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Sunday 11th Dec 2016

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.

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.

Playing in a mono-league format such as National League Tout Wars requires an owner to be flexible and creative. For example, consider my struggling club, which now includes a reserve roster full of speculative pitching bets.

With six reserve roster spots along with an unlimited-in-size disabled list, the in-season free agent pool at any point in time was incredibly shallow. Despite a drop from six to four reserve spots a few years ago, the problem is not much better now than before.

Take the offensive side as an illustration. Last week, just four National League free agents had more than eight at-bats and each was immediately snapped up at the next bidding opportunity.

This environment led to a devaluation of free agent allocation bonus dollars (or FAAB), in my opinion. Fewer available players means less money is spent, with large balances remaining deep into the season.

Two weeks ago, in an attempt to inject some youthful pitching promise into my struggling roster, I targeted Washington’s A.J. Cole. The 23-year-old was a rarity – a top prospect close to the Majors who was not already rostered in NL Tout.

On this latter point, if you think I am exaggerating, here are some of the players taken on draft day 2015, and therefore, long gone when they actually reach(ed) the big leagues: Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Kyle Parker, Tommy Medica, Addison Russell, Mike Foltynewicz. Unfortunately, I am not among the owners of any of them.

Their owners were quite willing to tie up one, and sometimes more, of their four reserve spots on players who were unable to contribute – at least initially. Of course, the promise is of a greater return once these youngsters receive “the call” and have the opportunity to literally show their stuff.

With so many of those potential big-money players unavailable, NL Tout owners still hold considerable amounts of FAAB. When I targeted Cole, he was not assured of even getting a start for the Nats, yet I felt I had to be bold.

Perennially being the second-highest bidder has created this mindset. After all, in free agent bidding, the old saying that second place is nothing more than first loser rings true.

League free agent balances at the time ranged from my high of $101* to include eight other owners possessing at least $68.

Tout deploys a Vickrey system in that the amount of a winning bid is reduced to $1 more than the second-highest amount. This enables more aggressive bidding and ultimately, stretches FAAB even further.

* Ways an owner could have more than $100 include trades and rebates for players out for the season. In the latter case, 100 percent of the initial price paid for an injured player is returned. Of course, an incremental $1 on draft day can buy much more than $1 in-season.

In my case, my total was swelled by a $12 rebate for the full-season loss of Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey.

I bid $56 for Cole, which was the lion’s share of my season allocation. To my surprise, I did not need most of it. The next-best offer was just $5, meaning the price I paid was reduced to $6. I was a bit pleased when a peer e-mailed that he wished he had gone “all in” on Cole.

As it turned out, maybe the majority of the league was right in their relative disinterest. Cole is now back in Triple-A after making one start and two relief appearances for the Nats. Five of his 11 runs allowed in 9 1/3 innings were unearned. Cole fanned nine and walked just one.

Still, if one believes Cole will return to Washington and eventually contribute this season, this gambit did not put me any worse off than those who drafted and are holding the likes of Matz, Parker and Medica.

Well, in all fairness, that is not quite accurate. Tout rules state that while just about any free agent player is eligible, including minor leaguers, he must remain active for the first week following his acquisition. Then again, for a team that is last or second to last in ERA and WHIP, getting seven days of zero stats might be a blessing in disguise!

Having at most three dependable starting pitchers and a deposed closer in Steve Cishek means I had been plugging roster spots with middling middle relievers. The pickings were so slim that I even ended up with a couple of these $0 bid players in my reserves.

Around the same time I added Cole, I picked up the Cardinals' Marco Gonzales in trade. Though I was hoping at the time the lefty would be in St. Louis by now, his only trip there was to get his aching shoulder checked out by team physicians. At this point, I am holding onto Gonzales until his three weeks of prescribed rest pass.

In an attempt to reverse my dreadful pitching, I then picked up two more speculative arms who are still in the Minors but could be positioned to be called upon this season – and hopefully will perform once there.

Jon Gray is a top-30 prospect nationally, but got out of the gates very slowly this season. He also has that Colorado stigma attached and is one of many options for the Rockies to consider. Still, since April’s 10.70 ERA, the 23-year-old right-hander has improved substantially, with a 3.45 mark in May.

My other recent addition is Reds prospect Jon Moscot. What the 23-year-old lacks in top prospect recognition compared to Gray, he makes up in opportunity. Between the departure of rotation members during the off-season (Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon) and injury (Homer Bailey), a starting five that now consists of Johnny Cueto and some other guys is a key reason Cincinnati is six games under .500.

With the club apparently going nowhere this season, it seems some kind of opportunity for Moscot could present itself. To date, the 23-year-old right-hander has an ERA of 3.45 with 31 strikeouts against 16 walks in 48 1/3 innings for Triple-A Louisville.

With four minor league starters rostered, I have no in-week reserves or opportunity to bench a slumping player. At this point, I am ok with that. It is time, or should I suggest past due time, to take some chances in hopes of improving my team.

Though your league’s rules are likely not the same as mine, take away the broader thought. Unless you have established a comfortable lead, look for creative ways to change the status quo for your squad, even if some risk is involved.

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.

Given my day job of covering the St. Louis Cardinals system, I often receive fantasy-related questions about the team from friends. They are frequently industry writers and analysts with whom I may work and even play in leagues against – something I call coopetition (not to be confused with collusion!)

In an earlier article, I discussed how I gave my honest and complete assessment of Marco Gonzales’ injury situation to a friend/competitor. Though my initial offer to acquire the lefty to back up my optimism was turned down, I ended up getting him in a trade a few weeks later.

Since, Gonzales suffered a setback at Triple-A Memphis, leaving me much less optimistic. The problem area has shifted from pectoral muscle soreness to the shoulder. Even though the injury is said to be non-structural, any time a pitcher has a shoulder problem, red flags should go up. In this case, Gonzales will be parked for three weeks, when another assessment will be made.

That leaves the Cardinals rotation spot vacated by Adam Wainwright firmly in the hands of another lefty – oft-injured Jaime Garcia. No stranger to shoulder problems himself, Garcia was activated last week. I was at Citi Field to see his debut in person.

Perhaps my interest level was piqued a bit as my pitching-starved National League Tout Wars squad is at or near the bottom of the league in most pitching categories. As a result, I activated Garcia in Tout ahead of his actual removal from the Cardinals’ disabled list.

Other than control issues at the start of innings, it was a very strong outing for a season debut. Garcia still has his late movement on pitches. He then went from five walks in his first start to none in his second and picked up his first win in almost two seasons.

Even before Gonzales’ setback, the rotation berth was Garcia’s to lose. He has both the contract ($9+ million this season) and the past success to secure that level of commitment from the club.

I believe that Garcia will remain in the rotation unless/until he gets hurt again or for some unknown reason, his performance falls off a cliff. My sense is that there is little middle ground with Garcia. He is either healthy and pitching well or is hurt. As a result, whatever starts he gives should be good.

I cannot affirm how many starts that will be, however, given the ongoing injury risk.

If Gonzales can come back this season and perform well at Triple-A, he will definitely be back with St. Louis in 2015. The only question is the role as there are a number of still-moving parts to consider.

When healthy, Gonzales is clearly next in line for a rotation spot with St. Louis. While Lance Lynn and John Lackey are innings-eaters, the other three in the current starting five have had durability questions – Garcia, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha.

In his first extended duty in the rotation, Martinez has been up and down. While that is not surprising coming from most 23-year-olds, St. Louis is in the midst of a pennant race and cannot afford to carry a struggling starter down the stretch.

With setup man Jordan Walden injured, the club does not have a clear answer for Martinez’ old eighth-inning gig to date in 2015. Though an acquisition via trade of an Edward Mujica or John Axford-like arm is more likely - a mid-season move the Cards have done in the past - there could be temptation to push Martinez back into the pen if no suitable answer for the eighth can be found.

Speaking of late-inning relief, has anyone else noticed how Trevor Rosenthal has evolved from a shaky closer in 2014 to one of the most reliable and consistent in 2015? One reason why is his delivery. Once a successful starter in the Minors and likely still harboring a desire to play that role, Rosenthal worked from both the windup and the stretch.

After film analysis, it appeared that the rushing and imbalance that plagued him last season was more prevalent when he was winding up. We have seen the 100 percent stretch-pitching Rosenthal apparently turn the corner in 2015.

Bringing this discussion full circle, the worst case for owners of a healthy Gonzales is that the Cardinals would call Marco up to rejoin the bullpen - as he did late last season. It doesn’t hurt that regular lefties Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist have been inconsistent.

No matter the role, I would be very surprised if Gonzales remains in the Minors until September - unless he has another physical setback. He still has a long way to go to earn the reputation of Garcia, however.

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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