You may have heard that Cardinals have an urgent need for starting pitching. So let’s satisfy our curiosity by browsing through the aisles of the free-agent megastore to look at some of the available starting pitchers.
This isn’t meant to be a complete list.
I’ll have additional installments.
I don’t know if the Redbirds have made up their mind yet — will it be three starters, two starters, or 2 and 1/2 starters if one of the starters is actually a hybrid that can also serve as a reliever? The birdwatchers are restless and warming up their outrage. And no matter what the Cardinals end up doing this offseason, their moves will be met with righteous indignation. Why? Well, just because.
Today’s baseball-analysis enterprise is all about the righthanders. I’ll get to the lefthanders early next week. And I hope to follow up by assessing additional starting pitchers that didn’t make the initial rundowns.
1. Other than Shoehei Ohtani, who is the best free-agent pitcher the Cardinals could sign?
I’m riding with the most popular choice: Orix Buffaloes right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, age 25, who is set to begin his journey in Major League Baseball. He was phenomenal in Japan, winning the NPB league’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award for three consecutive seasons. And he’s won three straight pitching triple-crown titles after leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. He’s a superb athlete. His velocity is consistently in the upper 90s. He has a killer splitter. Some scouts are concerned by his height – “only” 5-10 – but that seems nit-picky to me. This is a No. 1 starter who has a long and successful career in front of him. Fangraphs likened Yamamoto to a peak-form version of Zack Greinke. In the NPB, stats were superior to the numbers crafted by Kodai Senga, who had a positive first season (2023) with the Mets after being signed last offseason for $75 million. got $75 million from the Mets last December. And Yamamoto is five years younger than Senga.
Fangraphs contract projection: 7 years, $196 million, an average of $28 million per season. There’s also a posting fee. All of the big-spending franchises will be lined up to make bids. I’d be stunned if the Cardinals pursued Yamamoto with uncharacteristic and relentless aggressiveness. But just for once, wouldn’t it be inspiring to see the Cardinals do whatever it takes financially and go all out to sign an elite and exciting talent that comes from the non-Ohtani category? Now, I have no idea if he wants to pitch for St. Louis. Yamamoto will have outstanding options to go to work for a team that has the potential to win the World Series sooner than later.
(Side note: If Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. can shock the BFIB by recruiting Yamamoto, he’ll shut up the growing faction that apparently believes payroll is everything, nothing else matters, and extravagant spending is the 100 percent guaranteed way to win the World Series. C’mon, Bill. Do it.)
2. Aaron Nola or Sonny Gray? “Both” would be the preferred answer, but realistically it will likely come down to choosing one or the other. But with intense competition in the market for the upper-tier starting pitchers, the Cardinals could swing and miss on both right-handers.
The Case For Nola: At age 31, he still has prime years left in his career. Though his 2023 season wasn’t as crisp as usual, he’s an established and dependable commodity who hasn’t missed a start since early in the 2017 season.
Over the last seven seasons Nola ranks fourth among MLB starting pitchers in Wins Above Replacement; only Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom have more WAR over that time. In the FanGraphs version of WAR, Nola is third since 2017 behind Scherzer and Cole.
The Cardinals obviously need more innings from their starters and that’s one of Nola’s most important attributes. Over the last seven seasons only Cole has pitched more innings than Nola – and only Cole, Scherzer and Justin Verlander have more quality starts.
Nola’s strikeout rate dropped some in 2023. But he has plenty of strikeout punch – a rate of 28 percent over the last three seasons combined – and also induces a high percentage of ground balls (49.3%). He can get those outs in a lot of ways.
In the last two postseasons Nola is 5-3 with a 3.41 FIP and 25% strikeout rate. He can start Game 1 of a playoff series or Game 2 of a series. Those dudes aren’t easy to find. That’s why the only MLB team he’s pitched for — the Phillies — might make a major effort to keep him.
Fangraphs contract projection: 5 years, $140 million, an average of $28 million per season.
The Case For Gray: At age 34, Gray presumably could be signed to a shorter contract that limits potential age-related liability. He delivered his career-best season for the Twins in 2023, working 184 innings with a 2.79 ERA. Gray had 5.3 WAR, which was tied with Kevin Gausman among MLB starting pitchers. Only Zack Wheeler (5.9) and Spencer Strider (5.3) have more WAR than Gray. His fastball averages just under 93 mph but the velocity isn’t an issue because of his assortment of pitches – six in all – that keeps hitters off balance. Gray developed a sweeper while pitching for the Twins; last season the pitch had an excellent +19 run value and opponents batted .097 against it with a 44.4% whiff rate. Minor injuries limited Gray to an average of 25 starts per season in 2021-2022, but in 2023 he cranked the second-best strikeout total of his career, was touched for the lowest home-run rate of his career, and posted his highest innings total since 2015.
Among pitchers who supplied at least 300 innings over the last two seasons, only two had an ERA lower than Gray’s 2.90 – Justin Verlander and Blake Snell. But until 2023, Gray hadn’t made 30+ starts in a full season since 2019. Geographical note: Gray and his family live in Nashville which is about 300 miles from St. Louis.
Fangraphs contract projection: 4 years, $92 million for an average of $23 million annually.
3. OK, how about a look at Marcus Stroman? I bring this up because MLB Network’s Jon Heyman said the Cardinals have been “linked” to Stro. We’ll see about that. The righthander opted out of his Cubs contract to take advantage of the frantic, feverish free-agent market. Stroman’s age (33) is a potential risk factor, and his swing-miss stuff has dropped a bit, but he’s never been a high-volume strikeout guy. But he is one of the most prolific ground-ball pitchers in the bigs. Even with injuries – nothing related to his arm – Stroman has averaged nearly 28 starts over the last three seasons. Over that time he had a 3.45 ERA and a WAR figure that put him close to Seattle’s Logan Gilbert, Arizona’s Merrill Kelly and Atlanta’s Charlie Morton. Stroman would bring a consistent performance; a team can count on an ERA and FIP that will stay in the same range from year to year. There’s a premium on strikeouts nowadays, but Stroman’s 53 percent ground-ball rate over the last three seasons – fifth best in MLB – is an asset. That said, Adam Wainwright threw more innings than Stroman from 2021-2023.
Fangraphs contract projection: 3 years, $66 million for an average of $22 million per season.
4. Is there an underrated starting pitcher out there who makes sense? The answer is yes: Seth Lugo. But the thing is, I don’t think he’ll be underrated in this market. Front-office operatives are aware of his good showing for the 2023 Padres. And upon further review they’ll be even more impressed.
So why Lugo? The Mets used him almost exclusively in relief from 2018 through 2022. The Padres gave him an opportunity to start in 2023, and after smoothing out some early kinks and missing a month with a calf strain, Lugo allowed three or fewer runs in 14 of his final 18 starts and pitched to an overall 3.57 ERA. Once he healed and stretched out, Lugo averaged 6 innings per start and had a 3.33 ERA and an above-average strikeout rate in his final 16 assignments. He has an above-average four-seam fastball and an outstanding sinker that was good for a +11 run value last season. He’s 34, but has a relatively fresh arm because of his low-inning counts during all of his seasons as a reliever.
In theory, Lugo could also be used in relief if there’s an urgent need. He was paid $7.5 million by the Padres and opted out after the ‘23 season.
Here’s a report from Fangraphs: “Lugo has a skill set that translates well to starting – he floods the zone with his deep arsenal, keeping batters guessing while limiting free passes. While he made a name for himself as an absurd breaking ball spinner at the dawn of the Statcast era, his fastballs were far more effective this season, especially the sinker, which earned called strikes at an excellent rate. Lugo rolled the dice on his abilities as a starter and won, setting career bests in WAR and innings pitched.”
Fangraphs contract projection: 3 years, $39 million, an average of $13 mill per season.
5. Are any so-called bounceback candidates worthy of strong consideration? Yes. And if the Cardinals sign a high-end starter and make a trade for an upper-tier starter, a third starter would be a standard No. 4 or No. 5 type – or a sensible pitching-rehab wager. Two names…
— Luis Severino: During a multiple-year stretch in which he worked 505 innings, Severino had a 3.10 ERA, averaged 10.5 strikeouts per 9 innings, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2011 and received Cy votes in 2018. But his career went off the rails following elbow surgery and a subsequent back issue. Severino was horrendous in 2023, getting plastered for a 6.65 ERA in 19 games.
So what makes Severino a bounceback case? First of all, he’s still only 30 years old. Second, Severino rallied late in the ‘23 season, pitching to a 2.49 ERA over his final four starts. A turnaround won’t require an enormous amount of work; Severino needs to sharpen his four-seam fastball. The pitch had a + 11 run value in 2022 and a minus 14 run value last season. But here’s the deal: that four-seamer still averaged 96.4 mph in 2023 … and was reaching 100 mph late in the season. By the final month of the ‘23 season, his velo was lasting deeper into games, and his slider came alive after being a nothing kind of pitch for most of the season.
Respected pitching analyst Eno Sarris (The Athletic) has a positive assessment of Severino’s viability.
“We shouldn’t ignore that the velocity, shape, and spin on his pitches in 2023 were not all that bad compared to what he showed during those great five hundred innings,” Sarris wrote. “There’s no way to look at his results and say he’s what he once was, but there’s also enough under the hood to think he could possibly be a pretty good pitcher if given another chance … someone will give the former Yankee a short-term deal and benefit.”
Fangraphs contract projection: 1 year, $10 million.
— Lucas Giolito: He won’t turn 30 years old until the middle of the 2024 season. He had a weird season in 2023, pumping a 3.79 ERA and 26% strikeout rate for the White Sox until the trade that sent him to the Angels. And the Angels later dealt him to the Guardians. With his mechanics all screwed up, Giolito had a 7.14 ERA during his time with Anaheim and Cleveland.
Giolito told reporters that it was all about poor execution, and maybe a slight loss of confidence, and he needed a reset to get back on track. There’s no reason to believe he’s done, and can’t rebound. That’s ludicrous. And he takes the ball – 33 starts last season – and piles up innings. His fastball velo in 2023 was up from 2022.
Mark Feinsand at MLB.com listed Giolito as a fit for the Cardinals and several other teams: “Nobody will confuse Giolito with a bonafide ace, but the 29-year-old has been a proven innings-eater and will likely be paid accordingly,” Feinsand wrote.
Giolito’s fastball velocity got closer to his career norms after he made a mechanical adjustment late last season. As Fangraphs noted, his movement was fine, and his best pitch (the changeup) looked good. There’s a lot to work with here. And I want to introduce another factor: Busch Stadium would be a good home for Giolito. During his career with the White Sox Giolito had a 4.60 ERA at home. But away from Guaranteed Rate Field, he produced a 3.82 ERA and a lower homers-allowed rate.
Fangraphs projected contract: 4 years, $60 million for an average of $15 mill per season.
6. Finally, at least for today: what about old friend Michael Wacha? His stock is rising.
Wacha, 32, had a good 2023 campaign with the Padres. San Diego declined to exercise a two-year club option for $32 million – but that’s because of the team’s stated cost-cutting initiative to lower payroll. It wasn’t about Wacha’s pitching. After a pretty brutal phase of his career (2018-2021), Wacha reaffirmed his quality while pitching for the Red Sox in 2022 and the Padres in ‘23. He made 47 starts over the two seasons, compiling a 3.27 ERA and an adjusted ERA that put him 27 percent above the league average.
Wacha doesn’t throw quite as hard as he did in his healthy days with the Cardinals. But here’s the exciting news … Wacha has reinvented his changeup. As a dynamic rookie for the Cardinals in 2013, Wacha’s changeup neutralized hitters in a substantial way. Over the years it lost effectiveness. But he’s redeveloped it to have a lower speed and more of a vertical dip. According to the Stuff+ metrics at Fangraphs, the Wacha changeup was the best in the majors last season among pitchers that worked at least 80 innings.
A team that signs Wacha has to accept the reality. He’s had to pitch with chronic shoulder fatigue since the 2014 season, but the Red Sox and Padres realized that it made sense to give him down time during the season to help regenerate the shoulder strength. And it worked. So Wacha may be limited to about 140 innings per season but will hold his effectiveness.
Last season for the Padres Wacha had a 14-4 record with a 3.22 ERA in 24 starts. If the Cardinals make sure to have plenty of starting-pitching depth in 2024, Wacha would make sense. The Cardinals just have to handle him the correct way and take care of that right shoulder.
Fangraphs contract projection: 3 years, $33 million for an annual average of $11 million.
As mentioned, I’ll be back early next week with a look at a shorter list of pitchers — the lefty starters — including Monty Montgomery, Blake Snell and Eduardo Rodriguez. They’re available in the free-agent emporium.
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great weekend.
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.