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

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2010 #3: The big trade

The Ryan Ludwick for Jake Westbrook trade was one of the biggest and arguably the most surprising story of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2010 season.

As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approached, the St. Louis Cardinals were still in the National League Central Division hunt, holding a slim half-game lead over eventual winner Cincinnati. Their 15-11 July was their best month since having gone 15-8 to open the season.

With third baseman David Freese apparently nearing his return from injury, the organization placed a major bet, trading offense for pitching. The view was that Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia did not offer enough in the rotation to carry them down the stretch. Brad Penny’s return seemed increasingly unlikely, Kyle Lohse was still out following a first-of-a-kind surgery and the minor league hurlers given trials had not impressed.

On July 31, with 58 games remaining, general manager John Mozeliak pulled the trigger on surprise trade, a move that would define his club’s 2010 season. Popular right fielder Ryan Ludwick was sent to San Diego in a three-team deal that netted the Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook from Cleveland and Class A left-hander Nick Greenwood from the Padres. Mozeliak had received a three-year contract extension just two weeks prior.

Along with the addition of starting pitching in Westbrook, at least three other potential contributing factors to the trade were discussed in the media and among fans. The relative importance of each remains open to debate.

1) Opening up time for youngsters. One by-product of dealing Ludwick was the creation of more playing opportunity for outfield prospects. Jon Jay became the primary beneficiary. First called up in late April, the 25-year-old had not stood out in his Major League debut and was soon returned to Triple-A.

Jay not only was back in July, but he stuck in the majors. During the month, he was absolutely red-hot, with a .431/.500/.667 line. To suggest he would adequately fill Ludwick’s void in right field seemed true – but only for awhile.

Though collectively he batted .300 in 105 games overall in 2010, Jay hit just .244 following the trade, putting his starting mettle into question.

2) Ludwick’s salary. In his second of three arbitration-eligible years, Ludwick made $5.45 million in 2010. Some felt the Cardinals did not want to pay that much money for a right fielder, let alone adding to that a likely raise for Ludwick that could net him several million additional for 2011.

That line of thinking might have held water until the club signed Lance Berkman in December for $8 million to play Ludwick’s old right field post next season. The move returns Jay and potential platoon partner Allen Craig to reserve roles.

While Berkman is considered a more accomplished player than Ludwick, he is older and his salary is higher. Further, Berkman has been injury-prone and is on the downside of his career. Several projection systems have suggested the two’s home run and RBI production in 2011 may not be dramatically different.

3) Ludwick’s desire for regular playing time. It was reported that just prior to the trade, the outfielder had approached manager Tony La Russa to express dissatisfaction with not being in the lineup every day. Ludwick previously had a groin injury which led to caution in deploying him. Yet even after he was cleared by the medical staff, Jay had continued to cut into his playing time.

Some wondered whether Ludwick’s ongoing concern was a contributing factor in the trade.

Westbrook cements spot

Upon donning the Cardinals uniform, Westbrook did his part to justify the transaction, exceeding expectations on the mound. With St. Louis, he tossed nine quality starts in 12 outings with a 3.48 ERA. The already-struggling offense did not rebound from the loss of Ludwick, however. One indication is that the team went just 5-7 in Westbrook’s 12 starts.

Still, Westbrook was impressed with the club and they were happy with him as well. Though the 33-year-old right-hander reached free agency, in mid-November he agreed to terms on a new, two-year contract with a mutual option for 2013.

The first two guaranteed years of the deal are worth $16.5 million in total with an additional $1 million if Westbrook wants to return for the third season but the Cardinals instead choose to buy their way out. The annual salaries are $8 million in 2011, and $8.5 million in both 2012 and 2013. Westbrook also received full no-trade protection.

After the trade, Ludwick struggled mightily in a San Diego uniform, posting a line of .211/.301/.330 in 59 games. He was offered arbitration following the season and is expected to be the Padres’ left fielder in 2011.

Impact on the team

While there were likely many factors in the Cardinals disappointing finish beyond this trade, the bottom line is that the club played far better prior to the deal than afterward. In fact, the team logged a sub-.500 record during the final two months while losing 5.5 games in the standings.

Cardinals Games Record Win % Division
Pre-trade 104 58-46 0.558 +0.5 G
Post-trade 58 28-30 0.483 -5.5 G

With Westbrook on the staff and Ludwick gone, you might suspect that the offense declined while the pitching improved. It turns out that is only partially the case – at best.

Cardinals Runs/Game BA OBP SLG
Pre-trade 4.46 0.263 0.335 0.412
Post-trade 4.69 0.261 0.326 0.384

The offense actually improved their run scoring by a quarter of a run per game, yet the Cardinals hitters’ collective average, on-base and slugging all declined post-trade. That may indicate the higher scoring rate would not be sustainable.

Opponents Runs/Game BA OBP SLG
Pre-trade 3.68 0.254 0.318 0.383
Post-trade 4.45 0.260 0.320 0.395

The Cardinals’ post-trade pitching was substantially poorer in key measures. Opposing offenses scored three-quarters of a run more per game compared to the first 104 contests. Enemy hitters also had more robust batting averages, on-base percentage and slugging against Cardinals pitching following the trade.

One might wonder if the post-trade numbers would have been even worse without the swap, but the bottom line is that while the Ludwick-Westbrook move was bold, Mozeliak’s big gamble did not pay off in 2010.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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