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Wallace and the hot seat

Recent articles in the mainstream press indicate that St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak is on the “hot seat” over the perceived need of the club to acquire a veteran third baseman via trade.

I find myself wondering exactly who is viewed to be the one putting Mo on that hot seat. Is it the dugout, the press, the fans, himself?

Just a few months ago, the upper levels of the organization were awash with third base prospects, with no place to play Brett Wallace (pictured) at Memphis with David Freese and Allen Craig ahead of him.

Now, everything has changed. The rest of the world has finally figured out that Troy Glaus isn’t going to be much of any good this season and the April shine has worn off the rookie replacements, Joe Thurston and Brian Barden.

Freese required surgery this month, Craig isn’t viewed as a major league third baseman and Joe Mather, thought to be good enough to play at the hot corner at the major league level this spring, is out with a recurring wrist problem.

Wallace has just 11 games and 47 at-bats with Memphis to date. Mozeliak and manager Tony La Russa both agree that Wallace isn’t ready. To help put that into perspective, I ran major league equivalencies (MLEs) for Wallace’s limited Triple-A sample and compare them to the incumbents’ season results.

Hitter 2009 BA OBP SLG OPS
Wallace Mem MLE 0.265 0.276 0.350 0.626
Thurston StL 0.236 0.349 0.382 0.731
Barden StL 0.256 0.311 0.439 0.750

Wallace doesn’t stack up well here. One reason is that he has taken just one walk with Memphis after showing a good eye in the past.

Now, let’s compare Wallace at Memphis to Thurston and Barden this month only. The picture changes. Still, Wallace’s .626 MLE OPS is nothing to get excited over.

Wallace Mem MLE 0.265 0.276 0.350 0.626
Thurston StL 0.196 0.328 0.357 0.685
Barden StL 0.140 0.196 0.256 0.452

One challenge the Cardinals face is that it is early in the trade season. We are barely one quarter of the way into the regular season, a full two months ahead of the July 31 deadline, a date that many clubs still find too early. The advent of the wild card keeps more teams in the hunt longer.

Following are the year-to-date lines for the three names that have been mentioned as possibilities for the Cardinals in various reports. They are Garrett Atkins of Colorado, Mark DeRosa of Cleveland and Melvin Mora of Baltimore.

Hitter 2009 BA OBP SLG OPS 09 vs career Career OPS Age
Atkins Col 0.192 0.272 0.291 0.563 lower 0.819 29
DeRosa Cle 0.267 0.332 0.450 0.782 higher 0.770 34
Mora Bal 0.259 0.322 0.343 0.665 lower 0.796 37
K Greene StL 0.202 0.289 0.298 0.587

Clearly in the case of two of the three, Atkins and Mora, the reason they may be available now is that they are having subpar seasons. In acquiring them, one would have to believe a rapid rebound is likely.

Just for grins, I included the line from the Cardinals’ most recent reclamation project, Khalil Greene. Notice how closely his stats this season mirror Atkins’.

Keeping money aside, each has significant warts. Mora is 37 years old and Atkins’ career nums were impacted by the reality that he plays 81 games a year in Colorado. DeRosa is playing at an above-average level for him this season, but will he maintain that pace after another move? (DeRosa was traded from the Cubs to the Indians over the winter.)

So, are any of these three going to be better than what the Cardinals already have?

What are the possible reasons to not call up Wallace?

1) There’s a better option on the trade market.

2) Wallace is not ready offensively.

3) Wallace is not ready defensively.

4) He is out of shape – reportedly 23% body fat this spring.

5) The 40-man roster is going to be tight this winter and Wallace would not need to be added.

6) His arbitration and free agency clock will begin prematurely.

7) The major league coaching staff is against the idea.

We will take these one at a time.

1) A better option may exist on the market. Can’t argue with that if it means someone other than the three names already mentioned. How long will it take for such individuals to become available, however, and what would it take to get them?

2) Wallace isn’t ready with the bat. Can’t argue with that either. More time at the plate in Memphis would be ideal. But, isn’t Wallace probably better offensively than Barden and Thurston today?

On an aside, but parallel bent to Wallace, I just read that the first-place NL West Dodgers, dealing with outfield injuries and one very high profile suspension, just called up Jamie Hoffman. He was a Double-A All-Star last season, was raking back in Double-A this season (.952 OPS), but only has 35 Triple- A at-bats.

3) Wallace isn’t ready with the glove. If range is truly the issue and I am not doubting that, how much can it improve by more reps in the minors? Once he is positioned properly, his range is what it is, right? One argument is that his range will only erode as he ages, so…

4) Wallace is out of shape. Let’s face it; his body type is not that of a weight-lifter. Yet, there are others in the majors today who are much worse. Chances are that physically, Wallace is what he is. I suggest basing any decision on results, not physique.

5) 40-man roster issues. This is not an immediate problem, but will become one this winter as the Cardinals have to make decisions on a number of players or risk losing them in the Rule 5 Draft.

Having been drafted last June, Wallace would not need to be protected this winter unless he is called up during this season.

For me, the real question is whether or not it is believed that Wallace can contribute at the major league level in 2009. If so, then the future roster issue has to be secondary to improvement in St. Louis now.

6) Arbitration and free agent clocks would begin prematurely. Not a major issue. It is late enough into this season that the Cardinals would not be forced into early arbitration in just under three years. Same with free agency at six.

If he isn’t good enough to stick, he won’t accrue MLB service time back in Memphis. Even those most pessimistic about Wallace think he will make his major league debut in 2010, anyway.

7) Political issues. This is a very thorny one, as based on remarks by Post-Dispatch beat writer Joe Strauss, La Russa is very much against a Wallace promotion. Despite the glaring need at the position, Wallace barely received a sniff in major league camp before being cut.

While Mozeliak is in public agreement at least that Wallace isn’t ready, would his opinion change if the third baseman puts in a good month with Memphis and a fair trade cannot yet be found?

Is there any scenario under which La Russa embrace a Wallace promotion this season? The signals say “no”.

In summary

I am not sure why there is such a negative vibe about Wallace, but it seems other organizations are not reluctant to promote players who excelled at Double-A.

If nothing else is cooking, why not give Wallace a try soon? If he stumbles, it will be a lot closer to the trade deadline when more teams may be in the mood to deal.

Remember that other rumors have the Cardinals looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder, too. What are the odds Mozeliak could land both an impact outfielder and a third baseman and do it within the club’s current financial constraints? What is a higher priority for the club? What may be easier to find?

Considering all, it is more realistic to assume the Cardinals will move to bring in an Atkins-like player in hopes he can pick up the slack at third. If another Khalil Greene-like failure occurs, there could still be time for Wallace later this summer – if the Cardinals can remain in contention that long with their sputtering offense.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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