Establishing a starting pitcher appears to be well under way with Jaime Garcia. The minors has produced a handful of players the Cardinals have considered for the hot corner in David Freese, Joe Mather and Allen Craig with the former apparently winning the position. So what’s the next need that will arise? It’s almost certainly right field.
Ryan Ludwick was signed to a 1-year contract in January and will be in his last season of club control in 2011. At 5.45M in 2010, he’s likely to be worth his salary. Assuming $4M/WAR, Ludwick would need to produce around 2.2 WAR on the season.* CHONE projected him for a 2.0 WAR season in 2010. He’s now a year removed from the monstrous 5 WAR season he had in 2008.
So what would a 2 WAR season look like for Ludwick? Well, a lot like 2009. He hit for a .336 wOBA (.269/.329/.467) against a league average of .329. Ludwick has continued to be an average fielder in RF and projected that way again in 2010 by CHONE. So Ludwick amassing a .340 wOBA over about 600PAs would get him into the 2 WAR level. That’s not a tall order for him and he certainly has the capacity to produce well beyond that.
But 2011 is a trickier topic. He’ll make more money, likely approaching 9M**, meaning he’ll need to be producing at a higher rate something closer to 3 WAR. If he plays well in 2010 that arbitration salary could be eve higher. Regardless of the specifics of his 2011 contract, the Cardinals are going to be hard pressed to keep Ludwick around because of the financial constraints imposed by 3 big pitching contracts and a pair of mega position player contracts.
So, who in the system has a chance of being that replacement in 2011? Well, the first and possibly best bet are a pair of recent grads residing on the major league roster already. Joe Mather is currently relegated to a backup CF role and it might be to the detriment of the team overall as he represents a nice combination of defense and potential offense. With the need to hold him in reserve for emergency CF duties, the likelihood is that he won’t see consistent or even significant playing time. Mather’s window for creating a Jayson Werth (or even a Ryan Ludwick!) type career for himself has been hampered by recent wrist injuries and, like everyone not named Benjamin Button, he isn’t getting any younger.
Allen Craig, having already seen time in RF in 2010, is the second candidate to consider. I’ve written about him extensively and, perceived organizational indifference towards his defense aside, I like his bat to be the most prolific of the right field candidates for the future.
On the minor’s side, the Cardinals will look for a pair of players to put together strong seasons at Memphis and create viable alternatives to Mather/Craig. Jon Jay, repeating his time in Memphis is the most serious contender. 2008 represented an offensive zenith for Jay as he posted very good numbers in Springfield (.306/.379/.407) over 400+ PAs. Jay’s 2009 tour at Memphis was underwhelming with a .338 OBP but his major calling card would be the completeness of his game in RF. A plus defender in the outfield, his minor league numbers have been nothing short of fantastic. He looks to be worth upwards of a full win in the field so the offensive threshold for being a productive player is much lower for Jay. Simply being league average offensively makes him a better than average player.
More of a long shot but one of my favorite players in the system right now is Tyler Henley. More along the lines of Jay than Craig, Henley is an above average fielder (only slightly by the metrics but I like him as +5 in a corner) and an good hitter who has yet to misstep in the minors. Henley’s options and limited time in the minors make his ascension somewhat less likely as he’s not even on the 40-man roster yet. It’s hard to completely discount Henley but he faces the largest obstacles on the list.
There’s a handful of players that aren’t real options in Memphis. Amaury Cazana Marti (age), Shane Robinson (lack of offense) and Mark Shorey (defense) are not real options in RF. In Springfield, Adron Chambers and Daryl Jones are too far removed from the majors to be considered real candidates. It’s not impossible that the Cardinals will retain Ryan Ludwick in 2011. The possibility of saving $8M while only taking a minor downgrade on paper is hard to ignore though. With the amount of committed dollars the Cardinals have in the next few years and the impending re-signing of one Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick represents the easiest expensive player for the team to replace.
*This includes the typical 60% discount that player contracts in Arb year 2 represent. Thus, Ludwick needs to produce at a level consumate with a $9M free agent.
** Arb year 3 represents a 80% discount from free agent prices.