Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q: I believe the St. Louis Cardinals can make a run for the National League pennant if the sidelined players return soon, and barring any further serious injuries. Do you agree?
- Larry E. Binz, Clarksdale, Miss.
A: Absolutely. There is no dominant NL team this season; instead, a bunch of good-but-slightly-flawed ones, and the Cardinals certainly are in that mix.
In fact, I picked them to win the NL Central, and still believe they are one of the five best teams in the league, so I'll be surprised if they don't get back to the postseason - health permitting, of course.
Speaking of, Allen Craig being back in the lineup is like adding an expensive slugger via trade. He's driving in a run per game (actually 43 RBI in 42 games through Wednesday), so needless to say, he can be a vital contributor in the second half.
Not that the Cardinals' offense needs much help. They led the NL in runs scored through Monday with 410 - narrowly over Colorado (401), but substantially ahead of the rest of the field, headed by the Mets (378) and Braves (369).
The Cardinals also have the league's best run differential - which should have given them about four more wins at this point. But after a 20-11 start that left them 3.5 games up in the NL Central on May 9, they have played sub-.500 ball for a nearly two-month stretch - although appear to be turning it back around with a 6-4 mark in their last 10 games.
Lance Berkman should return later this month, and you never can have enough quality hitters, so I don't worry much about Mike Matheny having to spread around at-bats. So rather than add another hitter, the far more-likely acquisition will be for the pitching staff - although I must say that wouldn't Shane Victorino be a nice fit to the Cardinals' way of doing things?
Lance Lynn has tailed off after a great start, and after holding out hope for a Chris Carpenter return, it was learned today that he will undergo season-ending surgery. So the Cardinals have to be looking to add one of the many quality starting pitchers available - led by Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano.
There also is a need in the bullpen. Available closers include Huston Street, Brett Myers and Rafael Betancourt, and you'll be able to add a few more to that list before the end of the month. And Marc Rzepcynski could use some support for the left side of the setup crew.
Q: Do you think the New York Mets will make any moves before the trade deadline?
- Anthony, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: Yes I do, and in a reversal from last year at this time - when they dealt Carlos Beltran to the Giants for elite pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, and reliever Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers for two more prospects - the Mets will be buyers instead of sellers.
I don't see them getting into the bidding for any of the top handful of pricey starting pitchers - Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez.
But with some certainty in the ownership financial situation, plus the fact that the payroll was slashed by about $50 million for this season, the Mets surely can take on $5-10 million for needed help in the bullpen, or the lineup.
The former likely will be the primary target area to improve, and the good news is a handful of quality options should be available - including Huston Street, Brett Myers and Rafael Betancourt. Any number of quality setup relievers for non-contenders are available, with more to be added to the list over the next few weeks.
Q: If you release a high-priced player who has a few years left on his contract, does it still count toward the team's annual budget, or is the salary discounted? I know you still have to pay him either way.
- David Chisholm, River Edge, N.J.
A: Yes, it does count - and that also goes for players who are traded in the midst of multi-year contracts.
In these cases - and you'll probably see a few before the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline - the two teams involved negotiate both prospects to be exchanged, and the amount of money each team will pay to the traded player. The more money a team is willing to take on to acquire a high-priced veteran, the lesser prospect they will have to surrender.
A for-instance is the Yankees are paying $11.5 million of A.J Burnett's $16-million salary for 2012, and $8.5 million of his $16-million salary in 2013, with the Pirates absorbing the rest.
Another is the recent Kevin Youkilis deal. The Red Sox are on the hook for about $10.97 million of Youkilis' $12.25-million salary for 2012 after trading him to the White Sox.
Here are the other eight largest obligations teams are paying to players wearing other uniforms, or no uniform at all (numbers from the Baseball Prospectus/Cot's Baseball Contracts site):
- Cubs: $16.45 million of Carlos Zambrano's $18-million salary in 2012 after trading him to the Marlins.
- Braves: $10 million of Derek Lowe's $15 million salary after trading him to the Indians.
- Dodgers: $9.6 million ($3.2 million annually) in deferred money through 2014 for the Yankees' Andruw Jones.
- Angels: $9 million for the Dodgers' Bobby Abreu
- Dodgers: $8.33 million for Manny Ramirez (retired)
- Padres: $7.5 million including a 2013 buyout for the White Sox's Orlando Hudson
- Cubs: $6.064 million for Marlon Byrd (recently released by Boston)
- Tigers: $6 million for the A's Brandon Inge