Goodbye, Brendan Ryan
. Hello, Gerald Laird
So this is what building a winner looks like? This is what a championship-caliber team feels like?
Interesting. I always thought winning would feel good. I always kind of pictured the feeling a little like a cat lying in a sunbeam. Everything around you is one temperature, one ordinary temperature, and then there's this narrow little world that belongs entirely to you that's warmer and fuzzybright and just so temporarily perfect.
I thought winning would be enticing and exciting, like the small of your first girlfriend's back. Sure, it's something so ordinary it shouldn't make an impact at all, but it's also different somehow. There's something impossibly seductive about that smoothness that stays with you forever. I thought building a winner would be a little like that, smooth and delicious and secret and electric.
I guess I must have been wrong, because this offseason hasn't felt anything like that to me. Watching the 2011 Cardinals being built hasn't felt good or exciting or warm at all. It's just felt sad. Or maybe it's just me.
I wish I could work up a good angry froth over Brendan Ryan being traded, but I just can't. Part of it is the fact he's a pretty marginal player, of course; even with his outstanding glovework Brendan's very best season by WAR is 2.7 in 2009, making him a little-better-than-league-average player overall. So losing Brendan Ryan to the great wild Pacific Northwest doesn't seem like a huge loss production-wise. More than that, though, the real reason I suspect I can't work up anything stronger than melancholy resignation over the move is that I've just come to expect this sort of nonsensical move from the Cardinals these days.
It's the same thing with the Gerald Laird signing, really. I'm sure someone will tell me how good Laird is at handling pitchers, and how his clubhouse leadership will be invaluable. Then I'll tell them that's complete bullshit, that catcher defense is a mirage anyway, and I don't see any reason to sign a new over-the-hill backup catcher every couple of years when the Cards have a perfectly acceptable in-house option in Bryan Anderson who has shown the ability to hit a little and will be making league minimum. I will then be told, most likely by one of those Smartest/Best Fans in Baseball I hear so much about, that I'm not a real baseball fan, don't even like the game, and the game isn't played on paper. I will then sigh and stop arguing.
Honestly, what does Gerald Laird bring to the party Bryan Anderson doesn't? Excellent defense? Alright, I'll buy that. And what exactly does that entail? See, I care about defense when it turns a hit into an out. When catchers start doing that on a consistent basis I'll give their defense proper attention. Until then I shall remain skeptical. Does Laird have a brilliant reputation for -- warning: sportswriter BS dead ahead -- working well with pitchers? Honestly, every time I hear that phrase I die a little inside.
So no, I can't really get all that angry about Brendan Ryan being dealt, because the writing was on the wall for quite some time now. The team I love is being held hostage by their increasingly irrelevant Hall of Fame manager and an ownership group unwilling to oust said manager. So we get Ryan Theriot, who I'm sure is a wonderful human being but isn't much of a ballplayer, replacing Brendan Ryan, who has at least one excellent skill. On the other hand, Skip Schumaker, who boasts exactly zero excellent skills (and no, trying really hard to convert to second base isn't a skill, no matter how much Dan 'n Al want you to think it is), remains not just on the team, but in a starting capacity. All thanks to Tony La Russa's blessing. I can't get angry. I can, however, feel sad about all of this.
I'm sad because I miss the days when this team made sense, when rampant favoritism wasn't an accepted part of the daily routine. It's always been a part of LaRussa's paradigm, I suppose; witness the brilliance of Mike Gallego playing game after game for the Oakland Athletics in the early 90s. But it was never to this extent. Now, though, we get to watch an obviously helpless Chris Duncan play long beyond the point it became absurd. We get to see Aaron Miles come back again and again like an infection you just can't kick while Tyler Greene sits on the bench and Brendan Ryan is traded for being -- what exactly? Irritating? Obnoxious? Bad at baseball? One of those three would make sense. Unfortunately, that one is also the only one Ryan hasn't been accused of. There's a pattern with La Russa that seems impossible to ignore. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of people out there who will ignore it anyway.
I didn't have a problem with the Lance Berkman signing, because at the very least I thought it would be intriguing to see if his bat could rebound, but it still smacks of the same old veteran paradigm we just can't seem to kick. Never mind we have a couple young players capable of playing the outfield without falling down, we need a Proven Veteran in here. What's that you say? He hasn't played the outfield in three years and stopped because his knees were shot? Bah! That's a detail, and you know I don't want to hear details!
I'm sad because I don't understand the plan for this team. At all. We hear about a commitment to an internal pipeline, but then sign veteran players to block internal options. The Cardinals feature a pitching coach obsessed with ground balls, but they trade away the best defensive shortstop in the game in favour of a guy who's perfectly average on defense, not much better at hitting, three years older, and about three times more expensive. Seriously. The Cards are going to pay Ryan Theriot over three million dollars this year to do his thing out there at shortstop. And all the while our sacred cow second baseman will continue to miss grounder after grounder and receive praise for all the hard work he's put in to attain this current level of shittiness. Or should that be shittitude? I can never remember which one is right. Maybe shittosity.
I'm sad because the way the Cardinals' roster is currently constructed (and even more so with the spectre of an impending Albert Pujols mega-contract looming large), they have to be efficient at the margins. The team's core is massively talented and hugely expensive. There has to be a group of cost-controlled, useful players supporting that core in order for this to be a winning team. Instead of efforts in that direction, though, we see personality conflicts, feuds, and a fascination with experience at the expense of actual talent.
And, I must admit, I'm sad because it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the 2011 Cardinals be better than the 2010 edition. After all, I myself wrote time and time again during the most recent campaign about how damnably strange it was to see the team struggle the way they did. Going by run differential, the 2010 team should have been a full five games better than they actually were. Even if the 2011 team is exactly as good as the 2010 team there's a pretty good chance their record could easily be five or six games better. And when that happens, I'll have to hear about how brilliant running Brendan Ryan out of town was, and how Tony La Russa really understands clubhouse chemistry on a winning ballclub. I'll have to hear all the awesome things Ryan Theriot does that I just can't see on the field, but somehow make him a winner. And yes, that will definitely make me sad.