According to informed speculation that’s floating about, the Cardinals have interest in free-agent starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. 

The righthander from nearby Highland, IL turns 31 in March. Odorizzi is coming off an outlier-type of season, starting only four games for 2020 Twins and getting pummeled for a 6.59 ERA. But none of his issues were related to his elbow, forearm or shoulder. 

Odorizzi had back stiffness that caused him to open the season on the IL. His pitching fingers developed blisters. He was blasted in the chest by a line drive; that led to an intercostal strain. Stuff happens. The 2020 season was odd for many obvious reasons ; I don’t put much value in a player’s individual small-piece stats. From 2014 through 2019 Odorizzi ranked 28th among MLB starters with an average of 165.2 innings per season. I’ll get into other aspects of Odorizzi’s pitching profile later. 

Why Odorizzi makes sense: The Cardinals could use more pitching. They have a lot of arms, yes. And the supply can offset some concerns. But the situation is fragile. Dakota Hudson will miss the season after elbow surgery. Miles Mikolas is coming back from forearm surgery. (Will his command be sharp?) K.K. Kim had an impressive ERA (1.62) in 39 innings — but should we overlook his low strikeout rate (15.6%) and the lucky .217 batting average on balls in play against him? 

Carlos Martinez seems to be on a favorable track for 2021 — but who knows? Martinez hasn’t had a full season of work in the rotation since 2017. Wainwright was terrific in 10 starts last season. But the workload will be heavier in a full season (or close to it) and he’ll be 40 at the end of August. 

The Cardinals traded potential 2021 starter Austin Gomber to the Rockies in the Nolan Arenado deal. Daniel Ponce de Leon is an option, but can he supply innings? John Gant could be repurposed into a starter role. Same with Alex Reyes or Genesis Cabrera. But you don’t want a shorthanded, weakened bullpen — right> There are other promising candidates in the mix (including Johan Oviedo) but can the Cardinals depend on them? FanGraphs currently ranks the STL 23rd in projected WAR for 2021. 

How much would Odorizzi cost? After a strong 2019 for Minnesota, Odorozzi surprised some observers by accepting the Twins’ $17.8 million qualifying offer instead of pursuing free agency. It was a regrettable decision. Because of the shortened season staged during a pandemic, Odorizzi received just under $7 million in adjusted salary. And his market value presumably dropped after pitching only 13.2 innings in ‘20.

 If Odorizzi is seeking a two-year deal, will he get it? It depends on the teams chasing him. (The Mets, maybe, after losing out on Trevor Bauer. The Phillies, Blue Jays and possibly Giants are also looking at Odorizzi. 

I’ll assume that the Cardinals would prefer to go with a one-year contract. Just as a frame of reference, here’s a list of relevant starting pitchers that signed one-year deals for 2021. And it does not include two guys — Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman — who accepted qualifying offers at $18.9 million for 2021: 

  • Charlie Morton, Braves, $15 million
  • Drew Smyly Braves, $11 m
  • Corey Kluber, Yankees, $11 m. And an injury limited Kluber to only one game in ‘20. 
  • J.A. Happ, Twins, $8 m
  • Jose Quintana, Angels, $8 m
  • Robbie Ray, Blue Jays, $8m
  • Chris Archer, Rays, $6.5m
  • Jon Lester, Nationals, $5m

Not including Lester — who deferred all but $2 million of that salary — the other seven pitchers will average $9.6 million in 2021. And five of the seven signed for a salary of either $8 million or $11 million. That’s a logical price range for a one-year “pillow” contract — if, indeed, Odorizzi settles for that. And if that’s the case, Odorizzi would be a good-value, low-risk starter. The potential liability is negligible for a team that signs any player to a one-year arrangement. 

Do the Cardinals have the payroll space? Well, that’s their decision and all the whining in existence won’t change the team’s view on the proper setting of its 2021 payroll. According to Cots Contracts, the Rockies will pay $15 million of Arenado’s $35 million salary for 2021. But that was largely offset by the Cardinals’ trade of Dexter Fowler to the Angels in a move to unclutter the outfield. The Cards will pay $14.75 million of Fowler’s 2021 salary. The Cardinals also must finalize a deal with catcher Yadier Molina and are undoubtedly taking that into account. 

According to Cots, the Cardinals currently rank 10th among the 30 MLB teams in both 40-man payroll ($168.7 million) and 26-man payroll ($153.1m) The Cardinals are Top 10 in both groupings, and that’s before Molina comes back. it’s not as if the Cardinals  deserve to be called “cheap” these days. But that won’t stop people from doing it. As always: it helps to pay attention. But can they squeeze in one more starting pitcher? They can, and I hope they do it. I’m not sure if any of remaining available free-agent hitters — the realistic options — are more attractive than adding a starting pitcher. I could be wrong. And to be wrong the Cardinals would have to be in the hunt for Justin Turner. Nothing percolating there. 

Why Odorizzi fits, personally: He graduated from Highland High School, which is about 40 minutes east of downtown St. Louis. And yes he is a Cardinals fan. Growing up his favorite Cardinal was pitcher Matt Morris, mostly because of Matty Mo’s big curveball. When Morris moved on, Odorizzi told a Twin Cities reporter that his favorite Cardinal was a tie between Wainwright and Chris Carpenter.

Wrote St. Paul Pioneer Press baseball writer Mike Berardino: “Trips to Cardinals games were rare for Odorizzi, who adopted Cardinals right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright as his favorites after Morris. Asked if he ever secured the autographs of his pitching heroes, Odorizzi shook his head. ‘Too shy,’ he said.” 

Why Odorizzi fits, professionally: The body of work tells us that Odorizzi can deliver innings. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, ranking 11th among MLB starting pitchers with a 45% FB rate (FanGraphs) between 2015-2019. And fly balls don’t fly nearly as well in Busch Stadium as they do in most other places — including the Twins’ home park. From 2015 through 2019 Odorizzi allowed 1.2 homers per nine innings, and that’s fine. Not bad at all. But Busch would help him with that. 

Between 2015 and ‘19, among 52 starters that compiled 700+ innings over that time, Odorizzi ranked 27th in ERA (3.82), 33rd in WAR (11.1), 23rd in strikeout rate (22.7%.) 

 Based on park-adjusted ERA, Odorizzi was 9% above league average over the five seasons. He’s strong vs. LH batters; they had a .681 OPS against him from 2015 through ‘19. RH batters actually fared better against Odorizzi over that time (.734 OPS.) 

In 2019, his All-Star season, Odorizzi went 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 30 starts and 159 innings. In park adjusted ERA Odorizzi was 29 percent above league averaged and ranked 23rd among 130 starters that pitched at least 100 innings. 

The Takeaway: Odorizzi fills a Cardinals’ need for 2021: a mid-rotation starter who can give them innings, professionalism and a solid (if not better) performance. He may not be able to repeat his 2019 campaign — the contact rate against him that season was his career low, and perhaps unlikely. Or is it? This is an important note: in 2019, after making mechanical changes, Odorizzi increased his four-seam fastball velo, and that dramatically improved his swing-miss rate with the pitch.  Jake still had that fastball in the few times he pitched in 2020. That would give any interested team confidence in Odorizzi’s chances of nearing his 2019 standard. And a pitcher-happy home ballpark would be a nice place to restart after his weird 2020. 

Quotes on Odorizzi from past teammates: 

— Chris Archer: “Hard worker, super competitor, family man, great clubhouse guy.” 

— Twins manager Rocco Baldelli: “Every single time we’ve had Jake take the mound for us, we go into those games in a very confident place. It’s very nice to know that we can go out there and know what we’re going to get from Jake. He’s been extraordinarily consistent. He’s had spurts of dominance. He’s missed a ton of bats. He’s just the kind of guy that you’d want out there when you need a really good effort and to give yourself a chance to win the game.”

— Then-Tampa Bay first baseman Logan Morrison: “He doesn’t care if he gets the win, but he wants his team to win. That’s always a good attribute to have. You don’t see that sometimes with pitchers. It’s very easy for pitchers to get into that mode of ‘just do your job and don’t worry about the rest,’ which is not a bad thing. But being able to put your team in a position to win, I believe, is first and foremost, and I think that’s where he’s at.”

Are other options out there? Yes. Free-agent starting pitching is available for St. Louis. Here they are, listed by Projected WAR (FanGraphs) for 2021: 

James Paxton,  2.1

Rick Porcello,  1.7 

Jake Odorizzi,  1.7

Matt Shoemaker,  1.5

Taijuan Walker,  1.2

Brett Anderson,  1.2

Rich Hill,  1.0

* Mike Leake,  1.0

Jake Arrieta,  0.9 

* You can disregard Leake. 

Thanks for reading … 

–Bernie 

Listen to Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs weekdays from 3-6 p.m. except Friday (4-6 p.m.) Or access the show or the show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app is available in your preferred app store.