Smoltz joins Cards; could start or relieve
Postseason wins leader expected to help in stretch drive
LOS ANGELES -- Having already made several upgrades, the Cardinals are down to two areas of need: right-handed setup relief and the back of their starting rotation. On Wednesday, they made a move that could address either or, at different times, both.
Right-hander John Smoltz, an eight-time All-Star and the all-time leader with 15 postseason victories, has agreed to a deal with St. Louis for the remainder of the season, the club announced Wednesday.
The agreement, for a prorated balance of the Major League minimum of $400,000 -- with the Red Sox committed to pay the balance of his $5.5 million contract -- includes incentive clauses for postseason awards.
"We're excited," general manager John Mozeliak said on a conference call on Wednesday. "Getting to add John Smoltz to this organization was something that was a unique opportunity for us, and one that we didn't know would happen or not. When you look at what this pitcher has accomplished ... it was too inviting not to take a chance on, and his leadership capabilities."
Mozeliak explained that, for the time being, Smoltz will start for the Cardinals. It will allow him to continue to work back to form as he tries to return from 2008 right shoulder surgery, and it may solidify a spot that has been shaky for St. Louis. As the season winds to an end, Mozeliak acknowledged that there is a good chance Smoltz will move to the bullpen.
"One of the things we talked about was getting him the opportunity to start a couple of games," Mozeliak said. "Really, the logic behind that was one to give him some work that he hasn't had right now, and ultimately when the calendar flips to September, he will be used however he can best help this organization. We'll take the next couple of weeks to evaluate that, and from there, we'll make a decision on how he can best help us."
St. Louis has seized control of the National League Central, holding a six-game lead over the Cubs with just under seven weeks remaining in the regular season. Any moves the Cards make at this point are likely to be focused as much on bolstering the team for October as for making it to the finish line. It's possible for St. Louis to use a fifth starter as few as six times between now and the end of the season, thanks to six remaining off-days.
Smoltz has been throwing in Atlanta and recently threw about 100 pitches in a simulated game. He will throw a bullpen session for the team's coaching staff on Thursday.
"When I spoke with Tony [La Russa, manager] and [pitching coach Dave Duncan], one of the things we wanted to do was to make sure to give him some ample time to work on some things as well," Mozeliak said. "We're not so concerned with trying to gear up for the next week. We're trying to gear up for the stretch run. Allowing him to get more work as a starter made more sense at this time."
The Cardinals had acknowledged interest for several days in the 42-year-old veteran, who pitched for Atlanta from 1988-2008 before signing with the Red Sox as a free agent over the winter. He struggled in Boston and was designated for assignment before being placed on release waivers. In eight starts with the Red Sox, he went 2-5 with an 8.32 ERA, though some of his peripheral numbers were quite strong. Smoltz struck out 33 against nine walks in 40 innings.
There were some strong indications he might be better suited to pitch in relief. Smoltz's performance was worse as he got deeper into games, and he was much more effective against right-handed hitters than lefties.
"Clearly this decision wasn't based solely on statistics," Mozeliak said. "I spoke with some of our scouts who thought he had an upside still in him. Looking at his body of work and what he brings to a club were the intangibles that made us have a lot of interest in this. When you look at it specifically, he had more success earlier [in games] than he did later. I know he feels he has made some adjustments to fix some things and feels he can help us from a starting standpoint."
Smoltz, 212-151 with 154 saves and a 3.30 ERA in his career, is one of only two pitchers to have had both a 20-win season and a 50-save season -- the other being Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. Smoltz is the only pitcher in Major League history to top both 200 wins and 150 saves.
However, Mozeliak acknowledged that Smoltz may wish to continue pitching beyond 2009, and to do so as a starter. Thus, everyone's wishes could be fulfilled with a two-part arrangement. Smoltz could position himself for a starting job somewhere in 2010 by pitching well for St. Louis down the stretch. Then he could help the Cardinals win in the playoffs by setting up for closer Ryan Franklin.
Smoltz went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 1996 and won the National League Cy Young Award.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.