Signings, Arbitration, and Rumors: The Beginning of the Hot Stove

Jason LaRue is likely the last signing before Winter Meetings next week.

Jason LaRue is likely the last signing before Winter Meetings next week.

 

                With the first transactions of the off-season made on Monday and the winter meetings being less than a week away, the off-season is finally starting to pick up steam. Teams also had to offer arbitration to their free agents by 11:59 Tuesday if they wanted to receive draft compensation, and surprisingly the Cardinals offered arbitration to Mark Derosa and Joel Pineiro to go along with Matt Holliday. Both Derrick Goold and Joe Strauss have left some interesting tidbits in their articles in the past couple of days, providing some insight into what John Mozeliak and other members of the front office are considering in case Matt Holliday stays or leaves.

                On Monday the Cardinals made two moves, first re-signing backup catcher Jason LaRue and then bringing in infielder Ruben Gotay on a minor league deal that includes an invite to spring training. Financial terms of LaRue’s deal haven’t been disclosed, but he is coming off of a contract that paid him $950,000 last season and figures to make around the same amount this year. Personally I have no problem with re-upping LaRue. Statistically he has been worth 0.5 and 0.3 Wins Above Replacement the past two years and provided $2.1 and $1.4 million dollars of value, so as long as his new contract is around the $1 million mark like it was this past year, the Cardinals did the right thing. It should also be noted that LaRue is also well-liked by pitching coach Dave Duncan and the rest of the Cardinal staff, which I still feel is important. I don’t think it’s a good idea to only rely on statistics or only on human perception, and LaRue appears to be a solid sign from both points of view. Gotay, who will be 27 next year, has the possibility of making the major league roster. A natural second baseman, Gotay has also played some third in his career, showing the versatility that La Russa loves to have on his bench. Gotay put up a .272/.429/.450 line for the AAA team of the Diamondbacks this past season, which included 103 walks to only 69 strikeouts. Gotay, a switch-hitter, also had a .973 OPS (on base + slugging) against right-handers but only a .561 OPS against lefties, so Gotay would be a better option to play against right-handers late in the game. Defensively, Gotay is below average at second, posting a career -8.1 runs below average over 163 games, a number that agrees with his Total Zone rating throughout the minor leagues. At third-base, however Gotay might be an average fielder, as he has a +2 Total Zone Rating over 87 games in the minor leagues. Although these weren’t huge moves, Mozeliak did a good job of adding some pieces that can help supplement the roster, providing slightly above replacement level production at a low cost.

                Last night, the Cardinals also offered arbitration to 3 of their free agents, which included type A free agent Matt Holliday and type B free agents Mark Derosa and Joel Pineiro. If all three decline arbitration and sign elsewhere, the Cardinals could have up to 4 extra picks in the draft before the second round next season, which would help re-stock a farm system that was hit hard by mid-season trades in 2009. Honestly I was pleasantly surprised when the Cardinals offered arbitration to both Pineiro and Derosa, as I was only expecting one of them getting an offer, with Derosa being the most likely. If Pineiro and Derosa both accept, it isn’t the worse thing in the world to have both back on one year deals, and the potential reward of a supplemental pick for each player was worth the risk in offering arbitration. Derosa on a one year deal could either play a combination of third and left if Holliday leaves or be the primary third-basemen again if the Cardinals do re-sign Matt Holliday. Pineiro on a one year deal fits the mold of what I have said the Cardinals should be looking to do all along, which is to avoid multi-year deals with pitchers. Mozeliak stated in Strauss’s article that the Cardinals would prefer to have shorter deals rather than longer ones, which is something that I agree 100% with. It was two solid moves by John Mozeliak, and the Cardinals will either get the benefits in the draft next June or on the major league club for another year.

                Goold and Strauss have also offered some interesting names that the Cardinals are considering if the Cardinals do lose out on Matt Holliday, with both agreeing that Xavier Nady (profiled here) could be an option for left-field. Strauss believes that the Cardinals could pursue someone to play third along with a bat like Nady in left if Holliday walks, but would probably be comfortable giving third to David Freese (profiled here) if Holliday were to return. Goold believes that some in the organization think that Miguel Tejada could be an option for third, but he would have to be willing to move over from shortstop first. Tejada wasn’t offered arbitration by the Astros, so the Cardinals wouldn’t have to surrender their first rounder if they signed him. Tejada, who will be 36 next year, offers a little pop but not much else. His .313 average this past season was largely built on a Batting Average of Balls in Play that was around 20 points above his career average, so Tejada isn’t likely to be a .310 plus hitter again next season. Tejada also had just a 2.9% walk rate in 2009, so he wouldn’t help fix the problem that the Cardinals have with plate discipline. Tejada did hit 46 doubles to go along with 14 homers this past season, so his .795 ops was largely based on his .455 slugging percentage. Basically a good way to think of Tejada offensively is Brendan Ryan with 50 extra points in slugging %. Defensively, comparing Tejada with Brendan Ryan would not be a good idea. Tejada posted a -13.9 UZR this past season, but that was at shorstop. At third base, his UZR would likely go up a bit, and considering as recently as 2008 Tejada had a 9.3 UZR at short its possible that Tejada could be an average to -5 runs below average at the hot corner. Would it be a good idea to sign Tejada? I don’t think it would be the best way to allocate the team’s resources. Considering Tejada would likely want a 2-3 year deal, I don’t think the difference in offensive production of Tejada over David Freese is worth the downgrade defensively to go along with the large salary of Tejada. Freese is a good defensive third sacker who will be making the minimum salary next season, so the Cardinals can improve the team more by taking a pass on Tejada and using their dollars elsewhere.

                In conclusion, it’s been a nice start to the Cardinal off-season, but the moves that will define this winter as a success or failure have yet to be made. The Cardinals picked up some nice bench pieces in LaRue and Gotay, and did the right thing by offering Holliday, Derosa, and Pineiro arbitration, but with the winter meetings just a week away, John Mozeliak will soon have to commit to which side of his parallel tracks he is going to follow to avoid the “paralysis” of the Holliday situation. This is arguably the hottest time of the year for rumors, and this next week figures to help paint a clearer picture of what the 2010 Cardinals could look like come opening day.