Cardinals Improve by Adding Lackey, Subtracting Craig

Wondering if the Cardinals felt good about Michael Wacha‘s shoulder or Shelby Miller‘s general existence? Wonder no more, because less than 24 hours after picking up Justin Masterson from Cleveland, they’ve now added John Lackey from Boston, for the not-insignificant price of Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.

Yesterday morning, the St. Louis rotation looked something like this:

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Lance Lynn
  3. Joe Kelly
  4. Shelby Miller
  5. Carlos Martinez / Marco Gonzales

Now, it’s potentially a bit more like this:

  1. Wainwright
  2. Lynn
  3. Lackey
  4. Masterson
  5. Miller / Martinez

Is that better? It’s certainly different.

Lackey, of course, has experienced something of a career rebirth after an awful 2011 and lost 2012 in Boston, providing 326.2 innings of 3.55 ERA / 3.74 FIP (and almost six WAR) since the start of 2013. Kelly, over the same time period, has missed nearly three months with a hamstring injury and given 159 innings of 3.06 ERA / 3.99 FIP baseball; he is, of course, nearly a decade younger and can’t be a free agent until 2019.

Since returning from that injury, he’s been awful, allowing at least four earned runs in three of his four starts. Long-term, there’s at least a chance that he’s a relief pitcher, since he doesn’t miss a ton of bats despite throwing hard, doesn’t have elite control, and absolutely requires a solid defense behind him in order to turn his grounders into outs. He’s a useful young pitcher, to be sure, but in an organization as full of young pitching as the Cardinals are, he’s not someone you can’t live without.

Were this simply “which pitcher is more likely to help the Cardinals this year,” it’s Lackey, pretty clearly, though perhaps only by about one WAR, which is the difference in their projections. Is that worth it? Maybe it is, because the Cardinals are 2.5 games out in the NL Central, yet in third place. The playoff odds have the Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates as all pretty even odds to win the division, and you can argue that with Milwaukee having played terribly this month, St. Louis sees themselves as the favorites.

If one extra win not only gets the Cards from being out to being in, but from being in the one-game playoff to being a division winner, then yes, getting a single extra win is absolutely worth it — and they also get the benefit of Lackey’s insanely valuable $500,000 contract for 2015, though it seems likely they’ll need to work something out with him rather than have him actually pitch for that amount. (For those unfamiliar, the Red Sox added a clause saying they’d get an extra year of Lackey for that price if he missed time with elbow surgery, which he of did.) If you buy into “playoff experience,” well, Lackey has that too, winning titles with the Red Sox last year and with the Angels in 2002.

Of course, it’s not just Lackey for Kelly straight-up, because the Red Sox also get Craig, one of the NL’s better hitters over the last three seasons, but who has been a total disaster this year. Craig has $26.5m guaranteed through 2017, is already 30, and has been absolutely atrocious this season. (81 wRC+, -0.4 WAR.) This can’t be seen as anything but an indication that the Cardinals considered his woes all but unfixable, and didn’t want to spend real money on a player who was contributing nothing, so it’s maybe also less that the Red Sox “get” Craig than it is the Cardinals don’t have to deal with him.

So when that math is factored in, Craig actually moves to the other side of the equation. The trade is really something more like:

Cardinals get 1.5 years of Lackey, $1.75m, 2013 fifth-round P Corey Littrell and the luxury of not paying Craig
——————-
Red Sox get Kelly and the prayer of finding 2011-13 Craig

Which is valuable, really. The Cardinals have a better rotation than they did yesterday, and they may have improved their offense — 17th with a 99 non-pitcher wRC+ — by subtraction,  no longer needing to play Craig in the hopes that he’d rebound. Now, the Cardinals have opened up room for top prospect Oscar Taveras, who had been kicking around on the big league bench recently. There’s no guarantee that Taveras contributes, of course; he hasn’t yet, and Dave laid out nicely why he’s a risky player. If he doesn’t step up, then Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos (or someone like Randal Grichuk) are suddenly both starting outfielders, which isn’t a great situation, but again, Craig wasn’t getting the job done, either. The offense they get out of right field from here on out almost certainly can’t be less than it was before.

There’s also this: in the playoffs, in a short series, Martinez probably goes back to the bullpen. If Wacha can make it back this season, maybe he’s best utilized as a short reliever. Trevor Rosenthal is still there. Seth Maness and Pat Neshek are still there, and Randy Choate and Sam Freeman and Gonzales and Kevin Siegrist, too. A big part of last year’s postseason success was that bullpen, and that had been lessened somewhat this year by having some of those guys in the rotation. Now, they can move back, and that ripple effect improves the entire staff.

If Craig bounces back in Boston, this is going to look bad, that they gave up on him after four lousy months after several quality seasons. But it’s hard to look at Craig right now and think that he’s going to be the key part of a Cardinals team that badly wants to get another ring for aging players like Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday while they still have time. Lackey makes them more likely to win this year than Kelly does, and is probably more valuable in 2015 as well. Not having Craig makes them more likely to win than having Craig does. A huge part of this depends on what Taveras does, of course, but that’s unavoidable. This is one of those trades that seemed shocking at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes plenty of sense for both sides.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


50 Responses to “Cardinals Improve by Adding Lackey, Subtracting Craig”

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  1. FeslenR says:

    Surprised the Cards haven’t dealt Shelby Miller yet….

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    • chuckb says:

      It may say something about how the rest of the league views him. Like Craig, Miller’s one who, undoubtedly, has much less trade value than a year or so ago.

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      • james says:

        Miller has not destroyed his value, but it was so high at the end of last season that it is a bit of a head scratcher. He is still roughly a league average SP under team control.

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  2. Jon says:

    What’s the latest on Lackey refusing to play in 2015? Will he show that he’s the slimiest guy in MLB?

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be much quicker to forgive guys for PEDs than I would be for essentially screwing their team out of $15M.

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    • BDF says:

      Players are free at any time to not play in return for not receiving their money. It’s called retiring. If that’s what Lackey chooses to do because he doesn’t think $500k is worth his effort, that’s not screwing anyone.

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      • Jon says:

        Retiring when you normally wouldn’t because you made a deal and don’t feel like living up to your end of the bargain is most certainly screwing the Red Sox. A bit less so with the trade, but if he stayed with the Sox and retired next year, you don’t think all of New England would be calling for his head?

        I mean, the Red Sox messed up by not deferring money and putting a clause in that he’d only get it if he did play in 2015, but still – this is as slimy as it gets.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Well, if he chooses to retire rather than play for $0.5M, that’s his right. I’d have no problem with that.

      But if he’s whining that he’s being underpaid and the situation isn’t fair, then he’s an ass. He signed a contract that gave the team the $0.5M option precisely because the risk of TJ surgery was high. He never would’ve received the $82.5/5 deal if it weren’t from that clause.

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      • BDF says:

        I kind of agree, but in practice it’s a distinction without a difference. Like if Lackey says he retires and in his heart believes it but then the team says, “But we’ll give you $20m/2 to come back” and that changes his heart it’s OK, but if that’s what he wanted all along it isn’t?

        Also, the contract could have been structured so that the $500k year was in the second-to-last year rather than the last year to avoid giving Lackey this leverage. Lackey having this opportunity if the situation arose was every bit as known at the time of the signing as the terms of the contract.

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        • Yirmiyahu says:

          Honestly, considering how novel the clause was, I don’t think it occurred to the agents/team that it’d create the situation. Everyone’s been analyzing the team option since he began having elbow issues in 2011, but I don’t think the possibility of him sitting out the season was ever mentioned until this year.

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      • redsoxu571 says:

        The issue at hand is that Lackey would de facto NOT be “playing for $500k”. He’d be playing for the $15M+ he “earned” when he missed a season due to an injury that was primarily the result of on-the-job work that happened when he did not play for he new employer. Essentially, it says “hey, if I miss a year for this, I won’t deserve the money I get that year, so tack on an extra year and pretend you’re just paying for that season instead”.

        I thought it was clever and fair on both ends, but it loses a lot of its cool-factor if Lackey grumbles at all about it.

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      • Jon says:

        Good for him. I’m happy to hear this. And Boston gets even more screwed in this deal than we initially thought.

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    • Sam says:

      The St. Louis paper said that the Cardinals confirmed that Lackey would honor his deal prior to making the deal. I figured like the author that the Cardinals would work out some sort of conditional extension or something but apparently Lackey is going to play essentially for free next year.

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    • B N says:

      I don’t quite get the benefit of him retiring, if he is at all interested in money. While he might have to play one season at $0.5m, he would then be a free agent and could once again sign a $$$ contract ($15-20 over 2 years maybe). If you retire, you lose all potential earnings from later years. I assume you can’t just “retire” for the one season that you don’t like your contract payment, then suddenly come back and sign elsewhere. That would seem like a rather significant loophole…

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  3. walt526 says:

    I’m a bit more optimistic about Craig. He’s a risk, but has a chance to be a reasonably priced complementary piece for several seasons. He’s also a good fit for LF at Fenway.

    The additions of both Cespedes and Craig seems redundant and possibly suggests that the Sox will look to deal the Flyin’ Hawaiian at some point.

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    • tz says:

      As a Sox fan I hope that’s the case. If someone’s comfortable with Victorino’s health and the money he’s owed through the end of 2015, he might be a fit somewhere (Seattle?)

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Yeah, definitely an outfield logjam: Cespedes, Allen, Victorino, Bradley, Nava, Holt. Plus, #1 prospect Mookie Betts who’s otherwise blocked by Pedroia.

      The other possibility is that Napoli gets moved.

      Fun fact: of all the outfielders I mentioned above, Nava has by far the highest career wOBA vs RHP’s, but is probably the 5th OFer on the depth chart at the moment.

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      • Justin Bailey says:

        Just a guess, but the Sox might not be playing Holt in the OF much next year because they just dealt Drew. Bogaerts back to SS, Holt at 3B most of the time? That leaves 4 OFs which is a much more reasonable number.

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      • OLIVER projection system says:

        That really IS a fun fact about Nava. Even I was unaware. Thanks for the fun! So, more to the point, would you prefer Nava start vs. all righties then?

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        • Craig seems more like a future DH when Ortiz retires. At this point, he hasn’t hit for power since mid 2012. At 30, it’s not likely coming back in a significant way. He’s slow, he’s a bad fielder. A slow, bad fielder, who only hits singles is pretty shitty. Unless he’s a DH. Then you take out a huge part of his negative value.

          Billy Butler is basically what I see Allen Craig as. What’s crazy is that Butler is younger than Craig. So Craig probably is more like a diet Billy Butler. So good for the Cardinals to dump his contract and get Taveras, Lester, and whoever they sign in free agency.

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  4. jsolid says:

    We have no idea what’s going to happen to Craig’s production – would you make an even money bet to guess his wOBA in 2015 if you only had to come within 20 points? And no idea what will happen to Lackey’s contract. So this trade has so much uncertainty, its kind of ungradeable. But very interesting.

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    • He’s a 30 year old late bloomer who’s power stopped in mid 2012 and now his ability to hit singles is gone too. He’s slow and a bad fielder. He was never much of a candidate to be anymore than he was to begin with. Not a huge mystery to me. He came up with Freese, Lynn, and Kelly and they’re all basically the same. They were as good as they were ever going to get those first few years.

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  5. KJ says:

    It’s a testament to the sad state of the Red Sox that I pull open Craig’s player page, look at his “atrocious” season numbers, and think “looks pretty good!”

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  6. jsolid says:

    Wait, the Red Sox have traded four-fifths of their rotation? Is that unprecedented?

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Doubront wasn’t in the rotation. But, yeah, 4/5ths of their opening day rotation got traded within a week. Crazy.

      Rotation now appears to be:
      Buchholz (29 years old)
      Kelly (26 years old)
      Workman (25 years old)
      de la Rosa (25 years old)
      Webster (24 years old)

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      • John C says:

        They won’t go into 2015 with that rotation. They’ll add at least one front-line starter to that before then. Way too many question marks in that group, but if two of three of them were to bust out…

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        • Sam says:

          I agree, but yet if they won’t pay Lester top dollar, are they going to pay Shields that money?

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        • arc says:

          “they won’t pay Lester top dollar” is an unsound assumption. They wouldn’t, certainly, but they still may.

          If you’re them and you realize you are going to have to pay market rate to keep him, it makes sense to acquire an asset here.

          Whether that’s a risk worth taking is a separate question. But the idea that the Lester negotiations mean Boston won’t pay him or someone else top dollar is mistaken.

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  7. jdbolick says:

    I don’t understand the deal at all for Boston. Why would you take on all that Allen Craig money?

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    • John C says:

      They probably think they can fix him, and they wanted Joe Kelly, who is a ground-ball pitcher (good for Fenway) with a 3.25 ERA in 266 innings of MLB work, and four and a half years of club control left.

      The Red Sox are very, very confident in their assessment of talent, and in their ability to develop and utilize it. Doesn’t surprise me they’d make a deal like this one.

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      • jdbolick says:

        Joe Kelly no longer pitches in front of the Cardinals’ defense. His peripherals are mediocre at best, which is why he has a career FIP of 4.00. Meanwhile there’s really no reason to believe Boston can fix Allen Craig’s declining bat speed.

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        • Sam says:

          Don’t underestimate him. He doesn’t pitch for strikeouts, but that doesn’t mean he’s not effective. He has some of the best stuff you’ve ever seen and when he’s on he induces tons of easy outs. The problem with him is his command. It comes and goes for months at a time.

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        • Greenwell's Moustachio says:

          Umm, Sam, this is Fangraphs, not ESPN. “The best stuff you’ve ever seen” doesn’t really cut it.

          I refute you thus: http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=9761&position=P

          Moreover, if we’re going off of completely subjective observations, I will go so far as to say that Kelly not only does not have anywhere close to the best stuff I’ve ever seen, but that he probably has only like the 6th best stuff on his former team (Wainwright, Lynn, Miller, Rosenthal, Wacha).

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        • B N says:

          You know who had some of the best stuff I’VE ever seen? Danny Cabrera. His only slight problem was that his control would go for a career at a time. To quoth Wikipaedia:
          “his career high for walks in a single game is 9… in a bizarre outing where in addition to his walks, which loaded the bases in three of his five innings, fanned 10 batters and allowed only one run to cross the plate, on a wild pitch.”

          Control is well… a pretty important thing, all told.

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      • Greenwell's Moustachio says:

        You know who’s been really really good in evaluating their own talent? That would be the Cards. They won big on this deal. Cherington proving that Epstein was the brains behind the operation.

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    • Sam says:

      A year ago Craig’s contract looked like a steal. If he’s even a marginal starter, then he’s a bargain. However, I think there’s a real question about whether he’s even a marginal starter at this point. I don’t see how he’s going to succeed in Boston with his line-drive swing either.

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      • jdbolick says:

        The overall contract obviously looked better than the total money remaining now since St. Louis got to pay for the cheap years. I also think we tend to forget that Allen is going to be 31 next season because he didn’t get on our radar until recently, so imminent decline was in order. My boss did a study on that a while back suggesting that hitters who break out late also tend to fade faster (Jason Bay, etc).

        While I wouldn’t say “bargain,” I will concede that it’s possible for the contract not to be a disaster. I continue to have trouble wrapping my head around the notion of paying ~$7 million per win.

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  8. Greenwell's Moustachio says:

    Joe Kelly is at best a #4 SP who doesn’t strike out many people. That’s exactly what the Red Sox (Workman, Webster, Buchholz, de la Rosa, Ranaudo, Wright, Barnes) don’t need.

    If you were judging this deal by current market value, you’d have to say that Craig had negative trade value, and that Kelly’s was fairly nominal (more than say a live arm from AA, but less than any of the guys mentioned above who are all younger than Kelly and cost-controlled for some time). Meanwhile, a 2015 of John Lackey at $500,000 is worth quite a lot. So it’s really really hard for me to understand why the Sox made this deal.

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  9. I understand that the Cards need to get better now (especially in that division) However, do you feel like they are selling low with Craig and Kelly? Kelly probably is as good as what he’s showing, and hindsight is 20/20, but last year when he was beating his peripherals would have been the opportune time to trade Kelly. Craig I think could bounce back even if he’s not likely to ever be as good as he once was.

    I think the Cards made a good deal, just wondering if other people see this as a desperate sell low because of the circumstances or if this is about as good as they could have gotten regardless.

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    • Firstly, I love your username.

      Secondly, I think the Cardinals win from this trade because Mike Matheny has been curiously unwilling to bench Craig for any length of time to allow him to sort whatever problem he has, or just let another guy establish himself. And I’ve never been the world’s biggest Kelly fan, although if he can keep his control he’ll eat innings and be a decent 4 or 5 starter.

      The biggest issue is the shakeup of the Cardinals clubhouse. Kelly and Craig were two of the most beloved guys there, and they’ve essentially been swapped out for Lackey and Pierzynski, who are followed by stories of not being very beloved guys.

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      • Ultimately, the Cardinals got better on defense and on the base paths by upgrading Craig to Taveras full time. It’s not like Taveras could hit worse than Craig either. Lester is an upgrade over Kelly. So they did everything a baseball team can possibly do better to win more this year. Next year they have more FA money to sign someone. Plus, instead of paying Craig 30M to decline from age 30-34, they’ll be paying Taveras a fraction of that to get better from 22-26.

        I think winning makes up for a lot of the clubhouse issues. It’s just that last year, I was clamoring for the Cards to trade Kelly, Craig, Jay, Freese, and Lynn (maybe not all, but some deal with a few at least) because I saw them, and still see all them as late bloomers who peaked essentially as soon as they were called up. I’d even include Matt Carpenter in that list. However, his peak is a pretty damn good 2B/3B, and those are hard to find and he has a team friendly deal and isn’t as old as most of the rest of that list.

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        • I guess my point is, the Cards got a ton of value by paying guys in their mid 20s league minimum as they called them up in their theoretical prime. They just seem to be waiting too long to cash in on trade.

          Then again, that’s getting greedy. Lackey makes them better, going from Craig to Taveras makes them better.

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        • Sorry, I forgot to put another few sentences after the clubhouse bit. Jim Edmonds was on some local radio show and he said one of the reasons he thinks that an overly chummy clubhouse is perhaps the reason for some of the Cardinals problems this year. Having a young hungry guy like Taveras full-time, as well as acknowledged “prickly” figures like Pierzynski and Lackey will light a fire under them and get them performing again.

          Or maybe it won’t. But I’m excited about watching the Cardinals play again now.

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  10. BranchRickey11937 says:

    This is a great trade from the Cards’ viewpoint. They had to move Craig, either now or in the offseason, to make room for Taveras. They did it now and got a useful pitcher and maybe get a post-season berth out of it.

    With reference to the Dave Cameron article linked above and its interesting comments thread, I’d just note that the offensive profile Taveras’ most reminds me of is that of Tony Oliva. Of course, Tony O’s career would be something like the 90 percentile of expectations for Taveras, but when you can even think about that kind of upside with a prospect you have to make room for him and give him a full chance. Look at the Cards’ lineup today; it just looks more coherent.

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  11. Pat Golden says:

    Not having Craig makes them more likely to win than having Craig does. — Ouch —
    Hilariously straight forward.

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  12. jerbear says:

    As a Red Sox fan, I don’t understand this trade at all.

    Even if Lackey had no intention of playing for 500k next year, the team option gives the Red Sox (now Cardinals) all the leverage to sign him to a team friendly 2 or 3-year deal.

    Craig probably bounces back to some extent, but all the way back to a 2.5-win player? Probably not. Sure, a 1.5-2-win guy on his contract is valuable, but even that projection seems optimistic in light of how dreadful he’s been this season, not to mention the nagging fact that he hasn’t hit for much power since what, mid-2012?

    I’m basically indifferent toward having Craig on that contract. On average, he probably meets value or falls slightly short.

    As for Kelly, a young No. 5-type starter under team control is actually pretty valuable, but I’d argue less so for the Red Sox than most organizations. The team has a wealth of young pitchers who project as back-end starters or Quad-A types. De La Rosa, Webster, Ranaudo, Barnes, Workman.

    I guess there are probably more moves to come before next April, and Kelly’s a decent asset. But, Lackey for 2 months + the $500k team option for next year would seem to be worth about $10-20 mill, depending on whether you expect him to play for the $500k or insist on a reworked 2 or 3-year deal.

    I might feel better about this if not for the Cardinals’ strong track record of talent evaluation. Do they truly believe Craig is done, or do they just not want to wait to find out when they can turn him and Kelly into Lackey? I wish i knew. But hey, YOENIS!!!!

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I don’t think Kelly lasts very long. 4+ NL era, and his FIP the last 2 years was similar to that. He’s going to get crushed in that ballpark. Kelly might be better as a reliever/6th starter.

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  13. YHIHF says:

    Now the Cardinals don’t have anyone to injure the Dodgers when they get to the playoffs! Hooray!

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