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Thursday 26th May 2016

Those who are reading this, hoping for a clear answer to the title’s question will be disappointed. Despite covering the St. Louis Cardinals, I have no explanation for the decline in catcher Yadier Molina’s offensive performance. That doesn’t mean we won’t look at the numbers and potential reasons why, however.

First, let’s set the stage. After replacing his current manager, Mike Matheny, as St. Louis’ every-day catcher in 2005, Molina found his way defensively almost immediately, although it took until 2008 for him to receive the first of his now seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards.

It was a different story with the bat. By 2006, Molina’s average dipped to .216, but the then-23-year-old eventually worked his way to respectability as a hitter. By 2008, Molina logged his first .300 batting average, especially impressive considering the every-pitch wear and tear on catchers over the long haul. It was the first of his four seasons as a .300 hitter, the most recent occurring in 2013.

The power came later in Molina’s career. His first season with double-digit home runs was his eighth year in the Major Leagues, 2011. When the right-handed hitter launched 14 long balls that summer, it was more than his two previous seasons combined.

In his age 29-30 season in 2012, Molina swatted a career-best 22 long balls. In addition to that being his first and only season slugging over .500 (at .501), he also set a new best in on-base percentage (.373).

Though he dropped to 12 home runs the next season, Molina’s production was better. His 80 RBI not only established a new personal high-water mark, but also represented his fourth consecutive year of RBI growth.

Then came 2014.

At the time he suffered a thumb injury sliding into third base on July 9, Molina’s season slash line was .287/.341/.409/.751. All four were better than his career averages. He had seven home runs and 30 RBI over those 82 games and 303 at-bats. Again, they were not career bests, but were respectable.

Molina returned to action on August 29. For the remainder of the season, he struggled. In 101 at-bats over 27 games, he had no home runs and eight RBI. Molina’s line during that time was a relatively powerless .267/.309/.317/.626.

His hitting woes continued into the post-season until an oblique injury prematurely ended his 2014 playoff participation. In six October contests, Molina was a non-factor offensively, going 5-for-21 (.238 AVG) with no home runs and no RBI.

Over the 2014-2015 off-season, Molina underwent a physical transformation, losing an estimated 30 pounds. A very private person, he did not offer insight into his motivation or the process he followed any more than he explained what was behind his distinctive neck tattoos that appeared several years earlier.

Any baseball fan knows the two sides of trying to rationalize a significant change in weight. One argument goes that a player may better handle the rigors of a long season if he is carrying less of a physical load. The other side says a thinner player may not be as able to handle the grind of a 162-game schedule without becoming worn down.

Of course, in reality, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation. It is fair to note that Molina will celebrate his 33rd birthday next month and has already caught in 1,357 games, including 1,118 from end to end.

Though no one takes spring training results seriously, the rested, recovered and thinner Molina did not hit then, either. In 46 at-bats, his 2015 Grapefruit League line was .217/.234/.239/.473. In 17 games, he had one double and one RBI.

At 55 games into the 2015 regular season, Molina has no home runs and 20 RBI. His current line is .279/.327/.330/.657, numbers not unlike how he finished 2014 after his DL stint. If the season ended today, his batting average would be his second-lowest mark since 2007. His on-base percentage, slugging and OPS would be his low points since that dreadful summer of 2006.

Putting together all of Molina’s results since returning to action last August offers a concerning picture of a former power source who has seemed to turn into a singles hitter.

In aggregate, his batting average is .266, not terrible, but not up to his usual standards, either. Worse is that 80 of his 97 hits in his last 365 at-bats were singles, with the other 17 all doubles. No Molina hit has left the park since last June 27, a period of almost 12 months. During that time, his slugging percentage is a mediocre .312. That would be even worse than 2006. Molina’s RBI count during the period is just 29.

Is it his thumb or his oblique? Is it his weight loss or the combined wear and tear of 12 years of catching in the Major Leagues? Is it a combination of these factors or none of them?

No one knows, but it seems pretty clear that if Molina continues his performance over the last 10 months into the future, his fantasy value will no longer be that of an elite catcher.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

Playing in a mono-league format such as National League Tout Wars requires an owner to be flexible and creative. For example, consider my struggling club, which now includes a reserve roster full of speculative pitching bets.

With six reserve roster spots along with an unlimited-in-size disabled list, the in-season free agent pool at any point in time was incredibly shallow. Despite a drop from six to four reserve spots a few years ago, the problem is not much better now than before.

Take the offensive side as an illustration. Last week, just four National League free agents had more than eight at-bats and each was immediately snapped up at the next bidding opportunity.

This environment led to a devaluation of free agent allocation bonus dollars (or FAAB), in my opinion. Fewer available players means less money is spent, with large balances remaining deep into the season.

Two weeks ago, in an attempt to inject some youthful pitching promise into my struggling roster, I targeted Washington’s A.J. Cole. The 23-year-old was a rarity – a top prospect close to the Majors who was not already rostered in NL Tout.

On this latter point, if you think I am exaggerating, here are some of the players taken on draft day 2015, and therefore, long gone when they actually reach(ed) the big leagues: Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Kyle Parker, Tommy Medica, Addison Russell, Mike Foltynewicz. Unfortunately, I am not among the owners of any of them.

Their owners were quite willing to tie up one, and sometimes more, of their four reserve spots on players who were unable to contribute – at least initially. Of course, the promise is of a greater return once these youngsters receive “the call” and have the opportunity to literally show their stuff.

With so many of those potential big-money players unavailable, NL Tout owners still hold considerable amounts of FAAB. When I targeted Cole, he was not assured of even getting a start for the Nats, yet I felt I had to be bold.

Perennially being the second-highest bidder has created this mindset. After all, in free agent bidding, the old saying that second place is nothing more than first loser rings true.

League free agent balances at the time ranged from my high of $101* to include eight other owners possessing at least $68.

Tout deploys a Vickrey system in that the amount of a winning bid is reduced to $1 more than the second-highest amount. This enables more aggressive bidding and ultimately, stretches FAAB even further.

* Ways an owner could have more than $100 include trades and rebates for players out for the season. In the latter case, 100 percent of the initial price paid for an injured player is returned. Of course, an incremental $1 on draft day can buy much more than $1 in-season.

In my case, my total was swelled by a $12 rebate for the full-season loss of Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey.

I bid $56 for Cole, which was the lion’s share of my season allocation. To my surprise, I did not need most of it. The next-best offer was just $5, meaning the price I paid was reduced to $6. I was a bit pleased when a peer e-mailed that he wished he had gone “all in” on Cole.

As it turned out, maybe the majority of the league was right in their relative disinterest. Cole is now back in Triple-A after making one start and two relief appearances for the Nats. Five of his 11 runs allowed in 9 1/3 innings were unearned. Cole fanned nine and walked just one.

Still, if one believes Cole will return to Washington and eventually contribute this season, this gambit did not put me any worse off than those who drafted and are holding the likes of Matz, Parker and Medica.

Well, in all fairness, that is not quite accurate. Tout rules state that while just about any free agent player is eligible, including minor leaguers, he must remain active for the first week following his acquisition. Then again, for a team that is last or second to last in ERA and WHIP, getting seven days of zero stats might be a blessing in disguise!

Having at most three dependable starting pitchers and a deposed closer in Steve Cishek means I had been plugging roster spots with middling middle relievers. The pickings were so slim that I even ended up with a couple of these $0 bid players in my reserves.

Around the same time I added Cole, I picked up the Cardinals' Marco Gonzales in trade. Though I was hoping at the time the lefty would be in St. Louis by now, his only trip there was to get his aching shoulder checked out by team physicians. At this point, I am holding onto Gonzales until his three weeks of prescribed rest pass.

In an attempt to reverse my dreadful pitching, I then picked up two more speculative arms who are still in the Minors but could be positioned to be called upon this season – and hopefully will perform once there.

Jon Gray is a top-30 prospect nationally, but got out of the gates very slowly this season. He also has that Colorado stigma attached and is one of many options for the Rockies to consider. Still, since April’s 10.70 ERA, the 23-year-old right-hander has improved substantially, with a 3.45 mark in May.

My other recent addition is Reds prospect Jon Moscot. What the 23-year-old lacks in top prospect recognition compared to Gray, he makes up in opportunity. Between the departure of rotation members during the off-season (Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon) and injury (Homer Bailey), a starting five that now consists of Johnny Cueto and some other guys is a key reason Cincinnati is six games under .500.

With the club apparently going nowhere this season, it seems some kind of opportunity for Moscot could present itself. To date, the 23-year-old right-hander has an ERA of 3.45 with 31 strikeouts against 16 walks in 48 1/3 innings for Triple-A Louisville.

With four minor league starters rostered, I have no in-week reserves or opportunity to bench a slumping player. At this point, I am ok with that. It is time, or should I suggest past due time, to take some chances in hopes of improving my team.

Though your league’s rules are likely not the same as mine, take away the broader thought. Unless you have established a comfortable lead, look for creative ways to change the status quo for your squad, even if some risk is involved.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

In December 2003, the Atlanta Braves sent then-minor league pitcher Adam Wainwright to the St. Louis Cardinals in a deal that centered on outfielder J.D. Drew. (Another player going to St. Louis in that trade is still active - by a thread – Cincinnati’s Jason Marquis.)

As the history books remind us, Drew spent just one year in Atlanta before joining the Los Angeles Dodgers and later, the Boston Red Sox before retiring a career underperformer – at least compared to expectations - at the age of 35.

Wainwright, who reached the Majors in the 2005 season, continues a decade later as one of the game’s best pitchers. Though he is out for the remainder of the 2015 season due to an Achilles injury, the scale of this trade is forever clearly tipped in St. Louis’ direction.

This past winter, the tables were turned as the Cardinals needed an outfielder this time, after the death of Oscar Taveras. They sent a young, promising pitcher to the Braves in Shelby Miller in a package in which Jason Heyward moved to St. Louis. As was Drew, the latter is a potential lame duck - eligible to become a free agent following the 2015 season.

In the early going, the Miller side of the trade looks very strong. The third-year Major Leaguer carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning last Sunday and sports National League-bests in ERA (1.33) and WHIP (0.83) with 43 strikeouts against 16 walks in 54 innings.

On the other hand, Heyward is batting just .245 with career lows in both OBP (.300) and slugging (.388), and therefore, OPS. Trying to get the 25-year-old started, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has tried Heyward in just about every spot in the batting order – including the leadoff spot, a move which seemed to cause a fair amount of controversy in Atlanta last season.

Of course, while every trade can be and probably is re-evaluated every single day – at least on Twitter - the final score on most deals will take at least several years to tabulate fairly.

The mention of Miller leads to my message for this week.

One of the most active trade probers in National League Tout Wars is BaseballHQ’s Phil Hertz. Last week in this space, I outlined a swap we made in which I received Marco Gonzales in return for Pedro Strop.

This time around, Hertz e-mailed the entire league with his offer. Seizing on Miller’s two-hitter, he placed the right-hander on the trade table the very next day. The stated price was a closer and a hitting upgrade.

Having made the highest bid for formerly-dependable, now manager-killing and deposed closer Steve Cishek on draft day meant I was excluded from consideration for this deal.

Despite that and the fact he apparently was unable to close a trade, I admired what Hertz was trying to do. Whether or not he believes Miller’s value has peaked, Hertz decided to gauge interest on a red-hot player. He did it with a clearly-stated set of needs.

That way, others could make a quick evaluation. First of all, do I believe that Miller will continue to pitch well? Second, do I have what may be needed to close the deal? Finally, would I be willing to move into negotiations?

When making unsolicited trade offers, follow Hertz’ lead, but make sure you don’t stop there. If you are the seller, be ready to immediately follow up on each and every response, no matter how bad you think the counter offer may be.

From the other end, there is nothing worse than replying positively to these kinds of inquiries, only to not receive an acknowledgement of any kind. Next time, you might be branded as a difficult trader and may be left out of consideration for future offers.

Why limit your own options?

Just do these simple things and your odds of closing a deal – this time and down the road as well – are bound to increase.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

Given my day job of covering the St. Louis Cardinals system, I often receive fantasy-related questions about the team from friends. They are frequently industry writers and analysts with whom I may work and even play in leagues against – something I call coopetition (not to be confused with collusion!)

In an earlier article, I discussed how I gave my honest and complete assessment of Marco Gonzales’ injury situation to a friend/competitor. Though my initial offer to acquire the lefty to back up my optimism was turned down, I ended up getting him in a trade a few weeks later.

Since, Gonzales suffered a setback at Triple-A Memphis, leaving me much less optimistic. The problem area has shifted from pectoral muscle soreness to the shoulder. Even though the injury is said to be non-structural, any time a pitcher has a shoulder problem, red flags should go up. In this case, Gonzales will be parked for three weeks, when another assessment will be made.

That leaves the Cardinals rotation spot vacated by Adam Wainwright firmly in the hands of another lefty – oft-injured Jaime Garcia. No stranger to shoulder problems himself, Garcia was activated last week. I was at Citi Field to see his debut in person.

Perhaps my interest level was piqued a bit as my pitching-starved National League Tout Wars squad is at or near the bottom of the league in most pitching categories. As a result, I activated Garcia in Tout ahead of his actual removal from the Cardinals’ disabled list.

Other than control issues at the start of innings, it was a very strong outing for a season debut. Garcia still has his late movement on pitches. He then went from five walks in his first start to none in his second and picked up his first win in almost two seasons.

Even before Gonzales’ setback, the rotation berth was Garcia’s to lose. He has both the contract ($9+ million this season) and the past success to secure that level of commitment from the club.

I believe that Garcia will remain in the rotation unless/until he gets hurt again or for some unknown reason, his performance falls off a cliff. My sense is that there is little middle ground with Garcia. He is either healthy and pitching well or is hurt. As a result, whatever starts he gives should be good.

I cannot affirm how many starts that will be, however, given the ongoing injury risk.

If Gonzales can come back this season and perform well at Triple-A, he will definitely be back with St. Louis in 2015. The only question is the role as there are a number of still-moving parts to consider.

When healthy, Gonzales is clearly next in line for a rotation spot with St. Louis. While Lance Lynn and John Lackey are innings-eaters, the other three in the current starting five have had durability questions – Garcia, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha.

In his first extended duty in the rotation, Martinez has been up and down. While that is not surprising coming from most 23-year-olds, St. Louis is in the midst of a pennant race and cannot afford to carry a struggling starter down the stretch.

With setup man Jordan Walden injured, the club does not have a clear answer for Martinez’ old eighth-inning gig to date in 2015. Though an acquisition via trade of an Edward Mujica or John Axford-like arm is more likely - a mid-season move the Cards have done in the past - there could be temptation to push Martinez back into the pen if no suitable answer for the eighth can be found.

Speaking of late-inning relief, has anyone else noticed how Trevor Rosenthal has evolved from a shaky closer in 2014 to one of the most reliable and consistent in 2015? One reason why is his delivery. Once a successful starter in the Minors and likely still harboring a desire to play that role, Rosenthal worked from both the windup and the stretch.

After film analysis, it appeared that the rushing and imbalance that plagued him last season was more prevalent when he was winding up. We have seen the 100 percent stretch-pitching Rosenthal apparently turn the corner in 2015.

Bringing this discussion full circle, the worst case for owners of a healthy Gonzales is that the Cardinals would call Marco up to rejoin the bullpen - as he did late last season. It doesn’t hurt that regular lefties Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist have been inconsistent.

No matter the role, I would be very surprised if Gonzales remains in the Minors until September - unless he has another physical setback. He still has a long way to go to earn the reputation of Garcia, however.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

 

It will not go down as the biggest trade of all time – Pedro Strop for Marco Gonzales. In fact, far from it. Yet, I am hoping the move will help jump-start my floundering Tout Wars squad.

We are still two weeks away from Memorial Day, that time when traditionally, we should take serious stock of our fantasy baseball rosters.

I am not waiting that long in this league. The realities of a weak pitching staff, accentuated by the struggles of (former) Miami closer Steve Cishek, have come home to roost. My club is currently last in ERA and second to last in WHIP, so improvement is mandatory.

Here is how one approach came about.

Roughly three weeks ago, St. Louis Cardinals prospect left-hander Marco Gonzales, arguably the club’s best pitcher during spring training, strained a lat muscle and went on the disabled list of Triple-A Memphis.

Because I cover the Cardinals system for a living, I often receive questions about players in the organization from fantasy-playing friends. In this case, the friend is also a competitor in NL Tout, BaseballHQ’s Phil Hertz.

Phil asked me if there was any reason he should not cut bait on Gonzales, a player he mistakenly rostered on draft day for $5, while thinking the player on the table was Gio Gonzalez, instead. (As an aside, I bought Gio later for $16, and he has become one of my leading underperformers.)

With just four reserve spots in Tout, roster management is crucial. In this case, holding onto a minor leaguer while waiting for a call-up, and then hoping they will be effective upon their arrival, was a valid consideration on Hertz’ part.

In all honesty, I told him that I thought it was too early to discard Gonzales. I did, however, offer to acquire the pitcher for a few dollars of free agent budget (which can be traded).

Phil countered with what I felt was an unrealistic offer, pairing Derek Norris with Pedro Strop in return for Gonzales and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the latter who had already been designated for assignment. After I declined his offer, he said he would hold Gonzales. Yet, a few days later, Hertz sent a broadcast e-mail to the league, offering the lefty in trade.

Why did that happen? Opportunity had been created. Adam Wainwright’s injury caused an immediate roster opening for the remainder of the season. Further, two other Cardinals lefties already tried and had not impressed – Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons.

The Cardinals’ wild card is oft-injured lefty Jaime Garcia. The veteran is trying to work his way back to St. Louis in parallel with Gonzales, who was with the big league club as a reliever through the 2014 postseason.

I also own Garcia in this league, so having him and Gonzales both would seemingly give me a very good chance of eventually ending up with a starter with a consistent job for a very good St. Louis team.

There were no takers in NL Tout to Hertz’ offer, but after Gonzales was tagged in his first rehab outing and just before Garcia took the mound for his first turn, Phil came back around. He offered me Gonzales for Strop plus $3 FAAB.

With no up-and-coming prospects among my reserves, I was willing to execute a buy and hold on Gonzales. Only time will tell if it will be a good move or not, but I like Gonzales’ upside, especially in return for a setup man.

Therefore, I countered with the two players straight up and no cash involved. I was anxious to close the deal before we saw how Garcia would perform in his rehab outing that same day. Weak results could have strengthened Gonzales’ perceived value.

Hertz agreed to the one-for-one trade, while making several interesting comments. One is that he pledged to stop playing marginal starting pitchers. Another is that he is worried why I wanted Gonzales.

I too made a decision to get rid of a pair of stat-draining starters in Arizona’s Jeremy Hellickson and Colorado’s Jordan Lyles. Both were drafted, but primarily held in reserve until now. Their replacements were a group of middle relievers who may or may not become the next Strop, but at least I can plug them into openings with less fear of a terrible outing hurting my pitching stats even more.

The fact that Gonzales has now had two rough starts since being activated in Triple-A is concerning, but he has shown his ability before. Perhaps he can offer a boost later in the season, though it may be unrealistic to expect him to be the next Noah Syndergaard in 2015.

My advice to you is to consider every move, no matter how minor, in your efforts to address your roster weaknesses.

 

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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