The Cardinals confirmed this morning that they'll be sending Julio Lugo to Baltimore for a player to be named later. The move was made possible, in part, by the fact that Brendan Ryan's rehab has gone much faster than expected and he appears on course to play Opening Day. Cardinals skipper, Tony LaRussa, endorsed the move because it made his roster math a little simpler, allowing him to keep Joe Mather, Nick Stavinoha, and Allen Craig, young players who have made strong showings this spring. I'd like to offer an alternative viewpoint.
First of all, what surprises me about this deal is that St. Louis will get nothing in return. It is highly unlikely that the player to be named later will be anything more than organizational depth. Moreover, whatever St. Louis (and now Baltimore) gets from Lugo is absolutely free production, as the Red Sox are paying his 2010 salary in its entirety. It's rare to have a useful veteran player like Lugo on your bench who costs you essentially zero dollars. Lugo played quite well down the stretch for the Cardinals, hitting .277 with a 784 OPS. He is easily as good an offensive player as Brendan Ryan, though Ryan is the superior defender.
Lugo was, however, the Cardinals best back-up plan at short, something which should be taken into serious consideration following Ryan's back problems this spring. Felipe Lopez, who hasn't spent significant time at shortstop since 2007, and was never as strong there as he is at second base, becomes the alternative to Ryan. Were Ryan to miss extensive time, the Cardinals up-the-middle defense would take a major hit, as Lopez would not only represent a more drastic decline at short than Lugo, but the team would also miss his defense at second base, where Skip Schumaker, a natural outfielder, would have to play full-time again.
Lugo was also perfectly suited to LaRussa's managerial tendencies. Although primarily a shortstop, he has played extended innings at second and some time at third and even in the outfield. Positional flexibility is something that LaRussa, who loves to play matchup baseball, covets. Lugo was among his only middle infield options, while guys like Mather, Craig, and Stavinoha are very limited defensively.
When I previewed the NL Central this spring, and did my offseason prospectus for the Cardinals this winter, my primary concern was the Cardinals lack of depth. They are playing without a parachute at several positions. Obviously, an injury to one of their big four - Pujols, Carpenter, Holliday, and Wainwright - would be devastating, but now that they've parted ways with Lugo and Rick Ankiel, they could be seriously hampered by an injury to Ryan or Colby Rasmus, as Skip Schumaker is probaby the back-up centerfielder. Perhaps John Mozeliak is planning on being as active this July as he was last year, when he reinvigorated the Cardinals by adding Holliday, Lugo, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz, but such reinforcements come at a hefty price and the competition for them is likely to be stiff.
Some pundits believe that the Cardinals path to the postseason is the easiest in baseball, but I disagree. While it's true that no team in the NL Central made a big offseason splash, the Cubs, Reds, and Brewers all figure to be better than they were in 2009, thanks to the return of injured players (Aramis Ramirez, Joey Votto, etc.), the development of key youngsters (Yovani Gallardo, Jay Bruce, etc.), and the saavy addition of role-playing free agents (Randy Wolf, Orlando Cabrera, etc.). In fact, it is the Cardinals who appear to have taken the biggest step backwards, having parted ways with Lugo, Ankiel, DeRosa, and Joel Pineiro. What can they expect from David Freese? Is Brad Penny a suitable third starter? Will Ryan Franklin continue to be a dominant closer? Can they really expect to again have two Cy Young contenders?
I'm certainly not rooting against or betting against the Cardinals, who usually find a way to exceed expectations, but I don't think they'll be able to run away and hide, as they did during the second half of last season. Health and depth will play a major role in deciding the Central, and by gifting Julio Lugo to the Orioles, the Cardinals made themselves less prepared to compensate in both departments.