While the Cardinals were waiting out the rain in Washington last night, a very interesting plot development was taking place a ways down the coast, in Florida.
Matt Clement finally stepped onto a mound and started on the road back to the big leagues.
According to reports from Roger Dean Stadium, Clement had his fast ball velocity all the way up to 88 mph, with excellent movement. He threw his full assortment of pitches and had at least solid command with pretty much all of them. Clement threw 73 pitches total, an extremely efficient for a six-inning outing.
So, what does this really mean?
First off, let me say to Mr. Clement: Congratulations. That may seem ridiculously premature, but the fact of the matter is, I and a whole lot of other people completely wrote Clement off.
I didn't think there was any way that he ever got anywhere near the big leagues again. I thought he would just stay in Extended Spring Training until it was over, then just hang around the park in Florida, trying to build his arm strength back up. He would be released by the Cardinals in the off-season, then sign a minor league deal with some team before 2009 and try to come back with them. I didn't think we were going to see anything from Matt Clement in 2008. Now, don't get me wrong, he's still not all that close to the big leagues, but every journey has to start somewhere. Just the fact that he's strong enough and healthy enough to get started on this rehab assignment and have any kind of success at all is proof of the man's resolve to pitch in the majors again. So, I tip my cap to him.
But what does this mean for the team? Well, that depends, of course, on just how well Clement is actually able to come back and pitch. Let's just assume, though, for the moment, that he comes all the way back to the majors and pitches in the range of a 4-5 starter. I can't imagine Clement will ever be any more than that; he just doesn't have the repertoire to be better than a back-end starter, I don't believe.
He may eventually get his fast ball back up to near 90 mph, but he'll never be the power pitcher he previously was again. Still, lots of pitchers are plenty successful relying on movement and guile, rather than power, to record outs. So he comes back and performs as a fourth or fifth starter in the rotation.
That would create quite an interesting situation in the rotation. Clement is here on a one-year deal worth $1.25 million, with an $8.75 million club option for next season.
The other Cards' pitchers contract situations are as follows:
Wainwright - Long-term deal Wellemeyer - One-year deal, arbitration eligible Lohse - One-year deal, $4.25 mil Looper - Final year of a three-year deal, making $5.5 mil this year Pineiro - Two-year deal, $5 mil this season, $7.5 next year Chris Carpenter - Long-term deal Mark Mulder - Two-year deal, with a 2009 option
All contract information comes from Cot's Contracts.
Now, of those pitchers, I'm not considering Mulder. Until he looks like he's close to pitching in the big leagues again, Mulder doesn't really factor in; I can't imagine he'll be back next season. Wainwright and Carpenter are both locked up for multiple years, and neither one is going anywhere anytime soon. So, that leaves us with the four I listed between Wainwright and Carp. Lohse, Looper, Pineiro, and Wellemeyer.
Of those four pitchers, there's only one of them who's signed past this season, and that's Joel Pineiro. The interesting thing about Joel is that, if Clement can come back at that Number 4 starter level we were talking about earlier, he and Pineiro are essentially the same pitcher. Both are back-of-the-rotation types, both are signed for next year, both look to be good subjects for Dave Duncan's brand of pitch-to-contact philosophy. Their salaries are even roughly comparable for next year. Clement, if his option is picked up, would make $8.75 million, Pineiro is signed for $7.5. In the world of a professional sports team, that one-and-a-quarter million difference is all but insignificant. The real difference in those two contracts is one word: Option.
Clement's contract has an option for next year; Pineiro's contract is guaranteed for the 2009 season. For a team that may very well have a couple of young players ready to contend for a spot in the rotation next year, (which the Cardinals most likely will) the fact that one of those two contracts isn't guaranteed could end up being very attractive.
Of those other three pitchers, I don't see Wellemeyer going anywhere else. He's affordable, having less than the required service time to become a free agent, and he's had an awful lot of success here. There simply isn't any way the Cards are going to move the Colonel, I don't believe. Lohse may very well be a candidate to get moved later in the year, but I also think the Cards would like to hold onto him. He's pitched very well since he's been here, and he offers real stability to the middle of this rotation. Personally, I'm not sure I want the Cards to sign Mr. Lohse to a long-term deal, but he's certainly been a great pickup this season, and I don't see them moving him. Looper, on the other hand, would make an ideal candidate. He's in the last season of his contract, and I don't think there is any way the Cardinals try to resign him long term. The organization is getting very close to having a wave of young pitchers ready to contribute; I don't see them wanting to keep Looper around.
The thing about all of this is that, if Clement does come back, the Cardinals suddenly have too many starting pitchers. Nevermind what happens if or when Carpenter comes back; if it comes to that, the team needs to worry about paying for the celebration before they worry about moving players.
If Clement does come back, one of the Cardinals' current starters may very well end up getting moved. Most likely, it would be either Looper or Pineiro. The latter is probably the more attractive candidate currently, as Pineiro has simply pitched better than Looper to this point. Plus, at $7.5 million for next season, Pineiro isn't terribly overpriced; not in a market that gives such proven mediocrities as Carlos Silva four-year, $40 million contracts.
This Cardinal team, despite the good start and the current contention, is still a team in transition. They have several starters in the minors who are very close to being able to come up and contribute at the major league level. Guys like Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia, and P.J Walters are all performing well right now in Triple A. Just a step behind them in Springfield are pitchers like Jess Todd, Clayton Mortensen, and Tyler Herron. This team is going to have options to fill in the starting rotation next year.
The flexibility that holding onto Clement's contract -- at the expense of a guy like Pineiro -- would probably be a big asset for the Cardinals. If you don't think any of your young guys are going to be ready, you pick up Clement's option and stick him in the Number 5 slot in 2009. If you have another option to fill in behind Wainwright, Carpenter and Wellemeyer, then you pay Clement the small buyout on his contract, thank him for his service, and send him on his way.
Bottom line, this team has three pitchers who are pretty much guaranteed to be a part of next season's rotation. The Cardinals' management will have options to fill the other two starting spots amongst the ranks of the minor league pitchers. If Clement can pitch effectively at the back-end of this season's rotation, he is the most attractive option to keep on the roster over Pineiro or Looper. If Clement can fill that role, I expect at least one of those two pitchers, and quite possibly both of them, to be dealt in the next two months.
Of course, Clement could very well go out and bomb, and this all becomes academic. But the Cards don't need him to be dynamite. They just need him to take the ball. If he can do that, with even the barest level of success, this team suddenly has a ton of flexibility, enough to really make some positive moves to improve the team in other, long term ways.
So congratulations, Matt. Now hurry up and get here. Time's a wasting.