Cardinals ship out Duncan for Lugo for no apparent reason

MLB: FEB 18 Red Sox Spring Training

The Red Sox were certainly busy today. Mere hours after it was announced that the Red Sox had acquired first baseman Adam LaRoche, first baseman/left-fielder Chris Duncan has joined LaRoche in a Sox uniform, as reported by Nick Steiner here at THT Live along with an as-yet unnamed player.

Steiner touches on the fact that each player had fallen out of favor with their respective teams but then opines he’s not sure why the Sox were motivated to do the deal, while it “looks like a clear win for the Cardinals.”

I’m going to vehemently disagree. This is anything but a clear win for the Cardinals. It’s a clear loss.

First, let’s tackle the most well-known player in the deal: Lugo. Right here on THT Live on the 17th, I wrote about Lugo when his tenure with the Red Sox ended. I briefly ran through Lugo’s history with the BoSox, then turned to this season:

This year, Lugo’s offense has seen an uptick, hitting .284/.352/.367 in his best offensive display since his time with Tampa Bay in 2006 before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline in 2006. However, his defense has become atrocious: he’s checking in at a cool -43.2 UZR/150.

To put that in perspective, when Yuniesky Betancourt was traded to the Kansas City Royals last week, he was the consensus worst shortstop in the game according to many bloggers. His UZR/150 on the year? -17.4.

So far this year, Lugo is 11 defensive runs below average under John Dewan’s plus/minus system. This is horrendous in 243 innings given the numbers rack up as the season goes on. The season leader in 2008 was Betancourt (there’s that name again!) at 14 runs below average in 1,325 innings.

As you can see, my focus was more on Lugo’s “value” on defense. It’s clear that his value on defense is nonexistent. Of course, this will likely change: once Lugo can fully heal from his knee surgery, he’ll increase his range. However, Lugo’s days as an average fielder are done. He will never reclaim his excellent range and was always brittle with the ball, resulting in booted balls or throws pulling the first-baseman off the bag.

Offensively, Lugo has gotten off to a strong (I guess one can consider it strong, relatively speaking…) start after two disastrous years in Boston; this is not in doubt. But can he keep it up?

R.J. Anderson at Fangraphs:

His ISO has sat well below .100 the past two seasons after never touching .105 or lower the rest of his major league career. His walk rates are still quite solid, same with his strikeout rates. His BABIP hit a rough spell in 2007 but has since bounced back fine. He hit a lot of grounders last season, and now he’s hitting a lot more fliners. Lugo’s tendency to hit a home run has all but vanished. He still makes contact, doesn’t swing out of zone, and he’s seeing fewer balls in the zone.

He’s certainly got the potential to remain a league-average bat and should see his defense creep back up to non-horrendous levels, but he’s not the answer to the Cardinals’ middle infield problems. Not even close.

Now, let’s turn to who the Cardinals gave up. This is where it gets baffling.

Chris Duncan, as I first mentioned at Fire Brand of the American League, helps solve some of the Red Sox’s woes against right-handed hitting. They have long struggled against right-handers on the season, and Duncan provides a clear advantage there:

Duncan will be arbitration eligible after the year. Duncan burst on the scene in 2002, hitting 22 home runs in 280 at-bats for a line of .293/.363/.590. The year after, he bopped 21 homers in 375 at-bats for a .259/.354/.480 line.

It was downhill from there. He saw only 222 at-bats in 2008, hitting .248/.346/.365. In 2009, he drew the ire of Cardinals fans, hitting .227/.329/.358 in 260 at-bats before being optioned to Triple-A Memphis. That tends to happen when you’re 1-for-31 since June 29.

Duncan’s off-year notwithstanding, he provides an immediate boost to the Sox’s hopes of hitting right-handed pitching: he has a career .270/.366/.485 line against right-handers. Let’s not talk about his splits against left-handers.

I should also note that despite Duncan’s poor year in 2008, he still managed to post a .749 OPS against right-handers, albeit with no power. Duncan will report to Triple-A Pawtucket where he will attempt to get back on track and provides tremendous depth for the Sox. Under team control at minimal (for the Sox especially, but still in general) cost, it is staggering to contemplate that Duncan provides the Sox with a power bat against right-handers… acquired for a sunk cost.

Sure, the Cardinals could have been afraid they would lose Lugo to another team such as the Mets if Lugo was given the choice of a team to sign with as a free agent. This is logical. What is not logical is giving up someone like Duncan for him.

Duncan will report to Triple-A Pawtucket and do what he could have done in Triple-A Memphis: try to reverse his struggles. He’s virtually certain to come up in September and provide a bat off the bench. Provided he can do so, he’s got a great chance at landing a postseason spot on the bench and a long-term spot as a bench player for the Sox.

As for the fielding, Duncan is not going to be confused with a gold glove winner out there in left field, but Fenway Park is the one place where being a good fielder in left-field is not an important consideration.

And we haven’t even mentioned how the Sox suddenly find themselves with a possible (I stress possible because it’s far from certain he can turn things around) replacement in left field for Jason Bay should Bay opt to depart as a free agent. The fit Chris Duncan provides to the Sox is so painfully logical that I would have guessed the Cardinals would have asked for a B/C prospect for Duncan instead of gladly taking on the Red Sox’s trash.

Giving Duncan up is going to harm the Cardinals in more ways than one.

MLB: JUN 22 Cardinals at Mets

First, Duncan was apparently a great clubhouse guy, and his departure has shaken some of the ballplayers. Also, Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan (the latter to no surprise, given he is Chris’ father) are very unhappy with this recent transaction. Congratulations to the Cardinals front office for ticking off coaches and players alike.

Second, Duncan provided no harm to them in Triple-A — only obvious value. Given Rick Ankiel’s struggles, the enigma that is Troy Glaus and the Cardinals’ clear lack of a consistent power bat behind Albert Pujols, why didn’t the Cardinals just hope for the best in Triple-A with putting Duncan back on track?

Sure, there’s the theory that the Cardinals thought Duncan was cooked and done in St. Louis (ala Jeff Francouer in Atlanta) but there are some differences, starting with the fact that Francouer had a far bigger body of work in which he disappointed. Also, the Braves needed to make a move to get some offense in the lineup and leveraged Francouer to do that. The Cardinals did not leverage Duncan to get Lugo into the team — Lugo could have been had for much, much less than Duncan. He was designated for assignment, for crying out loud. All the Sox wanted was an organization player — someone — as opposed to releasing him and gaining nothing. To their obvious delight, not only was Duncan available, but they squeezed a player to be named later out of St. Louis as well!

I am not opposed to the Cardinals getting Lugo. In fact, I think it was a smart move for them. But the cost of Duncan, angering the team and a player to be named later to me completely erases any benefit. They could have acquired Lugo easily without giving up Duncan, fan ire or no fan ire.

A clear win for the Cardinals? Not at all.

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  1. Nick Steiner said...

    I can’t argue with much of that.  I guess I’ll just add that the reason the Cards gave up Duncan, might have had to do with how he was perceived as a player.  Many fans felt he was awful and was just on the roster because his dad was the pitching coach.  While Duncan might still turn into a decent player, he didn’t have much of a future on the team, and it appears that the FO just wanted to get rid of him. 

    At the risk of sounding cliche, I’d call it a win-win trade: both teams got rid of guys who were considered problematic, and they both got potentially useful players in return.  I don’t know what’s up with the PTBNL though… I can only hope it’s a non-prospect.

  2. alex said...

    You do realize Duncan had radical spine surgery over the off season and had some doctors wondering if he should ever play again, right? ‘Cause that was completely glossed over here.

    Between that and his hernia from last year, his loss of power doesn’t look like the aberration, the fact that he had terrible numbers in the minors before having a combined five hot months in his major league career (from 2006 to 2007) looks to be the outlier.

    The only upside for the Sox is that he is cost controlled until 2012 so hopefully he can actually take a break and successfully rehab and make it back someday. However, I don’t think it would surprise too many if he’s out of baseball in aa year or two.

    The guy has a ton of heart, but his body can’t handle the game.

  3. Evan Brunell said...


    Absolutely I am aware of Duncan’s injury issues. And you are right, I probably should have touched on that.

    However, my contention is not that the Red Sox won the trade—even getting a minor league journeyman for Lugo would have been good—it’s that I think the Cardinals had no REASON to give up Duncan (injury or no) plus a PTBNL. The Sox were going to have to release Lugo, they would have taken anyone.

  4. alex said...


    As much as people insist on declaring winners and losers on trades, or even calling them win-win, I wouldn’t even call this a lose-lose trade. It’s just a crap-for-crap trade. Two guys who were (essentially) 25th men on their respective teams rosters getting a much needed change of scenery.

    And that’s the reason Dunc was traded. He really, really needed a change of scenery. It’s not right, but he was totally crapped on by a lot of the “best fans in baseball.”

  5. Evan Brunell said...

    I don’t dispute any of that, but I still think the Cards could have turned Duncan into something better.

    It is possible that:

    1) The Cardinals just didn’t want to deal with looking for a better deal and just wanted Duncan out. They saw an opportunity and took it.

    2) The Sox had some decent bidding for Lugo, and the Cardinals had to offer Duncan. Nothing I have heard or read suggests this happened, but we never know everything. After all, the Sox were talking to the Pirates about LaRoche for months and pulled the trigger because another team made a competitive offer. And none of us knew. However, I only have the information I can get to work with.

  6. alex said...

    I’d believe #1 in a heartbeat. The deal was cut hours after La Russa lashed out at the Saint Louis fans for booing Duncan. 

    And having Lugo as a built in 25th/utility man w/ possible upside for the next year and a half for (essentially) free has to appeal to the Cards. That is, as long as Lugo never, ever starts at SS.

  7. Steve Steffens said...

    You DO know that Glaus is rehabbing in Memphis, and they have him spending time in LF learning to play the position, right?

  8. Pylon said...

    As a STLer, I can tell you Duncan was done here.  He’s performing at a AA level at best, and has been lost at the plate.  But I don’t think LaRussa would have moved him out of loyalty to Dave (even though Dave though Chris should have been dealt some time ago.)

    Duncan had little to no trade value.  Getting anything back for him is a plus.  Getting a veteran who can be a real backup SS (which the Cards didn’t really have), as well as adding some speed to the team, is a big bonus.

    As for Duncan, he’ll be a nice fit in Boston, assuming he can get over the physical issues and get his stroke back.  The Sox were going to be paying for Lugo anyway, and this way they got something in return. 

    A decent deal for both teams, but nothing that will upset the balance of power, for sure.

  9. Athelstane said...

    “I probably should have touched on that.”

    No, you definitely should have touched on that.

    The odds are against Duncan ever being the same player again.  And even at his best, he was a butcher in the outfield.

    I’m curious what your sources are for this supposed impact on the clubhouse mood.  Beyond, obviously, Tony and Dave.

  10. Tom Van Sant said...

    This article was obviously written by someone who has not watched Chris Duncan play baseball in the past 1.5 seasons. He has been nearly useless. Can’t catch. Can’t throw. Can’t hit for average. Can’t hit for power. Can’t run the bases. He is a no tool player.

    Furthermore, the Cardinals “middle infield problem” is not really a problem at all. If you watch them play at all, it’s plain that Brendan Ryan is playing elite SS defense. The kid’s a Hoover over there. And Skip Schumaker and quietly turned himself in to a serviceable second baseman while still remaining productive offensively.

    The Cardinals biggest problem is nonexistant offense from left field, a purported “offensive” position. Oh, it’s been offensive all right, but not in a good way. In addition to Duncan’s atrocious play, Rick Ankiel has also been bad. It’s been so grim they are talking about playing Glaus out there when he comes off the DL (he can’t play 3B because he can’t throw to first without pain.  So yeah, put him in the OF.  Whatever).

    The latest rumor is Adam Dunn. That’s the guy C-Dunc was supposed to become, but didn’t. If you have to put up with an iron skillet in LF, you should at least get a couple of homers a week in return.

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