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Investment Opportunities and the Cardinal Rotation

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Scuttlebutt around baseball has the Cardinals checking in on a young pitcher in the trade market. What, if anything, does that tell us about the org's current direction?

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Ugh.

Holiday get-together last night.

Excessive imbibing.

The morning...is not going well.

I shall soldier on, however. Maybe don't expect quite my normal epic length of post, though.

Oh, a note: I'm very nearly done with the top 20 prospects list, and probably could have finished up enough to post at least the first half today, but it occurred to me that if I wait one week, then the second half, numbers ten through one on the list (doing it countdown style), would come the first Sunday after New Year's, which seems somewhat appropriate to me. So, look for #20-11 next Sunday, followed by the top ten prospects in the Cardinal system to kick off 2016 in a symbolic orgy of minor league love.

*******

So there's a bit of news in this, the winter of our discontent. Exciting news, too; particularly for me, given the player to whom the news apparently relates is one I have personally long coveted.

The Cardinals are reportedly 'kicking the tires' on a starting pitcher from the Tampa Bay Rays, with speculation being Jake Odorizzi is the most likely target. Of course, the original tweet sort of back-doored Odorizzi's name in, stating only that he is from the St. Louis area. Which, obviously, is not particularly germane to the discussion of an Odorizzi acquisition, beyond perhaps believing he would be amenable to the move himself, and possibly open to a long-term arrangement contractually in the relatively near future. (Which could have an impact on how serious the Redbirds might be about their pursuit, so I suppose it isn't completely pointless. Mostly, though.)

Still, birth geography aside, Odorizzi makes the most sense for the Cardinals to be checking in on, if they are indeed looking for a match with the Rays. The fact Odorizzi's name also popped up in Dodger trade rumours would seem to indicate he's probably available, for the right price. Of Tampa's starters, Chris Archer is either untouchable or so valuable as to be essentially unacquirable, I have to believe. Matt Moore's health isn't yet enough of a proven commodity to be especially attractive, and even when healthy Moore has yet to live up to the outrageous expectations he created on his way to the big leagues. Drew Smyly's health is a huge question mark as well.

Odorizzi, meanwhile, did miss a bit of time in 2015 with an oblique strain, but has a clean bill of health in terms of his arm to this point in his professional career. He's also a very promising pitcher, being still four months shy of his 26th birthday, and coming off a near-3.0 win season in 169 innings.

It was the second season in a row Odorizzi had been worth something better than the accepted league-average mark of 2.0 wins above replacement in less than 170 innings, having posted a 2.1 WAR in 168 innings in 2014. Of course, one could look at those innings totals and somewhat justifiably worry about Odorizzi's ability to eat innings in a meaningful way, but I would posit that 2014, his rookie campaign, saw the Rays and Joe Maddon aggressively manage his workload over 31 starts, for a variety of reasons. Some confidence building, probably; we hear plenty of talk from big league managers about wanting to maintain a pitcher's good feelings for an outing if they can get him out before trouble hits. There was probably an element of young-pitcher inefficiency built in, as well as the simple fact the Rays have been one of the most aggressive clubs in all of baseball about avoiding the third time through the order penalty with their starters, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the pedigree of their analytically-oriented model. So 2014 perhaps saw a team working to limit their young pitcher's exposure, while 2015 saw Odorizzi miss just enough time with a side strain to push his innings down from the ~190 or so he probably would have accrued without the injury.

My point is this: Jake Odorizzi, to me, shows no signs of being too fragile or unable to contribute a bulk of innings. But is he the quality of pitcher the Cardinals should really be looking to invest heavily in?

Personally, I would say yes. In 2014, Odorizzi struck out 24.0% of the hitters he faced, while walking 8.2%. This past year, his strikeout rate fell somewhat, to 21.4%, but he cut his walk rate to 6.6%. He also substantially improved at keeping the ball in the park, pushed his groundball rate up by over seven percentage points (though he remains a flyball pitcher), and just in general worked more efficiently inside the strike zone, throwing almost 300 fewer pitches in nearly the exact same number of innings. He cut his hard contact rate, as well, from 30.6% to 26.7%. All of which paints a picture of a pitcher learning to better command his offerings within the zone, rather than having to work outside the bounds of the plate, trying to tempt hitters to chase bad pitches. Which leads, one understands, to increased strikeouts, most likely, but also more walks and more hitter's counts (which tends to further lead to harder contact), neither of which are desirable.

Best of all, Odorizzi is under control for the next four seasons, which will cover his age 26, 27, 28, and 29 seasons. In other words, Jake Odorizzi is exactly the kind of medium- to long-term investment you would want a club to make, at least in terms of where he is in his career.

Beyond Odorizzi himself specifically being that kind of investment, though, he also represents a very intriguing direction for the Cardinals to take in this offseason of misery. Early on, John Mozeliak and the front office appeared set on investing years and dollars in David Price, the crown jewel of the pitching market this offseason, in order to essentially try and solve for X in the great equation of run-prevention success. They failed in their pursuit, turned their attention to Jason Heyward, and then watched as the Cubs stole Heyward -- and roughly a 12-WAR swing -- right out from under their noses.

To call the offseason so far a disappointment would be putting it very, very lightly.

However, given where the Cardinals currently find themselves, there is a chance they could tread a very productive road still, even if it's not likely to produce the same kind of value in 2015 as signing one of the two biggest free-agent prizes a month ago would have.

Craig and I discussed on the podcast the options on the free agent pitching market, and at the time I said Mike Leake was probably the most attractive option to me. I stand by that; Scott Kazmir is a somewhat better pitcher, but comes with quite a bit more risk, both on the health front and the mere fact his career path at this point is nearly without precedent, making him difficult to project much from. The qualifying offer-attached pitchers on the market I find uninspiring, and not enough of an upgrade for me to really want to give up a draft pick in what I believe will be an historically deep draft class. Leake will probably take a five-year investment, through age 32 or even 33, if the contract goes to six years, and is pretty damned mediocre, all things considered. However, he's also made at least 30 starts four seasons in a row, and was close to that number in 2011 as well. He may not be great, but he's going to be not great every fifth day. He is dependably not great, but you can't spell 'dependably not great' without 'dependably'.

If the Odorizzi rumours are true, though, it represents a much more intriguing, and possibly much more substantial, route to improving the Cardinals of both 2016 and beyond.

The Redbird rotation, as it currently stands, is both a mess and a tease, full of potential and pitfalls, in virtually equal measure. Adam Wainwright is clearly on the downslope of his career, but is still great when he's on the field. Jaime Garcia is only ever great or injured. The real meat of the rotation, though, is found in the young duo of Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha.

There are countless clubs throughout baseball that would give nearly anything to have a pair of such talented building blocks as Martinez and Wacha; it's not hard to envision a Cardinal rotation capable of dominating the National League as a whole with El Gallo and Pac-Man as the centerpieces. However, both have their own concerns attached, as both have missed time in recent seasons with shoulder issues, and even in 2015, when he avoided missing time, Wacha ended the season looking like a different, and much diminished, pitcher by the time the postseason rolled around.

Still, you have a potential numbers one and two starter combination, and both under 25. If they are what the Cardinals think they are, Carlos and Wacha will be members of the organisation for a very long time to come.

And here's where it gets interesting, in terms of what the Redbirds might be doing philosophically in checking on a Jake Odorizzi-type pitching talent.

The club could, obviously, wait. Stand pat with what they have in the rotation, and see what develops over the coming season. They do, after all, have one of the top pitching prospects in baseball coming back after his marijuana suspension in Alex Reyes, and while I don't think Reyes is quite ready for the big show, considering his still kind of terrible control/command, he also isn't that far off. Players like Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, and Tyler Lyons offer the Cards immediate rotation options for basically free, while Luke Weaver will be at Double A this season, and Jack Flaherty could be relatively close behind him. Simply waiting for the next run of pitching talent to matriculate to the big leagues is not, by any means, a terrible option for the Cardinals right now.

On the other hand, there is also the possibility the club could look at Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, and say, we don't want to be unsure. We don't want to wait and see. And that could lead them to invest in a third long-term piece in the rotation, offering a potential solution not just for this season, but for the majority of the time we'll likely see Martinez and Wacha wearing the Birds on the Bat. Take out the potential shortfalls of Reyes or Weaver, or the potential middlingness of Cooney and Gonzales. It already looks like Carlos could be one of the better pitchers in baseball at this moment, so long as he comes back healthy in 2016, and Wacha still has #2 upside if he can put together various aspects of his performance over the first two plus years of his career in a more cohesive whole this coming season. Investing in a long-term number three, a pitcher proven to have that kind of ability already, as well as some upside even beyond that, is a very intriguing possibility to me.

A big part of how attractive that possibility would ultimately be, obviously, would hinge on the cost. If it would cost the Cardinals the bet of Alex Reyes to gain the greater certainty of Jake Odorizzi, that's clearly a different equation than if it would cost them a Weaver, or a Grichuk, or some other combination of assets. Where that line of opportunity versus cost falls will, I'm sure, vary significantly from observer to observer. Personally, I would probably pay the Reyes cost, but I'm also much more skeptical of Alex Reyes than many others, for reasons I'll cover in these electronic pages in the fairly near future. But I could certainly understand if you wouldn't.

Odorizzi is also probably not the only opportunity to make this kind of investment, if the Cardinals decide they want to go this way. He would probably be my choice for the best opportunity, but he's almost certainly not the only. Trevor Bauer seems perpetually on the verge of wearing out his welcome in Cleveland, in spite of their fondness for both Bauer himself and Ron Wolforth's philosophies in general. Of course, there's a reason for that; Bauer has never really figured out how to work in the zone effectively, despite above-average stuff in general and a wide enough variety of offerings to keep hitters guessing.

I have to wonder if the Red Sox would make Rick Porcello available, and if so, what they would ask in return. Porcello's contract currently looks bad, but he's also not the first player to crash and burn in Boston, and if he were a cheap get in terms of talent, it's possible he could still turn things around and make that deal look good. His strikeouts were way up in 2015, and his walks were still in elite territory; the fact he couldn't keep the ball in Fenway was the primary factor in his brutal season.

There are others, of course, but seeing as how this column is, in fact, approaching my usual epic posting lengths after I warned it wouldn't, perhaps I'll stop here and call it an article.

I'll leave this fact here, just to reflect what kind of player you would be getting by going the free agent route for Mike Leake, versus the trade route for Jake Odorizzi: the campaign Odorizzi just completed, his 2.9 fWAR in 169 innings, would represent the best season of Mike Leake's career, by over half a win. In 2014, Leake was a 2.3 fWAR pitcher in 214.1 innings; that performance spike was driven primarily by a strikeout rate over one full K per 9 higher than that of his 2012, 2013, and 2015 campaigns. Leake's contract estimate for the deal he will soon be signing is something like 5/$75-80 million, while Odorizzi will still be pre-arb and under 'contract' for four more seasons. I realise I've spent much of this offseason decrying the Fiscal Efficiency Championship the Cards seem to be chasing, and I would usually much prefer to pay in money over talent. But given the option of acquiring years 26-29 of a ~3.0 win pitcher for probably less than $30 million total, or years 28-32 of a ~2.0 win pitcher for $80 million, I might have to make myself a hypocrite and go the more, sigh, efficient route.

Luckily, I can also honestly say the efficient route in this case is also the exciting route, the upside route, and the route that I could see leading to a dominant starting rotation for the Cardinals without a miracle happening. Just a little planning, and a willingness to pivot when things haven't gone so great this offseason, and pull the trigger on what could be a very, very meaningful move in the years to come.