“(Brendan) Ryan became expendable for the Cardinals after they acquired infielder Ryan Theriot from the Los Angeles Dodgers last month. Theriot was billed immediately as the Cardinals starting shortstop, and they let other teams know that Ryan was available.”
— From Derrick Goold’s story on the Cardinals trading Brendan Ryan to Seattle for a Class A reliever.
I wrote this on Twitter: I can rarely remember reading a baseball notion quite as comical as Brendan Ryan becoming expandable BECAUSE the Cardinals acquired Ryan Theriot. I’m sure that there are other reasons Brendan Ryan really became expendable — most of these having to do with manager Tony La Russa — but sure enough they keep pushing the Ryan Theriot thing.
“The reason that Ryan Theriot was traded for is we have a chance to win,” La Russa told reporters.
“We didn’t try to get (Blake) Hawksworth off the club,” La Russa told Tim McKernan about the Hawksworth for Theriot deal. “We had some right hand relief depth and we were able to use him to get a player that we really like in Ryan Theriot.”
I have to admit: I don’t fully understand why the Cardinals really like Ryan Theriot. He’s a 31-year-old shortstop with a career 82 OPS+ (he did have a good on-base percentage in 2008) and a fading reputation as an adequate defensive shortstop. In fact, last year he hardly even played shortstop. The Cubs moved him to second base to make room for 20-year-old Starlin Castro. Then they traded him to Los Angeles, and the Dodgers did not play him even once at short even though their starting shortstop Rafael Furcal was hurt. The Dodgers preferred to put Jamey Carroll out there, though Carroll had not played a single game at shortstop in the big leagues in three years.
Brendan Ryan, meanwhile, posted the best defensive numbers at shortstop in baseball last year. He really is a defensive marvel. It’s also true that he didn’t hit a lick. His .223/.279/.294 line was abominable and probably unplayable. Maybe that reflects his true offensive value. But maybe not. The year before, he hit .292/.340/.400. The difference seems to have been an abnormally high batting average on balls in play in 2009 (.332) and an abnormally low BABIP in 2010 (.253). He may have been lucky in 2009. He also may have been unlucky in 2010. Maybe his true value is somewhere in the middle.
If he can hit something closer to what he did in 2009, with the way he fields he can be one of the most valuable shortstops in the American League. You know, unless Derek Jeter rebounds, there’s an opening for best shortstop in the AL. You know who led league shortstops in combined-WAR in 2010? We are combining Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement … it was Oakland’s Cliff Pennington. Ryan can certainly be a Pennington kind player. Seattle has been a team that has tried to win with a certain strategy — with defense playing a big part — and it seems to me that getting Ryan for a minor league arm could work out for them the way getting Frankie Gutierrez did two years ago.
Then again, Ryan might not hit at all and end up on the bench by mid-May. Nobody really knows. My point here is not that the Mariners may have made a good move. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. My point here is that the Cardinals traded for the veteran presence of Ryan Theriot (and they’re paying him more than $3 million) and then believed this trade made Brendan Ryan “expendable.” That just seems bizarre.
And we really may be getting to the point where Tony La Russa’s year-to-year decision to manage or retire is badly and visibly hurting the Cardinals. Because it does not feel like that Cardinals are building a team as much as it feels like they are trying to cobble together one more winner for Tony La Russa.
Look: Brendan Ryan isn’t exactly a kid, but he is two years younger than Theriot and has at least proven to be superior defensively. What Ryan Theriot offers is that sort of veteran comfort and general scrappiness that makes Tony La Russa happy. They signed soon-to-be 35 year old Lance Berkman when he is coming off the sort of year that makes you wonder if his terrific career is on a serious downslope. More veteran comfort. The Cardinals are sending out all sorts of weird vibes about what they think of their one gifted young everyday player, Colby Rasmus — it’s hard to wade through it all but it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of love going on there.
There are other signs of one-yearitis — uncomfortable signs, I think, if you’re a Cardinals fan. Tony La Russa is one of the great managers in baseball history. He has won a World Series and two pennants with the Cardinals and guided the Cardinals to the playoffs seven division titles and more than 1,300 victories. But at this point, he does not seem especially interested in being patient or in developing players. He wants now. And who can blame him? He’s 66 years old, he has been managing big league teams for 32 years, there’s no great motivation to think about future years.
And I just don’t think that sort of short-range strategy works much. The Kansas City Royals, at the end of owner Ewing Kauffman’s life, were desperate to give him one more winner. This actually led to one of the most remarkable and stunning facts you will ever hear — in 1990 the Kansas City Royals had the highest payroll in all of baseball. This was because the Royals had given absurd contracts to Mark Davis and Storm Davis, and they gave a big extension to Mark Gubicza. and they actually made 42-year-old Bob Boone one of the highest paid players in baseball and so on. Those financially reckless Royals.
Of course it didn’t work. The Royals after winning 92 games in 1989 were dreadful in 1990, going 75-86 and finishing sixth in the American League West. They were sixth again the next year even after falling to seventh in total payroll. They lost 90 games in 1992. And in 1993, Ewing Kauffman died. The effort to get him one more pennant was noble. But it seems to me that you don’t build winners with that kind of short-sighted strategy.
And now, it seems like the Cardinals are using that same strategy. The Cardinals have enough talent to honestly believe they can contend. In 2010, they had the best player in baseball, a generally hard-hitting outfield, a great defensive shortstop, got 96 starts out Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia (combined 2.79 ERA and 524-183 strikeout to walk) and had an often decent bullpen. But even with all that, they only won 86 games. And they have not won a single playoff game since winning the World Series four years ago. Now they’ve gone out and traded for Ryan Theriot in the hope that will help make them a winner. As a friend of mine says about anything: “It COULD work.” I’m just not sure they’re seeing straight in St. Louis these days.