Craig Paquette: A Look Back

On July 31, 1999, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shawon Dunston to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette, a 30 year old corner infielder who had spent the entire season in the Mets’ AAA Norfolk affiliate.  When it happened, everyone assumed the trade was done as a favor to Dunston.  The Cardinals were a .500 team, 11 games back in the division, with a depleted pitching staff that didn’t have much hope of making the playoffs in the single Wild Card era.  The Mets were competing for their division and were 20 games over .500 at the end of July.  Dunston was a veteran and a favorite of the Cardinals’ front office who had spent the majority of his career on the Cubs and played in exactly one playoff series at the age of 36.  He even returned to the Cardinals as a free agent at the end of the season.

Craig Paquette was just supposed to be the piece going the other way–a place-holder in what was essentially a giveaway.  Paquette had spent his career shuttling between the minors and the majors, never making much of an impression.  He had one season, 1996, in which he came close to full time play.  Even then, he was mostly used as a utility player, splitting time between 1b, 3b, and RF.  Throughout the rest of his career, he’d been a part time player at best and now it seemed as if the Major Leagues had given up on him.  In 1998, he appeared in only seven games in the majors, then spent the entirety of 1999 until the trade in Norfolk.  On July 31, he had an OBP of .298 in AAA at the age of 30.  Who the hell would want Craig Paquette?

As it turns out, Tony La Russa wanted Craig Paquette.  La Russa had managed Paquette back in Oakland, where Paquette spent his first few seasons.  During their time together, Paquette put up a .217/.243/.382 line over 763 plate appearances and three seasons.  And apparently La Russa hadn’t seen enough of him. Paquette was in the lineup at RF on August 3, 1999 and promptly hit a double and a HR in his first Major League game of the season.

Over the next three seasons, Paquette would be something of an enigma for the Cardinals.  He had some of the most atrocious on-base skills of any position player I’ve seen and his glove was bad everywhere but first base.  Nevertheless, he got consistent playing time through 2001, when at the age of 32 he finally put up what felt like a decent season, hitting .282/.326/.465.  That still wasn’t great for his defensive profile, but it was good enough to earn him a deal worth almost five million dollars from the Detroit Tigers, after which he reverted back to a pumpkin and fell so far below replacement value that every replacement value player suffered from vertigo.

I will admit that I hated Craig Paquette.  At the time, I was vehemently opposed to all of Tony La Russa’s moves. Despite the fact that Tony helped bring in Mark McGwire, one of my favorite players of all time, La Russa’s managing style irritated the hell out of a fifteen year old kid who had just discovered Bill James and spent his days posting on rec.sports.baseball.  La Russa’s love of veterans, closers, and short-sighted match-ups infuriated me.  It would be years before I figured out that La Russa was actually better than most managers about the things I hated.  My distaste for La Russa seeped over onto Paquette, who was clearly one of La Russa’s “guys.”  Paquette stayed on the team and kept getting at bats despite his terrible OBP (which I thought was the most important thing in the world) and his less-than-impressive glove.

Now I realize how spoiled I was.

Craig Paquette wasn’t really that bad a of a player for the Cardinals.  Over his three seasons with the team, he hit .267/.309/.461, which is nothing to write home about.  But that .770 OPS would be second on the 2014 Cards, behind only Matt Adams.

There is an obvious caveat, of course, which is that comparing numbers from this season to those from 1999-2001 is like comparing apples to juiced oranges. Baseball-Reference tries to normalize for era and translates that .770 OPS to a 93 OPS+, which suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. But it’s still far better than any of the bench players the Cardinals have relied upon over the last couple years. Right now, I’d be thrilled with a slugging-heavy 93 OPS+ off the bench, and a .770 OPS would be starting and batting fifth.

Paquette isn’t the only name I suddenly find myself re-evaluating. The La Russa era Cardinals were rarely lacking in decent, if not inspiring, players off the bench. Lugo.  Felipe Lopez. Miles. Luna. Brian Barton. Spiezio. Mabry. Hell, the aforementioned Dunston fits too. I’m sure I whined and complained when I saw these names in the starting lineup, but they are all a hell of a lot better than the bench guys we’ve run out over the last two seasons. What I wouldn’t give to swap out Shane Robinson for So Taguchi, or Daniel Descalso for Nick Punto.

Sure, there were plenty of mistakes.  Joe Thurston hit better than anyone on our bench now (which is a damning statement considering his OPS was .645) but he got so lost on the basepaths that he was once found roaming East St. Louis, dehydrated and malnourished, five days after he hit a ground rule double. Wilson Delgado can only be evaluated once I have the results of a DNA test that will prove my theory about him and Daniel Descalso.  And remember the time the Cardinals traded a real, useful player for Pedro Feliz?

Still, something has changed. Either other teams have gotten better at picking out the wheat from the DFA and AAA chaff, or the Cardinals have gotten worse. The bench was a huge weak spot last season, and really the only black mark against Mozeliak’s recent record (Matheny hiring notwithstanding).

Until we’ve got a bench that can offer a little pop, I will just have to look back fondly on Craig Paquette.  Damn, that’s depressing.

 

 

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Report: Angels GM Demanded Unicorn in Exchange For Erick Aybar

Sources inside the St. Louis Cardinals front office have confirmed that talks to expand the Freese-for-Bourjos trade to include Angels shortstop Erick Aybar stalled late last week after Jerry Dipoto requested a unicorn in exchange for the 29 year old infielder.

“Mo thought it was a joke,” one scout said.  “You know, just playing around with how desperate we were to fill the position.  We all had a good chuckle back in the office, but then we realized Jerry wasn’t laughing with us. The other end of the phone was dead silent.”

Once they realized that the Los Angeles General Manager of Anaheim was serious, the front office began considering euphemistic definitions that could explain the demand.  “We moved on,” the scout continued. “And thought he might be asking about a hard throwing lefty, like Kevin Siegrist. Those guys are pretty hard to find.  Maybe he wanted Yadier Molina, a catcher that could hit and play defense at an all-star level. We weren’t going to trade Yadi, but we checked to see if that’s what he meant.”

The Cardinals moved on to non-baseball definitions  of the word unicorn, offering up a creative artist who can do extensive computer coding and a single woman interested in multiple-partner sexual encounters. Eventually even John Mozeliak had to admit that there was only one plausible explanation for the continued lack of response from the Angels front office.

“We thought the only thing left to think: they really were asking for a horse with a fucking horn growing out of its head.”

An extensive search of Midwestern ranches, racetracks, and farms finally yielded hopeful results for the Cardinals.  The team was able to acquire Bo, a nine year old stallion with a fibrous tumor on the upper right side of its head that, at the correct angle, appeared to be a horn. Bo only cost the team a few hundred dollars and a set of season tickets, and for a brief moment Mozeliak thought he could pencil Aybar into the 2014 Cardinals lineup.

Then word came back that Bo had failed his physical exam in Anaheim. The reason for the failure was relayed to the team in a curt, one sentence note that accompanied the creature back to St. Louis:

“This is a horse.”

The Cardinals promptly signed Jhonny Peralta for his demands and never looked back.

When reached for comment, the Angels front office would neither confirm nor deny past negotiations surrounding Erick Aybar, but issued this statement:

“Looking at available shortstops, it is not unreasonable that a player of Aybar’s caliber would command a high price on the trade market. We are looking at many options, but we believe that a fair return would have to include a mythological creature that is entirely devoid of sin.”

The Strange Case of Mike Matheny

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but something’s been going on over in the sports section of STLtoday.  It began a week ago, with reports that former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny would be interviewed as a possible replacement for Tony La Russa.

Perhaps this didn’t come as a huge surprise to a lot of people.  Matheny was a well-respected leader on the team many years ago. He was hard-nosed and competitive.   Even then, there was talk that he would make a good coach or manager some day.  But on closer examination, it was a little unusual.

Matheny hasn’t been a manager in the minors, like Ryne Sandberg, Chris Maloney, or even Joe McEwing.  He hasn’t been a coach with the current Cards club like Jose Oquendo or Joe Pettini.  And he certainly doesn’t have the big league pedigree of Terry Francona or Joe Maddon.

Matheny’s coaching experience, as far as I know, is limited to a few years as a spring training instructor and a series of videos for Protege Sports.  Does that mean he’d be a bad manager?  Of course not.  I’m actually an advocate of signing an inexperienced manager because someone without a history is going to cost less.  And I don’t think that the manager is terribly important.  As long as he gets along with his players and doesn’t make too many horrible mistakes, he probably has less effect on the success of the team than the backup catcher or mopup reliever.  There’s no reason to break the bank on a manager.

I’m in a pretty small minority with that viewpoint, however.  So it was a bit unusual to me that the Cardinals, fresh off a WS victory, would consider replacing a high profile manager like La Russa with a complete rookie.  I didn’t think too much about it, though.  I honestly thought that they were interviewing Matheny as a courtesy or a curiosity.  At that point, I assumed that Oquendo, Sandberg, and Francona were the real candidates.

Then STLtoday featured an article which detailed Matheny’s interview with the Cards.  This piece highlighted his positive attributes, addressed his lack of experience, and was quick to point out Matheny’s bonds with Dave Duncan, Yadier Molina, and of course Albert Pujols.

Once again, this was only slightly unusual at the time.  But now, almost a week later, there haven’t been any similar articles about the other candidates.  There have, however, been stories considering the merit of hiring an inexperienced manager as well as a Bernie Miklasz article contemplating Matheny as a potential choice.

If you’re as cynical as me, you realize that STLtoday might be floating a trial balloon.  They might be preparing Cardinals fans for what they already know or suspect: Mike Matheny is the frontrunner to replace Tony La Russa.  We’ve certainly seen it before.  Rasmus’s departure came on the heels of various stories about his difficulty with the Cardinals coaching staff.  McGwire was floated as a potential hitting coach in the news before he was hired.  Are we seeing that same thing now?  And why?

Why Matheny?  Why would the Cardinals–who have spent the last 16 years demonstrating that they value the position of manager far too much–hire a completely inexperienced skipper?

Two possibilities come to mind:

1. This may be an unfortunate response to a crisis of leadership.  The Cardinals have been Tony La Russa’s team for so long that they might not know how to live without him.  Perhaps they hope to keep his reign alive as long as possible by hiring a figurehead manager, and allowing Duncan and McGwire to make the real calls.  This isn’t a particularly flattering analysis for Matheny, but it is something that should be considered.  Matheny is a blank slate, and perhaps the Cardinals want to shape his future with the help of La Russa’s old coaches.

Of course, if this was the goal, why not hire Joe Pettini?  He’s filled in for La Russa numerous times.  He probably knows La Russa’s style better than anyone but Duncan.  He’d be the natural fit if you wanted to ensure maximum continuity.  Which leaves me with…

2. This is Mozeliak’s power play.  And it’s really goddamn interesting.  When Walt Jocketty was dismissed following the 2007 season and replaced with Jon Mozeliak, I assumed the new GM was nothing but a puppet for Tony La Russa.  Jocketty left over disputes with management.  Mozeliak was an org team player.  Throughout his time with the Cardinals, he’s been at La Russa’s beck and call.  He traded Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasmus.  He acquired Matt Holliday, Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman.  The media made no attempts to conceal where these moves truly originated.  La Russa wanted these players (or he wanted them gone) and Mozeliak made it happen.

Now La Russa’s gone.  There’s a power vacuum.  And I think this is a surprising move from Mozeliak to come out of the shadows and establish that he’s no longer just an apparatus of a larger-than-life manager.

How do I figure this?  A little tidbit that has come out into the public  eye since this search began.  Mike Matheny has been working for Mozeliak, in the GM’s office, for the last year or so.  Think about this quote from the above-mentioned Miklasz article:

“He’s also served as an adviser to Mozeliak. An unofficial assistant GM, if you will.”

Interesting, right?  Pettini and Oquendo are acolytes of La Russa.  They worked on the field with him.  McEwing and Sandberg are managerial prospects from the White Sox and Phillies, respectively.  Terry Francona would bring his own people in.  But Mike Matheny?  He’s been working with Mozeliak.

There is still no predicting who will be the Cards’ manager in a few days.  But I think that Matheny’s sudden ascension to front-runner shows that Mozeliak is ready to make the Cardinals his team.  For better or worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jake Westbrook and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Trade

It’s been a while since I posted anything.  There are a few reasons for that.  First of all, I happened to write two lengthy fictional posts about starting pitchers for the Cardinals which ended with those two pitchers getting injured.  And then those two pitchers were actually injured.  And they are still injured.  I’m not a superstitious person, but this gave me some pause.  Second, I started working on a novel and that took precedence over blogging about the Cardinals.  Third, the Cardinals just got depressing.  Even though they’re still in the playoff hunt (and thus a lot less depressing than some other teams) they’ve been playing with a sort of listlessness that makes watching the games infuriating.  I started paying attention the MLB at-bat feed rather than the actual game because there’s only so many times you can see someone swing at a Bud Norris “pitch” and miss.

But now Kyle Lohse is back to pitching again.  I’m done with my novel.  The Cardinals are playing better baseball, though they still seem befuddled by certain pitchers.  It’s time I start this back up again.  And what a time to start up, because the Cardinals have made an excruciatingly bad trade.

I ask you this: is there anyone out there that really, truly thinks it was a good idea to trade Ryan Ludwick for Jake Westbrook?

Bernie Miklasz noted the following in his article discussing the trade:

Since the start of the 2008 season, Ludwick ranks second in RBIs, third in homers and fourth in slugging percentage among NL outfielders.
Let’s just let that sink in.  We traded this guy for Jake Westbrook.  Second in RBIS basically means nothing, Ludwick spent a lot of that time hitting behind Albert Pujols, who is on base all the time.  But third in HR?  Fourth in SLG?  An argument could be made that Ludwick is one of the top 10 outfielders in the NL.  And we traded him for Jake Westbrook.

A few Jake Westbrook facts:

Jake Westbrook has a 4.65 ERA.  This is not good. In offense-heavy years, this is hovering around average.  In 2010, this is definitely below average.  But of course, ERA doesn’t really show you the whole picture so…

Jake Westbrook has a 4.67 FIP and 4.41 xFIP.  Both of these stats take a varying amount of luck out of ERA and calculate it based on strikeout/walk/flyball/HR percentage.  While they don’t tell you how many runs a pitcher has given up over an average of 9 innings, they do a great job of telling you how many runs he will tend to give up over an average of 9 innings.  It also tells you that his ERA isn’t really predicated that much on luck or stadium effects.  He really is below average.

Jake Westbrook won’t pitch 9 innings anyway.  The few people who see a silver lining in this trade frame Westbrook as an innings-eater, a guy who the Cards needed because Garcia is going to pitch far more than he ever has, Carpenter is fragile, and the rotation needs stability.  But Westbrook is coming off Tommy John surgery, didn’t pitch last year, and probably has an innings ceiling just like Garcia.  He’s averaged only six innings a game.

Jake Westbrook isn’t signed for next year and won’t even be a Type B free agent.  In the last updated Elias rankings estimations by mlbtraderumors.com, Westbrook was nestled somewhere between Vin Mazzaro and Derek Holland.  He was far short of luminaries such as Brian Bannister and Josh Outman, who has not even pitched this year.  He gives the Cardinals nothing past this season.  Ryan Ludwick was under team control for 2011.

Basically the Cardinals traded an above average OF with one more year of arbitration for a 2 month rental of a below average starting pitcher.

In a vacuum I have no problem with either acquiring Westbrook or trading Ludwick.  Westbrook isn’t the prototypical Duncan project.  He already throws a sinker.  But he’s better than Jeff Suppan.  Ludwick was getting pushed out by Jay and was going to be expensive next year.  I get that.  But why this trade?  Certainly they could have gotten more value for Ludwick who, again, is third in the NL in home runs among OF over the last 2+ years.   Maybe they could have swung the prospects for a better pitcher.  Or a middle infielder.

And even more certainly, they could have acquired the obviously below-average and overpaid Westbrook without trading one of their best hitters.

The way the trade went down even proves the latter point.  The Cardinals sent Ludwick to San Diego, who sent Cory Kluber to the Indians.  Kluber is a 24 year old righthanded pitcher who is, like any decent 24 year old pitcher should, dominating AA batters.  He’s doing well but he’s old (24) for his level and he doesn’t have a great track record.  His career minor league ERA is 4.29 and his career minor league FIP is 4.00.  And he’s always been a little old for his league.

Did the Cards have anyone like this?  Of course they did.  Hell, PJ Walters is pretty close to Cory Kluber.  He’s a year older, but he’s followed almost exactly the same career path, succeeding in the minors as a slightly older prospect.  Walters’s career ERA/FIP are even better than Klubers  (3.66/3.75) in more innings.

Charles Fick in AA/AAA is the same age as Klubel and, again, has a similar career.  Who the hell is Charles Fick?  Yeah, I don’t really know either.  But that’s the point. Cleveland essentially took a nobody for Westbrook. A PJ Walters or Charles Fick. Why did we have to trade Ludwick?  We didn’t.  It was a stupid trade.  We could have and should have gotten Westbrook for a song.  Instead, we traded our starting RF.

That’s not a move that a contending team makes.