It’s interesting to monitor the overreaction to the cost of starting pitching during the grand-opening phase of the offseason free-agent market.
The deals for Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander set off alarms … as did the Blues Jays’ seven-year, $131 million contract extension for one of their own starters, Jose Berrios.
Oh my. Prices are skyrocketing, escalating, soaring. The cost will crack the sky, and then the sky will fall.
Oh, dear. The Cardinals will have to overpay.
Oh well. Here we go again. The Cardinals will be driving through the alleys to pick up pieces to refurbish.
Look, most of this is nonsense.
Here are some grounded-in-reality takes:
— On Detroit’s five-year, $77 million deal with Rodriguez, who can opt out after two seasons. “There’s a lot to like about this deal for both sides,” wrote Ben Clemens of FanGraphs. “The Tigers get a top-line starting pitcher. Rodriguez gets both cost certainty and another shot at a big payday. Both sides get that without putting a huge amount of years or dollars on the line. It’s a win-win deal, a fitting opening to this season’s free agent market.”
— Yes, the Angels took a risk in giving a one-year, $21 million deal to Syndergaard. After all, risk is included in every free-agent purchase. After undergoing elbow surgery, Syndergaard pitched only two innings over the past the two years. But it’s only a one-year deal, so the team’s potential liability is limited. And a healthy Syndergaard would be worth the cost, and then some.
Sam Blum of The Athletic: “It’s a signing that indicates the team’s heavy push to win right away. And it shows they’re willing to take a risk on a pitcher with an incredibly high upside. There’s no other reason to spend big on a player for one season unless the expectation is to win that season.”
— Berrios is durable, talented and only 27. He’s worthy of a long-term investment that won’t cause the Blue Jays to file for bankruptcy. “This is a good deal for both parties,” wrote Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs. “For seven years of a very good starting pitcher who possibly still has upside remaining, $131 million is a fair deal. Toronto has another starting pitcher written in for the foreseeable future, and Berríos will finally get to show off his talents more regularly against the league’s most popular teams. Thumbs up here.”
— Verlander, 37, is good to go after returning from elbow surgery and a lengthy rehab. The Astros will pay JV $25 million in 2022 — but he has a 2023 player option that makes this a two-year, $50 million contract. In a recent pitching showcase attracted reps from a bunch of MLB teams, and Verlander impressed with his high velocity and sharpness. Risk? Sure. There’s always risk.
Brendan Gawlowski, FanGraphs: “Houston’s World Series loss came with a broader lesson, it would be about the limitations of a pitching staff light on frontline arms and dependable innings eaters. Of the returning starters, only Lance McCullers topped 160 innings, and even he only averaged 17 outs per start. He also missed the World Series with a forearm injury, the latest in a long line of maladies that have limited him to just 671 frames since his debut in 2015. Luis Garcia, Framber Valdez, and Jose Urquidy all project as quality mid-rotation arms but none of them have ever carried a starter’s workload for a full year and all of them had massive innings jumps in 2021. For all their depth, Houston doesn’t currently have a true No. 1 on the roster. Verlander could again assume that mantle.”
Let’s focus on the early-signing free agents. Rodriguez, Syndergaard, and Justin Verlander signed for a combined $123 million covering seven locked-in contract years. That’s an average of $17.75 million per season.
If we include Andrew Heaney — who signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers for $8 million — then it’s eight locked-in seasons for an annual average of $16.375 million. The bigger contracts are still to come: Marcus Stroman, Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, etc.
OK, so how is this any different from what we’ve seen in recent offseasons? After MLB teams took a massive revenue hit during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the offseason spending was more controlled and conservative. But the challenging conditions didn’t prevent the Dodgers from giving Trevor Bauer a three-year deal for $110 million.
It’s ludicrous to compare last offseason to this offseason. Last offseason was an outlier for obvious reasons, and the business of baseball is getting back to normal.
We don’t know if this will change for teams and players that wait until after the haggling over a new collective bargaining agreement is settled, but some teams have made the decision to secure starting pitching ahead of time. None of these deals are unreasonable. And hitting the market early seems smart to me.
Here’s a reminder of the more notable free-agent contracts for starting pitchers in the most recent pre-pandemic seasons:
+ Gerrit Cole, Yankees: 9 years, $324 million.
+ Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: 7 years, $245 m.
+ Zack Wheeler, Phillies: 5 years, $118 m.
+ Madison Bumgarner, D-backs: 5 years, $85 m.
+ Hyun-Jin Ryu, Blue Jays: 4 years, $80 m.
+ Dallas Keuchel, White Sox: 3 years, $55.5 m.
+ Patrick Corbin, Nationals: 6 years, $140 m.
+ Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: 3 years, $93 m.
+ Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox: 4 years, $68 m.
+ J.A. Happ, Twins: 2 years, $34 m.
+ Lance Lynn, Rangers: 3 years, $30 mill.
I’m trying to understand the “prices are skyrocketing” narrative. I’m not saying that these past starting-pitching contracts were smart, or that they all worked out. Heck, no. This is about comparing what we’ve seen so far to the raw, bottom-line spending for starting pitching over the two offseasons before the pandemic.
Some teams spend a lot on starting pitching. Some of those teams are now regretting their decisions.
But they’re still spending money on starting pitching. That hasn’t changed at all.
And how does this impact the Cardinals?
Answer: It shouldn’t.
Once the price standard is established in the market, all 32 teams have choices. But a team that has abundant resources — the Cardinals — can’t run away.
The Cardinals can afford the price of any starting pitcher. This is a well-funded enterprise that can count on robust home attendance and best-in-MLB ratings for local telecasts.
That the Astros gave Verlander $25 million for 2022 — with the likelihood of another $25 million for 2023 — doesn’t prevent the Cardinals from jumping in on Max Scherzer and making a bold, winning bid. The Eduardo Rodriguez contract is generous, but the Cardinals have a large enough war chest to do what’s necessary to sign Marcus Stroman. (I’m just using two examples.)
With the Cardinals, it doesn’t come down to money. They have plenty of it. It comes down to their aggressiveness on how much of that money to spend. Do they have the stomach to go in big? Will they calibrate for medium speed and focus on the cheaper, moderate-level group of free-agent starters? Or will they rely on 2021’s success with low-cost, in-season pickups — Wade LeBlanc, Jon Lester and Happ — and wait for the free-agent store to put the familiar bargain bins on display?
The Cardinals could take a more calculated approach and prioritize an upgrade in starting-pitching depth, going for a mid-rotation type of starter and adding another from the lower end of the free-agent price category.
Such a decision would be tied to an organizational belief that the team’s defense, home ballpark and positive track record can help turn average starting pitchers into above-average starters.
And there is merit to such a view. Over the last three seasons the Cardinals lead the majors in defensive runs saved, and their starting pitchers have the third-best home ERA (3.50) in the majors.
That said, the STL starting pitching ranks 10th in road ERA (4.34) over the last three seasons. That’s pretty good, but there’s still a question: why not go hard to land a starting pitcher that will dominate hitters away from Busch Stadium?
If the Cardinals take a mid-range approach to adding a starter, the strategy will be formulated, in part, by the belief that they’ll get a ton of more innings from Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson in 2022. In 2021 the three starters combined for only 131 and ⅔ big-league innings.
Former manager Mike Shildt didn’t utilize Jake Woodford enough as a starter in ‘21, and he could be more of a factor in 2022. Another wild-card for 2022 is No. 1 pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore.
The Cardinals have talked about giving rotation shots to Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks and Genesis Cabrera.
So many possibilities. So many questions. But what about high-probability solutions? We’ll see.
But again, this isn’t about money. It isn’t about the spending choices that other teams make. It’s about the choices that the Cardinals make. They have no financial limits — but have put limitations on themselves.
We’ve seen the Cardinals break from their usual inhibitions before, giving five years and $80 million to free-agent starting pitcher Mike Leake. And offering David Price a monster deal, only to have the Red Sox swoop in at the last minute with a superior bid. (It didn’t pay off for Boston.)
When the Cardinals won the NL pennant in 2013, they ranked fifth in the majors for spending on starting pitching. (Source: Spotrac.) Through the ensuing years, their starting-pitching spending has fluctuated from a low of the 14th in MLB in 2019, to the No. 7 ranking in 2021.
The Cardinals have a lot of names, in house, to potentially fill rotation slots. But what about elite-level starting pitching? Based on the existing talent, is there enough dependable dominance?
In the quest to win the NL Central in 2022 can the Cardinals match Milwaukee’s starters? The Crew will come back with Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes, fifth-place Cy finisher Brandon Woodruff and underrated No. 3 starter Freddy Peralta. The three combined for 16.1 WAR last season, and it’s up to the Cardinals to narrow the gap. They can do that by adding a proven but expensive commodity.
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.