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The Cardinals are smart to avoid Jon Lester and Max Scherzer

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Jon Lester and Max Scherzer are very good pitchers, but the Cardinals are wise to avoid high end stars on the free agent market. Those deals can work out, but retaining financial flexibility when pitching is a strength is the more prudent choice.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are the top two free agents on the market and two of the best pitchers in the game, and they are about to get paid like it, but as Ben discussed this morning, it looks like the Cardinals are going to avoid that market this offseason. For the Cardinals, that is the smart choice. Not because big free agent deals never work out. Sometimes they do. Not because pitchers get injured and do not age well. Some pitchers are durable and have no problems with aging. The problem is in identifying those pitchers. Signing expensive free agents to big deals is a big risk the Cardinals need not enter.

The Cardinals' current strength, both at the big league level and in the minors, is in pitching. The Cardinals should retain their financial flexibility, their "payroll muscle" to address needs that they will have instead of splurging over slight inexperience at the end of the rotation. The Cardinals have Carlos Martinez pencilled in as the fifth starter which means Marco Gonzales is the sixth starter and Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney are further on down the que.

In looking at depth charts, most teams have their Tyler Lyons-types already in the fifth spot, not waiting in Triple-A for two injuries. The Cardinals had ten starters make at least five starts last season, but that is an anomaly. In 2013, that number was eight. In 2012 and 2011, the Cardinals managed the season using just six starters with at least five starts. The number has not been higher than eight since 2002 when Luther Hackman and Travis Smith were making starts.

Max Scherzer and Jon Lester have been very good pitchers and they could very well earn the contracts they receive this winter. Over the last four years, Scherzer ranks fifth in fWAR behind only Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and David Price. Jon Lester ranks seventh on that same list and both players are coming off very good seasons, ranking in the top ten in fWAR in 2014.

While the common wisdom is that big name free agent deals never work out for starting pitchers, there is actually little evidence supporting or refuting this contention. Barry Zito signed his disaster of a contract eight years ago, but since then only two pitchers have inked free agent deals over $100 milion dollars. CC Sabathia pitched well enough in his deal to exercise his opt-out and it looks like Zach Greinke will be in position to do the same. Justin Verlander and Matt Cain have signed big extensions that look questionable right now. Adam Wainwright has produced thus far. Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw have delivered but are still early in their deals. Cole Hamels is still a tradeable asset despite being owed nearly $100 million. Given the current marketplace, it is nearly impossible to look at the big, recent deals and draw a conclusion regarding their outcomes.

Those deals are still a risk, and looking at a small sampling of pitchers aging shows both the positive and negative outcomes. Using Fangraphs Leaderboards we can do a quick search of players like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester heading into 2011. From 2007-2010 there were just six pitchers between the ages of 26 and 30 who averaged at least 4 fWAR per season and produced at least that number in 2010. Here are their performances from 2011-2014.

Player IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
Justin Verlander 913.2 8.52 2.53 3.20 3.22 22.4
Cliff Lee 747.2 8.9 1.37 2.89 2.86 18.1
Adam Wainwright 667.1 7.85 1.85 3.05 2.83 15
CC Sabathia 694.1 8.43 2.33 3.80 3.51 14
Dan Haren 770.2 7.36 1.61 3.97 3.78 10.3
Tim Lincecum 756.1 8.77 3.75 4.18 3.80 5.7

Four of the six players exceeded, met or came close to matching their efforts over the previous four seasons. Haren has been decent, but slightly disappointing while Lincecum has really fallen off. Looking at comps another way (again using Fangraphs Leaderboards), there have been eleven pitchers from 2000-2009 who had at least a 5 fWAR season at age 29 or 30, like Scherzer and Lester. Each of those pitchers pitched well from 28-30, but three pitchers were removed for having poor age-30 seasons. Here are the eight remaining players from age 31 through age 36.

Player IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
Roy Halladay 1187.2 7.85 1.6 3.06 3.12 30
Cliff Lee 960 8.66 1.24 2.95 2.80 25
Andy Pettitte 1147.1 7.11 2.48 3.83 3.61 23.8
Pedro Martinez 890.1 9.07 2.48 3.54 3.35 22.5
Derek Lowe 1227.2 5.71 2.55 4.03 3.89 18.7
Chris Carpenter 908 7.02 2.02 3.04 3.25 18.2
Javier Vazquez 777.2 8.34 2.55 4.05 3.79 14.1
Jason Schmidt 653.2 8.62 3.69 3.83 3.67 13.3

On the whole, the group performed decently well. Six of the eight averaged at least three wins per season over the next six seasons. Cliff Lee still has time to better that mark. Schmidt and Vazquez were not great, but at least provided some value. Long term deals tend to look bad as they are ending, but overall, this group did a solid job of delivering.

Jon Lester and Max Scherzer could very well be worth the money they are about to receive, but being worth their contracts is not reason enough to sign them. Buying wins at free agent dollars is the most inefficient place to seek upgrades. The Cardinals should retain the flexibility they have given their current strength in the rotation and use their money where they really need it (Jason Heyward contract extension?). Jon Lester and Max Scherzer are very good pitchers. Although not mentioned, so is James Shields. However, the Cardinals do not need to take the risk involved with a high priced pitcher when they already have a solid staff and potential needs elsewhere in the organization.