July 9, 2008

Mulder's performance could influence trade strategy

Speculation: Cards' GM John Mozeliak is in Philadelphia with an agenda.

The agenda: Evaluate Mark Mulder, as completely as possible.

Why? To determine the true status of the Cardinals' starting rotation; what shape it's in now; what shape it's likely to be in over the course of the second half of the season. There's already a surplus of ifs when it comes to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, not to mention an overworked and sometimes shakey bullpen. But with a pretty solid current rotation, there's certainly no need to panic--yet.

The best move the Cardinals have made so far in light of the current trades involving C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers and Rich Harden to the Cubs is no move at all. Any hurried acquisition or trade right now would only be the result of a Cardinal running around with its head cut off.

But don't think for a minute that Mozeliak and company aren't discussing every possible option should the organization come to the conclusion that one of its long-awaited hurting hurlers is a definite no-go for this season. Argue you all you want about just who falls into this group, but you could almost sense the pressure rise as the odds on a Clement comeback this year had dropped into the basement.

Wainwright looks good to make his way back before too long. Carpenter has made excellent progress in his rehab, but it's still far too early to tell, leaving him as a constant question mark, maybe the biggest the Cards have to dwell upon.

And again there's Mulder. And all eyes are upon him, but possibly none more intently than Mozeliak's. Configure the question marks and odds and progress (or lack of it) however you like, and still, Mulder's status will have the biggest impact on the immediate strategy of potential trades.

The Mozeliak Agenda: you bet. But if I'm right about the significance of his evaluation of Mulder tonight, it's not a dark secret. Actually, it's his job, to figure these things out, to evaluate Mulder with a magnifying glass, to go over his performance with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. Think about it; it's the only way Mozeliak can evaluate the potential need for trades as the deadline rapidly approaches.

No one with any baseball brains is going to expect perfection out of Mulder tonight, but what if he's in good shape, no big hitches or twitches?

Then you can see why there's no rush to make deals, or for Mozeliak to even discuss the same (in public, anyway). If Mulder has a good showing, you'd still have the other ifs, but you'd be one arm closer to solidifying the rotation. In such a case, Mozeliak's eyeballing would then turn to Wainwright and Carpenter, with Wainwright the next one up for an A-to-Z inspection.

When the best-guess scenario is thrown down regarding the aforementioned starters, the head-scratching will get rougher concerning the bullpen.

The need for that one-to-two inning big-talent lefty is obvious, and looming. And it is a deal that can be done, with money, with prospects, with the current roster. That discussion will be harder on Cardinal Nation then Cardinals' management. Any move for a proven, high-quality lefthanded closer, for instance, would be exciting, but whatever is dealt away would almost certainly be surprising, even shocking. That's how big deals are made.

But I've sort of put the Clydesdales before the wagon regarding the latter, because the whole issue of a potential trade hinges on Mulder. And whatever agenda flow chart is to follow, no strategy can be implemented until this pitcher on the comeback trail takes the mound tonight, in Philadelphia.