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Bernie: Mozeliak sets off a loud wake-up call

2014-08-01T12:00:00Z 2014-08-12T14:36:59Z Bernie: Mozeliak sets off a loud wake-up callBernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

"Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good." 

— Actor Alec Baldwin, playing the tough-guy executive Blake and dressing down a lackadaisical sales staff in the film "Glengarry Glen Ross" 


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Well. 

Does GM John Mozeliak have their attention now? 

Thursday the Cardinals sent  slumping outfielder Allen Craig and his future salaries and pitcher Joe Kelly to Boston for pitcher John Lackey and a pitching prospect. 

This was Mo's latest assault on a complacent team. 

The shakeup began last week when Mozeliak added the porcupine quills of notorious badass catcher A.J. Pierzysnki to the roster. 

Next came a deal for Cleveland starting pitcher Justin Masterson, a competitive live wire who earned so much respect from his teammates that the Indians sported Masterson's "high-sock" look when they took the field Wednesday as a way to honor their departing teammate. 

And now Mozeliak has sent away two popular players to bring in Lackey -- the ornery, warhorse pitcher who was once called "The Most Hated Man in the AL East" by ESPN's Grantland web site. The same Lackey that outpitched Michael Wacha and put the Cardinals away to win Game 6 and lock down the 2013 World Series for the Red Sox. 

I presume Mozeliak has the Cardinals' attention now.

All of the Cardinals. The manager Mike Matheny and his coaches. The players. I'm thinking that they understand that much more is expected from them, and it would probably be a good idea to vacate whatever state of mind they've relocated to for much of this season. 

It was good to see the boys wipe the sleep from their eyes, break a sweat and play energetically in Thursday's 6-2 win in San Diego. Perhaps they finally got the message from the GM. And if they didn't, Mozeliak won't hesitate to shake things up again. 

This was a baseball trade, yes. Mozeliak dumped the unproductive Craig's salary and essentially filled out Matheny's lineup card by clearing the RF spot for hotshot prospect Oscar Taveras

Mozeliak sacrificed Kelly's talent and future growth potential in exchange for a hardcore veteran competitor with vast big-game experience that includes 16 postseason starts, 104 postseason innings, and two World Series-clinching wins. 

But this was also a move that attacked the team's creeping lethargy. 

I have a bunch of thoughts on this, so let's get to it ... 

* As for the elephant in the room ... yes, I view this trade as a Mozeliak intervention. Matheny had a hard time with the idea of benching Craig; in my opinion he wasn't going to do it. He wasn't going to go all-in with Taveras. And I believe Mozeliak took the decision out of the manager's hands. You can call this a power move — I do — but when I ran that theory by Mozeliak he adamantly disputed it. Mozeliak insists that this wasn't a move made to force Matheny into playing Taveras. Not that Mozeliak would ever admit to it. Why would he? It's a bit delicate, yes? Presumably Matheny understands now. 

* I understand that Craig and Kelly were well liked by teammates. And they certainly seemed to be popular with fans. Pardon my dissent, but that's a non-factor to me. As fans we all get attached to players, but the truth is they come and go. It's a business. As for the clubhouse being in a state of sadness following the departures of Craig and Kelly ... well, too bad. 

* On that point, I respect what Jim Edmonds said Thursday on the Fox Sports Midwest pregame show: "I think everybody in that clubhouse is popular, and that's the problem they think they're having right now. Rah-rah can only get you so far. Having fun can only get you so far. And when you're the ownership and the general manager you need some guys to go in there and smack some people around and get a little bit more aggressive. The locker room can get too close at times, and I that's I think the situation that they thought they were falling into." 

* The Cardinals wouldn't have traded Craig if they thought he'd bounce back in a significant way. He's having a brutal season and appears to be in decline. Injuries have taken a toll on him. His bat speed has deteriorated. Maybe Craig gets it back. For his sake, I hope so. But by making this move Mozeliak is also making a wager: that Craig's downturn is largely irreversible, and the team was better off shedding his salary guarantees — $25.5 million over the next three seasons — and cutting their losses and giving Taveras a regular lineup spot.

*  If Mozeliak is wrong about Taveras, then he'll have to own it. The Cardinals, however, have a good track record in knowing when the time is right to cut bait with aging hitters. If Taveras becomes the hitter that the Cardinals think he'll be, then no one will be fretting over Craig's exit. And the Cardinals have other outfielders on the way: Stephen PiscottyRandal Grichuk and down the road, Charlie Tilson

* Here's what Mozeliak told me about all of this: "Playing time for him (Craig) was going to dwindle whether I made this trade or not. The squeeze was on for playing time. We don't make this trade unless you have Taveras playing and Piscotty in the wings. At some point if you believe in their potential you have to let them play." 

* No matter how we all choose to interpret the underlying reasons for moving Craig, this much is indisputable: this is Oscar's time now. He'll have a chance to settle in and get his career on track. The stakes are enormous. First, Mozeliak presumably could have traded Taveras as part of a package for Price. Second, Mozeliak cleared Craig out of the way to create a full-on opportunity for Taveras. And if Taveras is a bust, then the GM will never live it down. So think about that if you're inclined to accuse Mozeliak of failing to be aggressive or lacking the nerve to make a tough call.

* Oscar responded with a HR in his first at-bat Thursday in San Diego. It doesn't mean he's in the clear; he's still adjusting to MLB pitching. But the clarity should help him. I don't see how it helps a young hitter to come to the ballpark every day, knowing that if he goes 0 for 4 he'll probably be riding the bench the next day. This unmistakable vote of confidence should help Oscar's confidence. Now it's up to him ... unless Matheny has other ideas. We'll see. 

* Parting with Kelly is difficult, but I don't see how anyone can reasonably claim that the Cardinals' rotation isn't better than now after two days of dealing. Now they can line up Adam Wainwright, Lackey, Lance LynnJustin Masterson and Shelby Miller. And the team hasn't wavered in its belief that Michael Wacha will return in September. (We'll see.) Carlos Martinez is still in the mix should a need arise. The depth is dramatically improved.  The rotation isn't as thin.

* The Cardinals did something that division rivals Milwaukee and Pittsburgh couldn't do at the deadline: strengthen the rotation. For an offensively impaired team like the Cardinals, pitching matters more than ever. Starting pitching is the No. 1 reason why this team has remained in contention with an offense that ranks 29th in the majors in runs per game. If the offense doesn't wake up the Cardinals have no choice but to try and pitch their way through the rest of the season and hope to prevail in low-scoring postseason games if they make it to October. Hardly ideal, but it's the only available route right now. 

* Kelly is young and talented. But would you prefer to have Lackey or Kelly to make postseason starts for you in 2014 and 2015? To repeat: Lackey has started 16 postseason games and has a 3.04 ERA. Yes, he's had some clunkers in there, but as Angel Lackey beat the Giants in Game 7 of the the 2002 World Series. He got the best of Wacha and the Cardinals in Game 6 to wrap up the 2013 World Series. The term "grizzled veteran" applies here. Lackey has some Chris Carpenter in him. He's half nuts, basically. 

* Innings are a necessity. Since rehabbing from elbow surgery that caused him to miss the 2012 season, Lackey has made 50 starts over the last two seasons. He's had 34 quality starts in the 50 outings. He's gone at least six innings in 39 of the 50 ... and at least seven innings in 24 of the 50. Kelly had made 38 starts for the Cardinals. He's gone six innings in only 21 of the 38 ... and gone at least seven innings in only two of the 38. 

* The difference between Kelly and Lackey right now? Efficiency. Lackey throws strikes. He has a superior strikeout rate. He has a superior strikeout-walk ratio. Kelly is still developing and learning how to streamline his pitching so he can go deeper into games. That isn't a concern with Lackey. 

* On the flip side, the Cardinals traded a younger starter (Kelly is 26) for the older (age 35) Lackey. But the Cardinals are in good shape with their rotation for next year: Wainwright, Wacha, Lackey, Lynn, Miller, Martinez. That's six starters. And prospects Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney aren't far off. Young lefty Rob Kaminsky could be in the bigs by 2016. Kelly has value. I like him a lot. But let's be realistic, Kelly also could have ended up in the St. Louis bullpen next season. And there's other young pitching on the way. There isn't room in the rotation for all of them, so a calculated move to address the present predicament makes sense. 

* It's unusual to land a proven starter like Lackey who has a 2015 salary of a mere $500,000. But that is what Lackey will make in 2015 at the end of his contract. That's pretty crazy, to say the least. Based on the standard metric valuations, Lackey would be about a $15 million pitcher in 2015. And the Cardinals have him at 500k? And people are actually complaining? One benefit to having a young starter is payroll flexibility. The Cardinals can plug Lackey in for '15 and still have the same level of payroll flexibility. 

On a related front: 

* Mozeliak will leave himself open to second-guessing. Not so much for making this particular trade, but for not being able to wrest ace David Price from Tampa Bay. In acquiring talented young lefthanded starter Drew Smyly, middle infield prospect Nick Franklin and an 18-year-old SS prospect in a three-way deal with Detroit and Seattle, the Rays seemingly settled for a lot less than the baseball pundits expected in the Price auction. Price ends up with the Tigers. Maybe Tampa Bay had to go this way after chasing away potential trade partners with extreme demands. Who knows? Mozeliak was reluctant to give up Taveras and Carlos Martinez to rent Price through 2015.  

* Mozeliak will also be second-guessed for failing to add  an impact bat to boost a sickly offense. Feel free to disagree, but I don't think that's fair. At all. There wasn't much available, even though Oakland was willing to overpay by trading slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Boston to rent pending free-agent pitcher Jon Lester. Outfielder Jonny Gomes went to the A's in the swap, but he's having a lousy season. You also have to take Oakland's situation into account. Under GM Billy Beane, the A's have had a sequence of terrific regular seasons followed by postseason fizzles. They haven't reached a World Series, and Beane is in an ultra aggressive mode. He's going for it — all of it — in 2014. The Cardinals have won two World Series and an NL pennant over the last eight seasons, and have taken an approach that balances the present with the future.

Beane is loading up for the 2014 postseason. I don't think the Cardinals had anyone — save for Adam Wainwright — that would could give Beane what he wanted for Cespedes as Oakland tries to put together a savage rotation for the coming postseason. And on top of all that, Mozeliak made his Thursday move to open a full-time corner OF job for Taveras to install him over the foreseeable future, and Cespedes can opt out of his contract and become a free agent after 2015. 

I'm sure I've forgotten a few things, but I'm written out.

Thanks for reading ...

-Bernie 

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Bernie Miklasz has been covering St. Louis sports since 1989. 

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