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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Could Dan Uggla become another Fernando Vina?

Even considering a trade for Florida’s Dan Uggla would require a major change in strategy for the St. Louis Cardinals, but it has been done before.

Albert Pujols and Dan Uggla at the 2008 Home Run Derby (Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)30-year-old Dan Uggla and the Florida Marlins are preparing for a divorce. The All-Star second baseman is one season away from free agency and wants more than the reported four-year, $48 million contract the Fish offered.

The St. Louis Cardinals don’t appear to be a fit. They say they aren’t in the market for a second baseman, apparently content with keeping converted outfielder Skip Schumaker there. Indications are that the club’s major expenditure this winter will be on a starting pitcher, Jake Westbrook or his replacement, along with a less-splashy upgrade at shortstop.

Perhaps the Cardinals should reconsider how they allocate their available cash.

The team has a history of acquiring impact offensive players who were looking for a change, only to later convince then to re-sign with the club. Some arrived via trades during the season, such as Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen and Matt Holliday. Others were dealt to St. Louis in the off-season, including Edgar Renteria and Jim Edmonds.

Another notable winter addition was made on December 20, 1999 when the Cardinals acquired then-30-year-old second baseman Fernando Vina from the Milwaukee Brewers.

In return, St. Louis yielded one established major leaguer and two prospects – pitchers Juan Acevedo and Matt Parker and catcher Eliezer Alfonzo. Acevedo had started and closed for St. Louis. Alfonzo eventually reached the majors as a reserve while Parker never panned out.

Acquiring Vina not only gave the Cardinals an All-Star second baseman and leadoff hitter, it also allowed them to displace scrappy, fan-favorite Joe McEwing, better as a utility man. “Super Joe” had been miscast as the regular second sacker in 1999 prior to Vina’s arrival. The trade also freed up second base prospect Adam Kennedy, a key component in the subsequent acquisition of Edmonds from the Angels.

As an aside, albeit an interesting one, note the similarities between McEwing’s 1999 season while starting at second base and Schumaker’s 2010. Super Joe actually showed more pop with the bat and had better basic defensive metrics, yet was still replaced by a superior player the next season.

2B Year G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Fld % RF/9
McEwing 1999 152 513 65 141 28 4 9 44 7 41 87 0.275 0.333 0.398 0.730 84 0.980 5.40
Schumaker 2010 137 476 66 126 18 1 5 42 5 43 64 0.265 0.328 0.338 0.667 83 0.973 5.05

As Vina and the Cardinals mutually enjoyed the relationship, they cemented the marriage, keeping the second baseman off the free agent market. Vina signed a $15 million deal in 2000 covering the next three seasons.

Vina batted .300 his first two years, topped the league in fielding percentage and won a pair of Gold Gloves in his four seasons with St. Louis. The club averaged 95 wins in his first three campaigns, reaching the playoffs each year including the NLCS twice, territory the Cardinals haven’t seen since 2006. Vina departed as a free agent following an injury-plagued 2003 season during which he later admitted having used HGH.

To put Vina’s $5 million average annual value deal into perspective, it represented approximately 6.4 percent of the Cardinals’ payroll in the 2001-03 seasons.

It was clearly a different time, but the contract was noteworthy because before and since, the club used second base as a low-salaried, transient spot. Vina demonstrated that spending more on the position could be a good decision.

Back to the here and now, Uggla is a different kind of player than Vina and is a considerably more expensive option, too. He might fetch $10 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, which if so, would work out to nine or ten percent of the Cardinals’ projected 2011 player budget.

It would also mean the Cardinals would have to get comfortable with an in-house fifth starting pitcher for 2011, perhaps Kyle McClellan. They could bring in several make-good, bounceback types as insurance but would be forced to give up on signing Westbrook or comparable.

It all gets down to belief or lack of belief in the organization’s current strategy, first illustrated this past summer with the Ryan Ludwick-Westbrook trade. Looking back at how to best improve upon the 2010 Cardinals, does the club need to add more offense or more starting pitching?

Having averaged 31 home runs per season over his five-year Marlins career, Uggla would bring a proven power bat to the Cardinals lineup. With Florida, he produced while batting second and fifth. In St. Louis, Colby Rasmus could be placed in the other spot with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in between.

This is certainly not a no-brainer. There are plenty of reasons to write off the idea without even exploring it first. The uncertainty of Pujols’ long-term contract situation alone could make the front office uncomfortable over the prospect of taking on another high-salaried player.

There would be an immediate acquisition cost for Uggla in terms of players lost that may be steep, but there could also be some recovery down the line. If he didn’t work out, the Cardinals could either deal him again next summer or if he later chose not to re-sign, take a pair of compensatory picks in the 2012 draft.

Making such a bold move would require substantial risk-taking, but there is also considerable upside. The current core of Cardinals will not be in their prime years that much longer. This would be a “win-now” type of action.

The formula has worked before. Why not consider it again?

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