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Wednesday 25th May 2016

I don’t want to be grumpy about Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, but I readily admit that I am.

No, this isn’t going to be another diatribe about the ridiculousness of the “this time, it counts” decision that is one of the bellwethers of the Bud Selig era. I do think it is incredibly stupid to tie home field advantage in the World Series to the results of an exhibition game, but I have yet to see an average fan who likes this idea. So there seems no reason to preach to this choir.

None of my individual All-Star concerns are big, but instead are a series of paper cuts that together, draw too much of my blood and ire.

The voting process: The good old days of sitting at the ballgame, punching out the perforated circles in the paper All-Star ballots have gone the way of Selig. In a process that generates millions and millions and millions of clicks to the MLB.com website, the lords of the game decided all votes would be cast on-line.

By releasing interim voting results, MLB generates even more attention and subsequent increases in voting from fans eager to see their hometown heroes in the starting lineup.

It also leads to many trying to game the system.

The controversy of the interim American League lineup consisting of eight Kansas City Royals led to ridicule from some corners and cries from others to take the voting away from fans.

In protecting its baby, MLB made the unusual move of disclosing that it nullified 60-65 million ballots, or about 20 percent of the annual total, because it was determined the votes were made illegally.

Even so, the old rule of “one man, one vote” is completely meaningless in the world of MLB.

All-Star snubs: This is the stupidest term I can think of, yet it is increasingly overused each year when All-Star rosters are announced. Fans of literally every team play this card when one or more of their hometown favorites are passed over for the Mid-Summer Classic.

The implication is that the fan voters - or players or managers - purposely passed over their favorite player because of some unspoken prejudice. In reality, the whining usually has nothing to do with the comparative value of the players and everything to do with homerism.

With the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who very well may in fact be the victim of a 2015 snub, this just isn’t true. Some cannot deal with the fact that other teams have deserving players, too.

Speaking of A-Rod, I am going to take a sidestep and a short bow. I came into the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL) draft last November with the express intent to secure the services of the Yankees star, who was coming off his year of suspension.

Throwing out his name relatively early in the draft at $5, not only did I receive crickets, as I had hoped, but I also had to absorb a number of snide remarks from my peers.

It looks like I am going to get the last laugh, though. Despite having been in a slump the last two weeks, as of July 9, the 39-year-old leads my team in four of the five offensive scoring categories – home runs (16), RBI (47), runs (45) and on-base percentage (.382).

A-Rod was not invited to this July’s Mid-Summer Classic – and did not even appear among The Final Vote nominees - almost certainly because of his high levels of PR-toxicity.

Speaking of which…

The Final Vote: One way MLB cleverly continues to draw attention (and millions more clicks) after the rosters are announced is to hold further voting for the final player on both the American and National League rosters from among a group of five from each league.

Unlike in the regular voting, there are no daily limits in the number of ballots per person that can be cast in The Final Vote process, creating a true free-for-all.

Teams go all out to draw attention to their nominees. Tactics include offering gifts to voters via drawings, teaming up with clubs in the other league to create a favored AL-NL ticket and incentivizing voters to spam Twitter with special hashtags, again with the allure of trinkets given to selected participants.

Never has there been such attention lavished on such a relatively insignificant act.

Final Vote snubs: Combining two of the above irritants leads me to The Final Vote ballots for 2015. Already mentioned is the obvious omission of Rodriguez. Further, this time around, pitchers and position players were thrown in together.

Among the NL five was Clayton Kershaw.

There is no doubt the three-time Cy Young Award winner and reigning National League Most Valuable Player is having a sub-standard 2015 season – by his lofty standards. Kershaw has “only” a 2.85 ERA to go with an MLB-leading total of 160 strikeouts.

This leads to my most irritating issue with the entire All-Star process – ignoring the second half of each season. Today’s process only considers the first halves with anything that happened after the prior year’s Classic through the end of that season completely ignored.

One of my to-dos each summer is to write a column listing who the All-Stars should be had full-year performances since the last game been considered. Every year, my friend Steve Gardner of USA TODAY beats me to the punch.

Not surprisingly, Gardner notes that from a statistical view, Kershaw leads the way for all NL pitchers from last All-Star Game until now. Relegating him to The Final Vote ballot is embarrassing, in my opinion.

It also doomed the lefty to miss the game since Los Angeles fans do not seem inclined to ballot stuff to the extent of those from the heartland. In the closing Final Vote results announced Friday evening, Kershaw finished a disappointing and unfair third of five behind Carlos Martinez of St. Louis and the Reds’ Johnny Cueto.

Now, that’s an All-Star snub if I have ever seen one! Whoops!

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

 

This isn’t about an earth-shaking trade that would have turned a league on its ear. In fact, it isn’t even about a deal that was actually executed. It is about a player exchange that never was – and likely never will be.

The reason it is being outlined here is to provide a reminder than making trades requires time, diligence and a bit of aggressiveness. And when you don’t have those elements working for you, you may end up with nothing other than wasted time tinged with frustration.

This past Monday, I received an unsolicited trade inquiry from a long-time industry friend. Our league is a 40-man keeper format with only monthly free agent moves. Because so many teams stockpile away multiple prospects in hopes for the future, when players are injured, some owners get caught with no MLB-eligible reserves in the time between when free agent acquisitions are allowed.

Such was the case for my friend, who needed a corner infielder when one of his starters unexpectedly hit the disabled list. Scanning league rosters, he noticed Kennys Vargas of the Twins among my reserves.

The designated hitter with first base eligibility had struggled early in the season, was sent down to the Minors to get his game back together and had recently returned to Minnesota.

I had acquired Vargas as my first pick in our league’s supplemental draft this spring, 11th overall. I needed a fill-in for Josh Hamilton at the time and Vargas was the best option available. He hasn’t done much for me, but with a $1 contract, Vargas represents a potential keeper for next season – if he steps up his performance, that is.

Here are the time stamps of our communication, which began late Monday morning. The weekly transaction deadline was 7:05 p.m. (I am not mentioning the other team, as I am not trying to point a finger at anyone.)

11:34 a.m., Him to me: “We're down a corner and see you have Kennys Vargas on reserve. Do we have something you would trade him for?”

I should have known this situation was doomed when the first e-mail did not identify which team had sent it. I only figured out who was asking when looking at the address when sending a reply.

Since I wasn’t even sure who was asking when I prepared my reply, I decided to come back with what I felt I needed from any prospective trade partner – pitching.

11:51 a.m., Me to him: “Which pitchers might be available? Another option might be a scrub going my way and a swap of picks next spring. As a point of reference, Vargas was my #1 pick this spring, late in the first round, so I am not going to give him away. He is a potential keeper at $6 next year."

I wanted to set the bar relatively high in terms of Vargas’ value, at least initially. It was an opening statement.

12:03 p.m., Him to me: “Totally understood on giving him away. For our part, we only have the hole for two weeks and aren't going anywhere this year, anyway, but we would trade the right pitcher, that is someone without a future on our team. Which ones work for you?”

“It's fine if you'd rather hold onto Vargas, too, but if you see a fit let me know."

I felt this reply was more lazy than cagey. Yes, my potential trade partner is not contending for the lead, but still, he is the one looking for a trade, so I thought he should be doing the leg work. How would I know which of the 18 pitchers on his roster might be available?

As a result, I decided to push him into putting some names on the table.

12:29 p.m., Me to him: “How about you throw out the names of those futureless pitchers and I will see if any catch my eye?”

At this point, the line went quiet. After over an hour had passed, I assumed my potential partner was looking elsewhere to make a deal or just lost interest.

If I was someone important, I would say that I was “out on assignment.” In reality, I had to disconnect from the internet to mow my six-inch high lawn, a job that generally takes a half-day with good conditions.

1:45 p.m., Him to me: (Listed the last names of six pitchers.)

I did not see this reply for about four hours, around 6:00 p.m.

It was an interesting group offered, not insulting at all. Two were among his nine active starting pitchers. Two were reserves, guys not throwing all that well currently, and two were name-brand pitchers currently on their team's disabled list. None were probably keepers, but he already said that coming in.

I knew one of the two DL’ed arms was very close to returning to active duty. While his performance was down compared to his peak, there was more upside there than with Vargas, in my opinion.

After a quick check, seeing that no other trades had been announced, I formally put up a trade offer on our team website, sending him Vargas in return for Pitcher X. With one click, he could accept the offer quickly.

6:32 p.m., Me to him: “Sorry, I had to go out for a few hours. If you are still interested, I will take a gamble on Pitcher X. I put up a trade in the trade center. If you are going in a different direction, no problem.”

With slightly more than a half-hour remaining until the roster deadline, nothing happened. This time, the four-hour delay was on his side of the failed deal.

10:57 p.m., Him to me: “I was out after about 6 p.m. so I didn't see this until just now. I don't think we can do it now until next Monday.”

"I would have accepted the trade earlier tonight, but will have to reevaluate come next weekend, just to see how the wind is blowing.”

“I'm sorry I missed it earlier.”

Again, this was not a huge trade. Good thing, since it failed. In my opinion, had we gotten down to specific names two e-mail exchanges earlier, the deal would have gotten done.

As it turned out, it was probably good for my aborted trade partner that the swap was not made. The Twins gave up on Vargas again a few days later, sending him back to the Minors a second time this season. It may take longer for him to earn another shot.

The veteran Pitcher x offered to me was in fact brought off the DL this week but did not do well in his first outing. I would not have activated him anyway, so I did not miss anything initially, either. Of course, the hurler could still improve down the road.

When everything is said and done, I cannot be too upset. After all, the Twins player called up to replace Vargas on their roster is none other than top prospect Miguel Sano. It just so happens the third baseman is on my team in this league.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

No, I don’t yet have football on my mind, though I readily admit that my 2015 performance in National League Tout Wars has been disappointing enough to push me in that direction.

It seems that everywhere I look, I am in ninth in every place I should be in third or better and in third where I should be in ninth.

Overall, my squad is in ninth place, my low point of the season, 31 points out of a share of the league lead.

The offense remains my strength, with nine points each in runs and home runs and 10 points (of a possible 12) in RBI.

Tout’s stats provider onRoto.com offers a number of gems for its users at no additional charge. One is called “Standings with Draft Day Rosters”. I was disappointed, but not totally surprised to see my squad ninth in this category as well.

In other words, according to that site's projections, I didn't have a good draft and the current standings indicate that all of my moves since draft day have accomplished nothing other than keep me in ninth place.

In hindsight, making more aggressive free agent bids on the right players could have helped close some of my considerable standings gap. Then again, to my recollection, there has not been a Jose Fernandez-type difference maker available on the wire this season. Savvy Tout owners grabbed every prospective rookie impact player weeks early – while I had been preoccupied with filling immediate roster gaps.

As a result, I still have $82 of my $100 FAAB allocation – the third-most amount of money remaining. That is not a place I want to be, but it seems my destiny. Unless there are at least three solid deals with players coming into the Senior Circuit around the corner, I am again lined up to lose out on the interleague trade deadline plums.

In all fairness, my current FAAB balance was augmented by a $12 rebate. I received that in return for Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey, who is done for the season. For about another month – until the All-Star break - 100 percent of the price paid for injured players turned in is returned per Tout league rules.

Speaking of Bailey, he was one of my core of pitchers selected at the draft table. Here are the current ERAs of the group:

Bailey – 5.56 in two starts before throwing in the towel on the season

Gio Gonzalez ($16) – 4.82 in 13 starts

Julio Teheran ($16) – 5.07 in 14 starts

Steve Cishek ($16) – 6.43 in 21 relief appearances

Given the magnitude of this train wreck, perhaps it is surprising that I actually am in ninth place – scoring three points each in four of the five pitching categories. Those ERAs look more like the numbers of a last-place squad.

Only Francisco Liriano ($16), with a 2.94 ERA in 13 starts, is performing as expected. The Bucs’ starter may be keeping my squad out of the cellar.

This spring, my big-money arms seemed like low-risk acquisitions, each in their 20’s with good pedigrees. After all, coming into 2015, here are these pitchers’ ages and career ERAs:

Bailey (28): 4.17

Gonzalez (29): 3.59

Teheran (24): 3.16

Cishek (28): 2.65

None of them are anywhere near their career numbers, but I am not crying. The reality is that no one forced me to make the highest bid for these players. I wanted them and got them.

My lesson? “Draft better pitchers next time” is about all I can come up with. I wish I had a snappier commentary, but sometimes, we just strike out.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

I have no idea how the investigation of St. Louis Cardinals front office employees who illegally accessed the Houston Astros baseball operations database will conclude. I do know that the sparkling reputation of one of Major League Baseball’s most successful franchises has been tarnished, and especially St. Louis’ baseball ops organization, headed by general manager John Mozeliak.

That reputation had been earned through strong drafts, good player development, and smart player personnel decisions. This article will document several of the latter, made at the expense of the Boston Red Sox.

As I type this Friday evening, John Lackey is pitching in the seventh inning while holding the Chicago Cubs to two runs despite not having his best stuff. The 36-year-old came into the night doing what he has done his entire 13-year career - eat innings and deliver consistent results. In 2015, the right-hander has been pitching over 6 1/3 innings on average while logging a 3.41 ERA.

Just 11 months ago, Lackey was a member of the Boston Red Sox. With the Cardinals in need of a veteran starter down the stretch in 2014, they sent two younger players, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, to the BoSox in return for Lackey and a minor leaguer.

Fast forward to today. Lackey is plugging along most Lackey-like, while Craig and Kelly are still teammates – but now with Triple-A Pawtucket.

Still, when the trade was announced, a sizeable segment of St. Louis fans were anguished. Saying goodbye to homegrown players stings badly for some, but especially in the case of Craig, the Cardinals’ move was brilliant.

Not far removed from two consecutive 90 RBI seasons but having lost his mojo apparently due to a foot injury, Craig had become a major liability. Batting .237 for the 2014 Cards, he was still due well over $30 million on his contract with no turnaround in fortune seemingly in sight.

As it turned out, the change in scenery did nothing to fix what ails Craig as he batted .128 for the Sox after the trade. This season, he was hitting .135 when taken off the 40-man roster and sent down.

A successful college reliever, Kelly was made a starter as a professional. Despite his mid-90s sinking fastball, Kelly has never been able to locate his pitches and miss enough bats consistently enough to excel. Yet with St. Louis, he often seemed to find a way to win.

When demoted this week, Kelly took heat from some corners due to his widely-quoted spring prediction that he would win the 2015 Cy Young Award. Knowing Kelly, it was likely a joke, but his 5.67 ERA in 14 starts is no laughing matter.

On the other hand, Lackey’s base 2015 salary is at the major league minimum level due to a clause in his Red Sox contract that kicked in when he missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery.

Ironically, named to take Kelly’s place among the Boston starting five is Justin Masterson. The former Cleveland standout had also joined St. Louis at the same time as Lackey last summer, but after Masterson pitched ineffectively down the stretch, he was removed from the rotation and ultimately left off the postseason roster, As such, few were surprised when the Cardinals made no attempt to re-sign the 30-year-old for 2015.

In stepped the Red Sox, who are paying Masterson $9.5 million this season in return for an ERA that is even worse than Kelly’s, 6.37 in seven starts.

The Red Sox have multiple years of control of Kelly and Craig remaining, so they still could win the trade over the long haul. Further, unless the development of young starter Marco Gonzales stalls, the Cards could let Lackey walk this fall.

But in the here and now, in this series of moves in which the two clubs intersected, St. Louis pushed all the right buttons. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, last-place Boston struggled into Friday with a 32-42 mark, while St. Louis has logged MLB’s best record at 48-24.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

Those who are reading this, hoping for a clear answer to the title’s question will be disappointed. Despite covering the St. Louis Cardinals, I have no explanation for the decline in catcher Yadier Molina’s offensive performance. That doesn’t mean we won’t look at the numbers and potential reasons why, however.

First, let’s set the stage. After replacing his current manager, Mike Matheny, as St. Louis’ every-day catcher in 2005, Molina found his way defensively almost immediately, although it took until 2008 for him to receive the first of his now seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards.

It was a different story with the bat. By 2006, Molina’s average dipped to .216, but the then-23-year-old eventually worked his way to respectability as a hitter. By 2008, Molina logged his first .300 batting average, especially impressive considering the every-pitch wear and tear on catchers over the long haul. It was the first of his four seasons as a .300 hitter, the most recent occurring in 2013.

The power came later in Molina’s career. His first season with double-digit home runs was his eighth year in the Major Leagues, 2011. When the right-handed hitter launched 14 long balls that summer, it was more than his two previous seasons combined.

In his age 29-30 season in 2012, Molina swatted a career-best 22 long balls. In addition to that being his first and only season slugging over .500 (at .501), he also set a new best in on-base percentage (.373).

Though he dropped to 12 home runs the next season, Molina’s production was better. His 80 RBI not only established a new personal high-water mark, but also represented his fourth consecutive year of RBI growth.

Then came 2014.

At the time he suffered a thumb injury sliding into third base on July 9, Molina’s season slash line was .287/.341/.409/.751. All four were better than his career averages. He had seven home runs and 30 RBI over those 82 games and 303 at-bats. Again, they were not career bests, but were respectable.

Molina returned to action on August 29. For the remainder of the season, he struggled. In 101 at-bats over 27 games, he had no home runs and eight RBI. Molina’s line during that time was a relatively powerless .267/.309/.317/.626.

His hitting woes continued into the post-season until an oblique injury prematurely ended his 2014 playoff participation. In six October contests, Molina was a non-factor offensively, going 5-for-21 (.238 AVG) with no home runs and no RBI.

Over the 2014-2015 off-season, Molina underwent a physical transformation, losing an estimated 30 pounds. A very private person, he did not offer insight into his motivation or the process he followed any more than he explained what was behind his distinctive neck tattoos that appeared several years earlier.

Any baseball fan knows the two sides of trying to rationalize a significant change in weight. One argument goes that a player may better handle the rigors of a long season if he is carrying less of a physical load. The other side says a thinner player may not be as able to handle the grind of a 162-game schedule without becoming worn down.

Of course, in reality, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation. It is fair to note that Molina will celebrate his 33rd birthday next month and has already caught in 1,357 games, including 1,118 from end to end.

Though no one takes spring training results seriously, the rested, recovered and thinner Molina did not hit then, either. In 46 at-bats, his 2015 Grapefruit League line was .217/.234/.239/.473. In 17 games, he had one double and one RBI.

At 55 games into the 2015 regular season, Molina has no home runs and 20 RBI. His current line is .279/.327/.330/.657, numbers not unlike how he finished 2014 after his DL stint. If the season ended today, his batting average would be his second-lowest mark since 2007. His on-base percentage, slugging and OPS would be his low points since that dreadful summer of 2006.

Putting together all of Molina’s results since returning to action last August offers a concerning picture of a former power source who has seemed to turn into a singles hitter.

In aggregate, his batting average is .266, not terrible, but not up to his usual standards, either. Worse is that 80 of his 97 hits in his last 365 at-bats were singles, with the other 17 all doubles. No Molina hit has left the park since last June 27, a period of almost 12 months. During that time, his slugging percentage is a mediocre .312. That would be even worse than 2006. Molina’s RBI count during the period is just 29.

Is it his thumb or his oblique? Is it his weight loss or the combined wear and tear of 12 years of catching in the Major Leagues? Is it a combination of these factors or none of them?

No one knows, but it seems pretty clear that if Molina continues his performance over the last 10 months into the future, his fantasy value will no longer be that of an elite catcher.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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