Gordon: Cards can aim high as rivals fold

2013-06-11T12:52:00Z 2015-02-10T14:04:41Z Gordon: Cards can aim high as rivals foldBY JEFF GORDON jeffgordon@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

The Houston Astros will start ditching players soon. The Chicago Cubs will look to speed up their rebuild, as will the New York Mets.

The faltering Philadelphia Phillies (eight games back in the National League East) and Milwaukee Brewers (15 games back in the NL Central) could decide to reload as well.

By next month, the trade market should be busy. Also-rans will be looking to clear out contracts and gather prospects.

The Cardinals will be fun to watch when all that starts happening. While other general managers shop hard to fill holes, John Mozeliak will wait for special opportunities to emerge.

This team has no glaring needs at the big league level and ample depth in the minors. It doesn't have to do anything, really.

Jake Westbrook’s pending return will give the Cardinals a solid four-man rotation with several worthy candidates for the fifth spot — without factoring in the improbable Chris Carpenter comeback.

But Mozeliak could still target a potential difference-maker for the playoffs. During his weekly chat, Derrick Goold cited Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee as one potential high-end target. (Click here to read Goold's quick analysis.)

The Cardinals could seek an established reliever, although the rotation spillover could provide additional sixth-and seventh-inning options. And there is always a chance that once-valued relievers Fernando Salas (sore shoulder), Marc Rzepczynski (doing time in Memphis) or Mitchell Boggs (ditto) could regain their old form.

Mozeliak could upgrade the bench with a proven pinch-hitter from the right side, although fan favorite Ty Wigginton has been more viable lately.

Some fans clamor for an upgrade at shortstop, but Pete Kozma is playing steady defense and hitting .370 with runners in scoring position. That is outstanding for a No. 8 hitter making the minimum big league wage.

Kozma’s immediate back-up is utility player Daniel Descalso, who is batting .368 in May and June. Shortstop Ryan Jackson is batting .319 with 17 doubles, three homers and 20 RBIs at Memphis. Life goes on without Rafael Furcal.

Some fans were fretting about third baseman David Freese, but he has reached base in all but one game he has played since May 7. He drove in 16 runs during a 17-game span.

With top prospects Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras ready to hit in the majors right now, the Cardinals are protected from infield and outfield injuries. Barring serious setbacks, both will be on the big league roster later this season.

Come September, the Cardinals will once again enjoy a massive advantage with bullpen and rotation depth. While other contenders battle with pitching fatigue, the Cardinals could deploy a pitching horde of, say, 18 capable performers.

The tactical advantage in stretch-run games will be enormous. But should Mozeliak decide to sacrifice some quantity for quality, he may yet get that opportunity.

Stay tuned . . .

Here are some other thoughts on the Cardinals:

• Good hitting third basemen are a commodity. Freese likes hitting in big situations. He is 2 1/2 years removed from free agency. He is a career .315 hitter against lefties, who tend to give Cardinals fits. So why are some fans so eager to trade him off? As long as he doesn’t repeat his Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride misadventure of last winter, Freese could be a valuable No. 6 hitter for three or four more years.

• Rzepczynski struck out all three batters he faced for Memphis on Monday night. He has allowed just one earned in his last eight appearances, spanning 10 1/3 innings. He struck out eight batters in that span and walked nobody. He lowered his earned-run average to 2.78 in 18 games for Memphis. If the Cardinals can’t use him, I’m guessing other big league teams could find a spot for him.

• Wong has played all over the field defensively. With Matt Carpenter threatening to play a LOT of second base for years to come, Wong’s ability to play center field could make him valuable. He could be an emergency catcher, despite his slight build, and he has played some shortstop, too. If only he hit from the right side. Right now he appears blocked by Descalso, too.

• Now that Taveras is back to work for Memphis, it’ll be interesting to hear what the scouts say about his center field defense. If he has the ability to play 30 to 40 games a year there, then he and Matt Adams could both hit plenty next year. That assumes Carlos Beltran will depart for the American League and the opportunity to extend his career with some DH work.

• In that scenario, Jon Jay would still play a lot of center field. He remains a streaky hitter, but at least he is hitting on the road (.278) this season. He has reached base 11 times in his last five games and he seems primed to do more damage during the rest of this trip.

• Pitching prospect Seth Blair enjoyed one of his better professional outings Sunday, outdueling veteran Roy Oswalt for a 5-0 Springfield victory at Tulsa. Blair allowed three hits and two walks while striking out seven batters in seven innings. Maybe, just maybe, Blair can finally get some traction after finger surgery derailed him.

• Speaking of Oswalt, isn't it sad to see a once-great competitor struggling to hang on? It wasn't so long ago he was fending off suitors while making big demands for money and pitching time.

Jeff Gordon

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Jeff Gordon

This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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