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In Jay They Trusted: The Cardinals Flirt Again With Veterans

A renewed fascination with Veteran Presence threatens to cut the Cardinals' youth movement down before it reaches maturity.

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The machinations at the back of the Cardinals' roster have played out, of late, like the stanzas of Martin Niemoller's famously malleable poem about the German purges—first they came for Tyler Greene, and nobody cared, because Aaron Miles wasn't likely to play very much anyway; then they came for Jon Jay, and nobody cared, because Randy Winn wasn't likely to play very much anyway.

Now they've brought in Jeff Suppan, and by this time everybody's been too busy speaking up about Aaron Miles to get particularly mad about it. But over the past several days the Cardinals have made explicitly clear their intention to shift from an April bench filled with young players who factored into the team's high-payroll future to a June version that features a series of overvalued veteran "25th men" who lack both versatility and value, present and future. 

Aaron Miles is the key figure in this transition. On June 1 Miles, whose .466 OPS in 2009 earned him his walking papers from both the Cubs and the Reds, was called up after a mediocre month with AA Springfield. It's hard to overstate just how little value he offers the 2010 Cardinals. He joins a team that already features a platoon in second base manned by two solid hitters who should—like Miles—play shortstop as little as possible, one that's paying Felipe Lopez to do the same things Miles once did and do them better. 

Miles doesn't hit well or field well enough to spell the slumping Brendan Ryan; he duplicates Schumaker and Lopez's subpar defense at second base; and he's only a third baseman inasmuch as Tony La Russa likes to play everybody there. Even with David Freese day-to-day there's no reason for the Cardinals to ever start him. 

To call Miles up the Cardinals optioned third baseman/outfielder Allen Craig back to Memphis after just a day with the big club. Craig has an .877 OPS in 1733 minor league at-bats, and at 25 he's past the age where additional everyday playing time in AAA will make him more useful to the Cardinals in the future. His future is right now, where he could be pinch hitting and starting in place Freese's place. But some combination of Tony La Russa and John Mozeliak have made it clear they aren't interested.

Jeff Suppan, too, comes with an opportunity cost that belies his league-minimum salary. Prior to his release the team could have filled the spot in one of two interesting ways—they could have taken the opportunity to give more starts to potential fifth starters of the future, like Adam Ottavino, or they could have looked into a trade for a starter who was significantly better than replacement level. Suppan isn't a useful veteran, just a familiar one, and given the spectacular way in which he convinced the Brewers that they were better off eating the remaining $14 million on his contract there's no reason to believe he'll be much better than Ottavino or P.J. Walters this year, let alone in future ones. 

The margins of the roster won't sink the Cardinals' season, but the way in which they've been revamped this month amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of how a team is built, and a betrayal of the principles that helped build their strong April. In March the Cardinals felt they could trust Jaime Garcia, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, David Freese, and their trust was vindicated. But in June, already, it seems as though the lesson wasn't learned.