with a hitting line of .281/.357/.409.

Despite having gained the approval of new manager Mike Matheny in previous years, which might gain him some favor in the battle for backup catcher, there are still pitchers on the Cardinals’ roster, namely Chris Carpenter and I’ve recently heard Kyle Lohse, who don’t like the way he handles things when he’s behind the plate. That could have a huge impact on the battle if you have two starters in your rotation who don’t like pitching to a particular catcher. However, you could jump him around the rotation to avoid him. He’s worked with Jaime Garcia before when they both played in the minor leagues together and because of his time there, he has caught most of the guys in the bullpen.

Regardless of what happens, Anderson might be happier that this could be his final season with the Cardinals’ organization. Despite solid performances, Anderson has topped out in Memphis the last four years and his trade value is virtually nil. But he now has 6 years of minor league service time, which means he’s a free agent after one more. The Cardinals do still hold one more option on him, so he can be sent back to Memphis without risk of losing him.

The Cardinals also surprised fans by bringing in veteran catcher Koyie Hill, seemingly against their previous statements of letting Anderson and Cruz fight it out for the spot. Hill has spent the last five years with the Cubs and hit .194/.268/.276 with 2 home runs last year in 46 games for the Cubs. He’s never been exceptionally notable at the plate, nor even behind it with a career -0.7 defensive WAR. The move doesn’t really make sense except as a veteran catching option should Molina go down with injury. He would be an exceptionally long shot, but you never know what might happen.

So who do I think will win the backup catcher job in St. Louis. Honestly, I feel it should be Bryan Anderson and just not because I’ve been very high on Anderson the last few years and hate that he hasn’t gotten an opportunity somewhere. The Cardinals will need to figure out where they are going with the catcher’s position beyond this year. Molina is in the option year of his contract and is very likely to command a near $10 million salary in this next deal.

Between the catchers that the Cardinals currently have in the organization, I see Tony Cruz with more of a long-term future with the team than Anderson does. Therefore, I think it’d be better for Cruz’s development to be playing everyday in Memphis than playing once a week in St. Louis. Anderson might get the role simply because Cruz has more of a future with the organization. It wouldn’t be the first time the Cardinals have done something like this. And if Carpenter and Lohse don’t like throwing to Anderson, you have three other starting pitchers who you can pair him with. Or tell them to suck it up.

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On Oswalt and McClellan

Unless you’re a Cardinals fan that lives under a rock, you’ve heard the recent rumors relating to Roy Oswalt and Kyle McClellan. To catch you up, the Cardinals and Oswalt were reportedly very close to an agreement this past weekend, with a couple reporters calling the signing “imminent.” Of course, since the St. Louis scene wasn’t all over the rumor, I questioned it’s accuracy. And now, just over the last days or so, the St. Louis Cardinals are actively shopping Kyle McClellan, purportedly to get a roster spot and an extra $2.5 million of salary room so that they can increase their offer to Oswalt.

Now, Oswalt’s agent said within the last couple weeks that he would not be a reliever this year. That means he likely has more than one team interested in him to pitch out of the rotation. That’s where he’s been successful in the past, and I wouldn’t want to sign him as a reliever anyway, there is no guarantee a successful starter can adjust to the differences coming out of the bullpen. Which is also another reason against moving Westbrook to the bullpen.

As I sat and thought about these moves last night I’m confused. I cannot for the life of me figure out the cost-to-benefit analysis on this move. You’re trading away 27-year-old Kyle McClellan, who was one of the best middle relievers in major league baseball in 2010, his last season pitching solely out of the bullpen, to add a 34-year-old sixth starter who has had back problems off-and-on for the last few years, culminating last year where he only made 23 starts.

It seems like the 2012 Cardinals are banking hard on injury prone players and praying they remain healthy. They gave $14 million to Rafael Furcal, $26 million to Carlos Beltran, and now seem to be on the verge of giving Roy Oswalt somewhere in the $7-10 million range. These signings all sound great… if it were 2004.

Here are three reasons against signing Roy Oswalt.

First, the cost-to-benefit analysis doesn’t work out for the Cardinals. There was an excellent post at Viva El Birdos yesterday talking about Oswalt replacing Westbrook in the rotation or the use of a six man rotation. If you don’t feel like reading all of that, what his analysis eventually showed is that replacing Jake Westbrook with Roy Oswalt would theoretically result in a net gain of 13 fewer runs allowed, basically what ultimately boils down to just about 1 win over the course of a season. So basically the Cardinals look to be trying to spend $7-10 million for 1 more win.

Many Cardinals’ fans aren’t happy with Westbrook and would be happy to trade him for a bucket of balls. Westbrook, for some reason, had the worst season of his career, posting a 4.66 ERA but still 12 wins. However, in the second half he posted a 3.89 ERA. He struggled most of the season for sure. For what reason, we don’t know, but it’s safe to say that most fans were expecting the 3.48 ERA Jake Westbrook we saw at the end of 2010 when we traded for him. So to get the Westbrook we got was a shock. Something to remember is that Westbrook is likely to be better this year.

And I’m back to my statements of last offseason where we got rid of a couple players who failed to perform in 2010 but had previously had success for a couple of players who failed to perform in 2010 but had previously had success. If we’re going to be crossing our fingers that someone suddenly becomes productive again why all the shake up?

But that doesn’t stop many of us fans from going all googly-eyed about the idea of Roy Oswalt in the rotation. He has the sexy name that everyone wants, but it doesn’t seem worth it.

Second, you have to ask yourself: Is Roy Oswalt better than Jake Westbrook?

If you’re asking for 32 starts from both and they give them to you, Oswalt is going to be the better pitcher. However, when you look at the whole of the situation: Oswalt’s back, Westbrook’s no trade clause, a full rotation already… I’ll take Westbrook because it’s a better use of the organization’s money.

Many fans defend the idea saying Roy Oswalt could be the Lance Berkman of 2012. How many times does lightning strike the same place? How many times do you win on two consecutive pulls of the slot machine? How often will a roulette wheel turn up 17 twice in a row? To expect someone to come out of a perceived nowhere and put up a season like Lance Berkman did last year is naive. Could it happen? Yes, but it is exceptionally unlikely.

And third, it’s easy to sit here and say sign Oswalt, move Westbrook to the bullpen or trade him. However, you have to ask yourself what is the impact of the move on the locker room’s makeup? What if Westbrook isn’t happy about his demotion out of the rotation? He was willing to move to the bullpen in the playoffs for the team, and appropriately so because he was the team’s least successful starter in 2011. I think he understands that, but he’ll want the chance to show he can still be a successful starting pitcher. An unhappy player can easily poison a locker room and a poisoned locker room won’t be winning many championships.

And in summary, the question that we should be asking about the Cardinals’ interest in Roy Oswalt is what it means for the current rotation? The Cardinals have apparently also checked in on Edwin Jackson recently as well. That has me wondering why you’re looking for another starting pitcher when you already have five locked in under contract and a young Lance Lynn getting his starter’s arm back at Memphis (or that’s the plan anyway). Remember the news that Chris Carpenter might not be able to make his start in Game 1 of the World Series due to an elbow issue? Could there be injury concerns about one of the Cardinals’ starters that haven’t been made public?

That is a much larger concern.

Reports are now that Oswalt is visiting with Texas early this week. Personally, I think that’d be a great home for him to finish out his career and they could use a veteran pitcher to lead that rotation.

One thing is certain. After this offseason, I don’t know how anyone can call Bill DeWitt “cheap” anymore.

Motte, Cardinals avoid arbitration

Minutes ago CBS’ Jon Heyman reported that Jason Motte and the St. Louis Cardinals have avoided arbitration. Motte, 29, has agreed to a $1.95 million contract for the 2012 season. The contract also contains $75,000 worth of performance incentives.

Motte, the Cardinals’ 19th round pick of the 2003 draft, was in his first arbitration year and was the team’s final case. Last year, Kyle McClellan got $1.375 million from the Cardinals for a very similar season as a go-to arm in the bullpen. However, Motte was the team’s closer during a phenomenal September run into the playoffs and the franchise’s 11th World Series Championship. Something that would obviously increase his value.

In 68 innings last year, Motte made 78 appearances and posted a 2.25 ERA. He also allowed fewer than 1 baserunner per inning with his 0.956 WHIP. He also had a 27 inning scoreless streak reaching from June 23rd against Philadelphia to September 6th against Milwaukee.

This means that all the Cardinals’ arbitration cases have been decided. Infielder Ryan Theriot was not offered a contract at the deadline, Skip Schumaker was signed a 2 year extension, Kyle McClellan agreed to terms with the Cardinals last week, and now Motte. The team should now be ready for Spring Training, which begins on February 18th when Pitchers & Catchers report. That’s 24 days.

Edit: It has now been confirmed with a tweet from the Cardinals official account.

A curtain call for Mr. La Russa

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced today that Tony La Russa would manage the National League team in the 2012 All Star Game. La Russa, 67, earned the honor when he managed the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2011 World Series, the managers for each team that makes the World Series is selected to manage the next year’s All Star Game. However, La Russa retired at the end of the 2011 season. While many fans wanted him to come back and manage once more, there wasn’t really a precedent to know whether he would.

This will be La Russa’s third time managing the NL All Stars, putting him at six total as he managed the American League three times as well.

The game will be in Kansas City this year. The interesting storyline that already has Cardinals’ fans buzzing is the potential of Albert Pujols being an American League All Star next season and seeing how Tony treats that strategically.

After retiring from the game after 16 seasons, Mr. La Russa gets a curtain call for possibly the first time in his career.