Hello. I’m not a fan of “The Cardinals Should Sign” this guy or that guy type of column. I’m all for having fun and playing fantasy baseball GM, but too many of these “Sign This Guy Now!” pieces are disconnected from reality. The authors tend to blissfully ignore the way the Cardinals do business under chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. And they blow off the idea that other teams will offer more money — stupid money — or that a pitcher has a strong desire to remain where he is.
But what the hell; let’s play fantasy GM.
I’ll go along.
This is all subject to change pending new developments (or other considerations (injuries?) that emerge. And once you get past the first two or three pitchers on this list, I’m not real picky about where I choose to rank them.
With giving little consideration to annual average salary, length of contract, the pitcher’s age, or their desire to be a Cardinal, here are my top five choices in the free-agent market.
1–Top dog: Max Scherzer. Why? Because he’s Max Bleepin’ Scherzer. Do I really need to say anything more? If he wants a three-year deal, give him a three-year deal. Max will turn 38 in late July, and maybe he’ll lose a little more velocity on his fastball. But does anyone really believe that he’ll fail to adapt and adjust and find other ways to rule hitters? This is an incredibly smart pitcher, and there is no better competitor in major-league baseball.
2–A close second: Marcus Stroman. Why? Consistent supplier of innings, reliable durability, high ground-ball rate, lots of ways to put hitters under his spell. Thrower of strikes, suppressor of home runs, source of energy. Here’s an assessment by The Athletic’s Keith Law: “I think he’s the best bet among free-agent starters this year, with a combination of upside and floor that puts him ahead of anyone else on the list.”
3–From Old Bay to the San Francisco Bay: Kevin Gausman. Why? This dude’s career changed after he escaped the broken, dysfunctional mess in Baltimore. In his two seasons with the Giants, Gausman has matured into a top-rotation force, striking out 30% of batters faced and pitching to a 3.00 ERA. Low walk rate, low home-run rate. Pitched 45 percent above the league average last season, and was 38% above the league average over his last two seasons combined. That said, he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher, four-seam fastball and splitter. His velocity isn’t fearsome. But that splitter is a monster. Last season opponents batted .147 and struck out 44 percent of the time when confronted by the Gausman splitter. I doubt that the Giants let him walk as a free agent.
4–If you believe the turnaround is real: Robbie Ray. Why? The talented but enigmatic lefty tamed his wildness in 2021 and had a Cy Young caliber season for the Blue Jays, snapping off a 2.84 ERA in 193 innings. Last season Ray greatly improved the strike percentage on his fastball and that made a dramatic impact — as evidenced by his career-best 6.9% walk rate. Still gives up too many home runs, but pitching in Busch Stadium would calm that homer rate.
5–From the underrated category: Jon Gray. Why? Ask Nolan Arenado. Get this righthander out of Coors Field and into a pitcher-friendly ballpark with a superb defense behind him, and this is the Darryl Kile addition all over again. Gray’s four-seam fastball has been clobbered in Denver and in other places, and the problem is, he uses it too much. But his slider is among the best in the game. He has to remix his pitches and add more changeups and curves to his arsenal. That said, pitching in Busch Stadium would give Gray the confidence to throw his four-seamer at the top of the strike zone. And if the Cardinals can get him to add a cutter, he’ll be a more complete pitcher.
6–A most intriguing lefty, Eduardo Rodriguez: Why? He’s been an effective starter in each of his last three full seasons, 2018, 2019 and 20201. Don;t be fooled by his standard 4.74 ERA in Boston last season; the Red Sox had a horrible defense. He actually was much better than that, with a fielding-independent ERA of 3.12. Averaged 10.6 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per 9 innings and was gruesomely unlucky on batted balls, yielding a .363 average on balls in play. The Cardinals defense would take care of that. Rodriguez missed the entire 2020 season due to myocarditis during COVID-19. He made a lot of starts in 2019 and in 2021, but didn’t pitch deep into games. His endurance could be a question, sure. But more than that, you put a good defense behind him converting a higher rate of batted balls into outs, and he’d last longer in his starts. STL seems like a good fit for him.
7–How about another ‘Win Now’ guy? That would be Justin Verlander. Why? Because he’s throwing 97 mph after missing last season while recovering from elbow surgery. He wowed the scouts that showed up to see him give a pitching-progress demonstration, and everyone left impressed. Big-game hunter, and the Cardinals need a mean SOB in the rotation. He’ll turn 38 in February — young enough to be Adam Wainwright’s little brother.
8–Longshot: Clayton Kershaw. Why? Because under the right circumstances, he’d do very well in St. Louis. Sure, there are pitching-health concerns; Kershaw hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2015. But he made 29 starts in 2019 — and despite elbow-related issues was still ready to go for 22 starts in 2021. As Ben Clemens pointed out at FanGraphs, last season Kershaw posted his lowest fielding independent ERA (3.00) and highest strikeout rate since 2017. If he pitches at all, most believe (strongly) that he’ll return to the Dodgers on a short-term deal. But if that doesn’t happen, and Kershaw (nearly 34) doesn’t want to pitch for a home-state team in Texas, the Cardinals figure to be an attractive alternative because of their history and tradition and the chance to compete in the postseason. If Albert Pujols can be a Dodger, Kershaw can be a Cardinal. A six-man rotation would go a long way to get Kershaw through the season, but that idea has been a no-go for the Cardinals. And a six-man rotation makes more sense than ever. But for all of this incessant talk about analytics, the Cardinals remain stuck in the past in too many ways.
9– If the price is right: Noah Syndergaard. I said I wasn’t going to base this list on salary considerations, and I’m sticking to that except for this: this starter is intriguing, and his price figures to be down because he hasn’t really pitched in two seasons. But the elbow is healed, and he’s ready to go, and you may be able to purchase his near-100 mph fastball and nasty stuff at a good-value cost, including a short-term contract. (In a couple of appearances in 2021, his fastball velo was down a bit, but that’s no surprise. After another extensive offseason of strengthening, he should be fine.) I keep going back to this theme, but only because it’s true: if Syndergaard wants to re-establish himself before going on a more aggressive free-agent contract search in 2023 or 2024, St. Louis has what he needs. The difficult ballpark for hitters, and a defense that will save plenty of runs.
10–Take your pick: there are other starters with injury histories on the market, and all have some appealing qualities. I’m referring to Steven Matz, Carlos Rodon, Alex Cobb, Alex Wood, etc. I didn’t want to go into detail on any of them — at least not now, maybe later — but let the buyer beware. May I add that I have a soft spot for Zack Greinke and think the Cardinals could coax a surprisingly effective season from him? As a low-cost gamble, it makes some sense.
According to media reports, the Cardinals have inquired about a few of the let-the-buyer-beware types. And (of course!) they’ve been sorting through other pieces of low-hanging fruit. So when we hear them tell us that they plan on addressing their pitching for 2022, it comes down to this: how do they define “addressing?” Are we talking about the bargain approach, like bringing back JA Happ and adding another reclamation project? Or are they serious about competing for the most elite pitchers out there? We’ll know soon enough. But it would be foolish of the Cardinals to ignore the positives that they have going for them in the potential recruitment of top-end pitchers: the right home ballpark, an elite defense, and plenty of money.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.