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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: Kelly and Craig for Lackey and Littrell…?

Talk about wild and wooly trade deadlines, eh? I can’t remember the last time I spent so much time staring at Twitter or shushing the kids when Ken Rosenthal appeared on MLB Network.

Yeah…pretty much never.

And for a change, the Cardinals were right in the thick of the biggest deals and rumors (and it wasn’t just because they traded two players with first names for last names to acquire a guy named Lackey to address our lack of pitching…yeah, I went there…).

Allen Craig and Joe Kelly were dealt to the Boston Red Sox for veteran starting pitcher John Lackey and minor league left-hander Corey Littrell (oh…and some cash).

Needless to say, fans were hit hard by the loss of two local favorites — one for his antics and playful demeanor, the other for his uncanny RISP ability and penchant for unusual nicknames (Torty, The Wrench, etc.). But when it comes right now to it, these deals were inevitable.

We’ve known for quite some time — if not before, certainly entering 2014 spring training — that something had to give in the first base/right field picture. Oscar Taveras isn’t going to wait forever, Stephen Piscotty/Randal Grichuck/et al were not slowing down for anyone, and Matt Adams was bound to throw his weight around at some point and take hold of the first base position or force a trade.

With Craig established at both positions as one of the premiere bats in the league, it was only a matter of time before someone was dealt. In fact, Adams was offered this offseason in an Adams+Shelby Miller package for Colorado Rockies Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. (Imagine where the season would be had the Rockies said yes…)

But most of us never expected the player left without a chair when the music stopped would be Allen Craig. Not only had the club just financially committed significant money to see him hit cleanup for several years, but Allen looked nigh unstoppable the last two seasons — and nearly superhuman in the World Series. It felt like he was going to bang a double off the wall with every at-bat.

In other words, his 2014 nosedive was completely unexpected.

But it wasn’t just the shocking dip in production that got Craig dealt — or the way he seemed to be dragging his hitting woes behind him with every at-bat. It was also the lack of production by Oscar Taveras.

If that seems like an odd statement to make, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

There have certainly been enough examples throughout MLB history of young players producing enough to force an organization to leave a veteran behind, but I’m not sure I remember a time when a player’s lack of production forced the same move.

But Taveras’ inability to get traction at the plate with sporadic playing time had become the elephant in the room, and John Mozeliak, despite his constant reassurance that he “doesn’t make out the lineup card,” had seen enough cards without Taveras’ name on them. Someone had to go, and it wasn’t going to be the man Mo compared to Albert Pujols with all those cost-controlled years ahead of him. No, it was going to be the multi-millionaire that hadn’t produced for four months of the season.

This was just one of those things that had to happen, to Craig or Adams or Taveras. It ended up being Craig.

In Joe Kelly’s situation, however, things were even easier. Kelly is exciting to watch, no doubt about it, but often the excitement is of his own making. Perhaps a better starter than a reliever because it allows Joe to dance in and out of base-running trouble, his high number of men allowed on base means Kelly is always walking a dangerous line, usually just one hit away from giving the game away.

But even his dramatic start tendency can’t be to blame for getting traded. Take the post-season picture out of it, and the fact the Cards were looking to get a proven post-season veteran to eat innings down the stretch, and the ultimate reason Kelly got traded is quite simple…

He was never the guy that was supposed to succeed in the St. Louis rotation.

When it comes down to it, you could say the competition between Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly was directly responsible for Kelly heading to Boston. It was just never supposed to happen that way. Since he was drafted, Miller’s ceiling was expected to be high. Joe Kelly, on the other hand, kept pushing his limited ceiling and forcing the Cardinals to rewrite his future expectations.

Sure, that’s a great thing, but considering the pitching plethora in the Cardinals’ system, you knew something — as it did in Craig’s situation — had to give. Maybe it was an injury, maybe it was the unexpected failure of a heralded prospect, but any way you look at it, the casualty was always supposed to be Kelly…not Miller…or even Martinez…or the bounty of young arms working through the minor leagues right now.

Bottom line, Joe Kelly had exceeded his expectations, and that usually only continues for so long before regression sets in. The Cardinals cannot, did not, bet on a guy pitching his guts out to do so for the next five years. Shelby Miller, however…well, that’s a guy that was always supposed to succeed and still hasn’t reached his ceiling. That’s the guy you bet on. Kelly, as painful as it may be, is the guy you trade.

Alright…let’s get into the rest of it….

Is Oscar Taveras being criticized and/or shunned by the clubhouse? When Taveras cranked a two-run home run in his first at-bat the very day Craig was traded, members of the Cardinals’ dugout looked almost…indifferent to the fact. Not a single player in the receiving line even cracked a smile (Jon Jay almost broke into a grin, but quickly hopped back into line) as Oscar exuberantly bounced from one end of the bench to the other. It was almost as if their loyalty to Allen Craig wouldn’t allow them to celebrate Oscar’s success at their old friend’s position. You have to wonder if the post-game, closed-door meeting had anything to do with that lack of support for a teammate…

And then Joe Buck opened his big mouth.

I didn’t hear it, but apparently Buck was littering the pre-game broadcast on MLB Network with accusations and critical observations supposedly voiced by the Cardinal players about Oscar’s work ethic, etc. If that’s true at all, is there anyone in Cardinal Nation that still believes John Mozeliak didn’t have to make the clubhouse-rattling moves he did? I mean, if this is the way the clubhouse is reacting to a potential season-changing trade to bring in a guy like Lackey, you have to wonder if their heads are really in the right place this season.

Let me put it plainly…it appears the Cardinals’ clubhouse has fallen into believing their paychecks and season count on the following priorities (in this order): 1) Make friends and feel-good, family-like memories. 2) Winning. 3) Win with my new baseball family.

If that’s even remotely true…it cannot be allowed to continue. Look, I want my team to like each other as much as the next guy, but if winning is not the number one priority on this club, then something has to change to restore that edge, that sense that your guts are being ripped out of you for all to see with every loss. And it looks like Mozeliak picked up on that need and addressed it by signing Pierzynski, trading away Craig and Kelly, and bringing in uber-competitor John Lackey.

Whether they believe it or not, the Cardinals’ season will be better off for it.

This is the best move for both Kelly and Craig’s careers. Joe wasn’t going to be a fixture in the St. Louis rotation. There were just too many young, high-ceiling arms for Kelly to stick. But in another team’s rotation? Suddenly his mid-90’s fastball and competitive poise both become valuable and rare commodities. Make no mistake, he’ll get the chance to make or break his own career now. That’s not something that was ever going to be said about him in St. Louis.

In Craig’s situation, Oscar Taveras and Stephen Piscotty were always going to be pushing him for playing time in right field, and Matt Adams isn’t going anywhere at first base. If he ever wants to be a clear, every day starter in the middle of a lineup again, it’s going to be somewhere else. Like Kelly, his career is now his to make or break without a bevy of hitters lurking behind him.

And for both players, can you think of anywhere better for either to land than in another great baseball town committed to winning in the here and now than Boston’s Fenway Park?

This was a mutually beneficial move for all involved.


That’s all for now, but more to come in the next few days about the Cardinals’ sudden show of life and tenacity — hmmm, mayhap Mo had something to do with that…?




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