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Thursday, April 16, 2009

St. L ouis Cardinals' Jeff Luhnow faces an early test

Bernie Miklasz
Thursday, Apr. 16 2009
The early departure of Chris Carpenter to the disabled list is regrettable but
predictable. He's a great pitcher when healthy, but the breakdowns have been
too frequent to ignore. Hoping that Carpenter would go through an entire season
without suffering an injury was the equivalent of playing the lottery.

Cardinals management took that gamble, and declined to sign a veteran starting
pitcher, even after some bargain opportunities materialized through the
winnowing of the free-agent market.

For instance, the Cardinals could have re-signed Braden Looper before he went
to Milwaukee for a 2009 salary of $4.75 million. The Brewers have an option on
Looper for 2010, but can buy him out for $750,000. And Looper is capable of
starting or relieving; his flexibility and durability are pluses.

But after Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt reduced the payroll, general manager
John Mozeliak had little choice but to stick with that big ticket on Carpenter.
If Carpenter holds up, it's a winning proposition. But if he didn't last, the
Cardinals would be left scrambling for starters.

And that's exactly what's happening. With no veteran protection behind
Carpenter, the Cardinals have promoted rookie P.J. Walters from Class AAA

Walters will make his major-league debut on Friday at Wrigley Field. That's a
tough first assignment.

Is Walters ready? People in the organization genuinely like him, including his
Winter League manager, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo.

With Carpenter (strained side muscle) expected to be out for at least six
weeks, the Cardinals aren't likely to spend any money in pursuit of a starter.
They'll put their faith in the hyped player-development system instead.

This will be an instant credibility test for Jeff Luhnow, the VP of scouting
and player development.

Not that DeWitt wanted to dish out money for a veteran starting pitcher, but
the owner clearly felt fine about moving forward with no safety net under
Carpenter. DeWitt was assured by Mozeliak and Luhnow that the Cardinals had
attractive options at the minor-league level.

Walters, Mitchell Boggs, Adam Ottavino, Blake Hawksworth and Clayton Mortensen
were touted as solid Plan B possibilities should the major-league rotation take
a hit. And another graduate of the farm system — reliever Kyle McClellan — is
another alternative starter.

It's possible that Luhnow's confidence in his system will be validated here.
Cardinals fans certainly hope so; the team's ability to contend depends on it.
The Cardinals don't need Walters or the others to be spectacular or heroes; the
rookies just need to pitch well.

That said, the Cardinals are once again opting to cover a gap with youth
instead of more costly veterans. The same is true, at least in part, of the
effort to close out late-inning leads. (The courting of free agent Brian
Fuentes aside.)

DeWitt's Cardinals veered into a new direction several years ago — empowering
Luhnow and taking full control away from Walt Jocketty, the GM at the time —
and there's nothing evil about that shift in philosophy.

Unless you're demographically matched to have a New York, Boston, Chicago or
Los Angeles payroll, smart baseball people have little choice but to prioritize
the player-development system.

But here's the rub: At some point the prospects have to come through and play
important roles in upholding the franchise's winning tradition. They just can't
hold roster spots as fringe guys. A reasonable share of them must move to the
forefront and become front-line stars, the way Albert Pujols did in 2001, and
Yadier Molina did in 2005.

One of Luhnow's precious Fabergé Eggs, outfielder Colby Rasmus, appears to be a
special talent, worthy of the considerable hyperventilating that preceded his

OK, so what about the pitchers? This is a vital area. Will Chris Perez or Jason
Motte develop into elite closers? When will the Cardinals' draft and farm
system harvest its first top-of-the-rotation starter since Matt Morris?

If the kids emerge and perform in a way that justifies Luhnow's enthusiastic
efforts in marketing and promoting them as legitimate links to a strong future,
then the Cardinals will grow and continue to win.

But if the youngsters don't have the right stuff necessary to fulfill Luhnow's
claims, the Cardinals will experience a substantial shortfall in talent.

One of the major challenges of a minor-league system is being pliable and
viable enough to present genuine solutions when a crisis strikes.

Losing Carpenter qualifies as an emergency.

And now we can reexamine the policy put in place over the winter. Rather than
invest in more expensive starting pitching to reinforce the rotation's depth,
DeWitt chose to invest in Luhnow.

So here we are.

We've arrived at the first 2009 checkpoint for Luhnow.

This is where hype meets the hard reality.

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