I had planned initially on writing this column up Sunday morning, as the idea had been floating around in my head for a week or so, but in watching Jaime Garcia pitch this past Saturday I was moved in another direction. Ergo, you received a celebration of Jaime on Sunday, and this column a fair bit later than when the idea first occurred to me.
I tell you this for two reasons. One, because the way I write has become more and more conversational over the years, both in terms of the language and construction of the writing and also the mental approach I take to it, in that I'm basically just talking directly to an imaginary person half the time when I'm composing these columns of mine, and so idle chatter is more a part of the finished product than you perhaps get with other, more traditional or perhaps just more polished, accomplished writers. And two, because I want you to understand that I am not writing this as in a reactionary fashion due to Lynn's rough start Monday, when he got hammered for six runs in a little over two innings. Promise, this is not me trying to just jettison Lynn because he shit the bed against the Cubs.
Rather, there was a discussion in the comments section a while back, in which various posters were discussing what they would like to see as the long-term way forward for the Cardinals. My own version went something like this: sign Jason Heyward, sign David Price, trade Lance Lynn, pick up Jaime's option, extend Carlos immediately, extend Wacha shortly after, put one of Marco Gonzales or Tim Cooney on the trading block, put Tyler Lyons in the major league 'pen, and shoot for offensive firepower at first base or a long-term solution behind the plate as a return for the trades. It all seemed fairly reasonable to me, if a bit optimistic in terms of the Cardinals' usually conservative financial approach to contract signings.
However, after this exchange I received an email from a reader. Not a regular commenter, but someone who reads the blog. And this person told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was quite the fool (not the exact term, but you get the idea), for wanting to trade Lance Lynn. Also, this one poor opinion reflected a definite lack of intelligence in general, and so my overall body of work is largely rendered moot by said opinion.
Now, I'm not telling you this to complain about mildly insulting emails; send me as many emails of whatever level of insult you like, really. I'm terrible about answering both insulting and non-insulting emails, though, I feel I should warn you; a very nice reader sent me a very thoughtful email back right after the draft about a possible signing strategy for a team looking to bring in a free agent or two, and I completely forgot to ever respond to it, in spite of it being totally non-insulting and engaging. So, fair warning that I am not so good with the communication.
No, rather I'm telling you about the dissenting opinion to my Lance Lynn trade proposal so that I may explain myself, and why I find the idea of moving a very valuable, not to mention still very reasonably-priced, commodity to be appealing.
My initial proposal of moving Lance Lynn this offseason was couched in the notion of the Cardinals signing David Price, which, while probably not all that likely, is at least not crazy, as Derrick Goold has mentioned it a time or two, saying there is a, "Mutual fascination," I believe was the term, on Buster Olney's podcast at some point in the recent past. We know Price desires a geographic location near his home in Tennessee, which really limits him to a smallish number of teams, such as the Braves, Cubs, Reds, and, most germane to our consideration, the Cardinals. Perhaps you could throw Cleveland in there, and the White Sox are, of course, in the same city as the Cubbies. But, of all those teams, there are really only two I see as financial fits for Price: Chicago (the NL one), and St. Louis. So, while it might seem to be a somewhat far-fetched idea, there is a reason to think Price may end up somewhere in the heartland. Of course, if the Dodgers or Yankees back a dumptruck full of money up to his door, I'm sure he could overlook the long flights, but that's really neither here nor there.
If the Cardinals were to come away with Price, then Lynn, to me, is the obvious pitcher to move. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez are very much core parts of the future here, and Adam Wainwright is locked in to a deal for the next few years. Jaime Garcia is awesome, but has no real trade value, for a variety of reasons. He's valuable to a team paying him to pitch, but it would be tough to see another team giving up talent value for him, given the risks. Thus, Lance Lynn could immediately become an extremely valuable trade chip.
It's this line of thinking that actually brought me around to the idea of dealing Lynn, even without a David Price bombshell contract hitting this offseason. My logic is this: if the Cardinals expect Adam Wainwright to be back at full strength next season, you still have three pitchers in Waino, Carlos, and Wacha, who project as core pieces for at least the next couple seasons. Jaime is good and costs only money. And there are pitchers like Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales who could reasonably fill a fifth starter's role for league minimum, and while they would be a step back from Lynn in quality, certainly, the dropoff would not be the sort to crush a team with as much depth and quality as the Cardinals. That's to say nothing of Alex Reyes, who is still very much a work in progress, yes, but is also striking out the world in Double A, and will head off to the Arizona Fall League this autumn to test his mettle against the best the minor leagues have to offer. He's not ready yet, but he's also not that far away from demanding an opportunity.
More than anything, though, my thinking is this: the Cardinals have an enormously valuable trade asset in Lance Lynn, and there's reason to believe they could absorb moving him relatively painlessly. So just how valuable might he be? Well, let's consider the question in light of what Cole Hamels brought back to the Philadelphia Phillies at the trade deadline this year, shall we?
On first blush, Lynn and Hamels may not appear to be all that similar in terms of value. After all, Hamels is a bona fide Ace, and one who is under contract for four more seasons, at a fairly reasonable rate. That's a ridiculously valuable asset. Lance Lynn, on the other hand, is a very solid, but short of ace quality, hurler signed for two more seasons at a rock-bottom rate for a pitcher of his calibre. They don't seem especially alike, do they? Well, maybe not in terms of what they are and how long they're signed, but that's not actually all that important. What's important is just how much value a team is buying with each, and how much they're paying for that value.
Let's start with Hamels. Cole Hamels has been one of the better pitchers in all of baseball over the past several years. Since 2011, Hamels has thrown at least 200 innings each year, made at least 30 starts per season, and been worth at least 4.0 wins above replacement. Over that period of time, which covers his age 27-30 seasons, Hamels has been worth 18.2 fWAR total, for a ~4.5 WAR/year pace. This year he's sitting at 3.8 fWAR, and is projected by ZiPS to be worth another 0.6 the rest of the way. So, roughly that same four and a half win kind of mark.
Now, Hamels is going to pitch 2016 at 32, meaning he is moving out of his prime years, and we will likely see him start to decline. It's possible he declines in a hurry, via injury or some other force, of course, but for the sake of this exercise, we'll assume he declines gradually. The rate is usually something along the line of half a win per year, so over the next four seasons we're going to go with something like 4.0, 3.5, 3.0, and 2.5 wins above replacement, okay? That adds up to 13.0 fWAR over that period of time. That number could be low, if he continues to evolve as a pitcher and stays healthy, or it could be well high, if his arm blows out and he misses significant time. But, it's a fair enough number to guess at, I think.
I should stop for a moment here and say that it's not a fait accompli that the Rangers pick up Hamels's option for 2019. However, the Phillies sent money in the deal to cover the buyout for that season, and so long as Hamels is still pitching well it seems like a very non-painful option. Since our imaginary version is declining gradually, we'll just assume that option is picked up.
Hamels's contract pays him $22.5 million each of the next three seasons, with that option year valued at $20 million. So, all told, that's $87.5 million over four years, with a 13.0ish projected WAR. With the marginal win cost sitting around $7 million currently, that 13 win number would be worth something like $91 million on the open market. So, pretty much exactly the cost of the contract, with a few million in surplus value if he declines exactly as gradually as we're predicting here.
Now on to Lance Lynn. Lynn has only been a starting pitcher since 2012, so we lack the long track record we had with Hamels. However, since becoming a full-time starter, Lynn has been worth 2.8, 3.7, and 3.4 fWAR, while eclipsing the 200 inning mark each of the last two seasons. He'll fall short of that benchmark this year, unfortunately, but he's still been worth 2.8 wins already in 150 innings pitched, and ZiPS likes him for another half a win the rest of the way, throwing another 28 innings. So, about 3.3 WAR in 178.0 IP, which puts him solidly in that 3.5-4.0 WAR range for a full season he's been trending toward.
The good news about Lynn is that he's only 28 currently, and will turn 29 early in the 2016 season. That puts him still within his peak years, and so we don't really have to subtract from his win total, at least not yet. Barring the kind of breakout prediction that gets Craig Edwards called out for rampant puffery, I feel like we should probably just assume Lance Lynn sort of is what he is at this point. For his age 29 and 30 seasons, which will take him to free agency, I'm comfortable just predicting two ~3.5 win seasons. Could he be better? Sure, could be. Could he be worse? Yes, but really mostly just due to the threat of injury. Healthy, I think he's just fine.
So that's 7.0 wins worth of value for Lynn over the next two seasons, which using the same rubric as above, nets us a value of roughly $49 million. Now here's the really good news: Lance Lynn is making exactly $7.5 million each of the next two seasons. So close to $50 million of value for $15 million in salary. So rather than the maybe $5 million in surplus value Cole Hamels is providing over the next four seasons, you have Lance Lynn providing $35 million surplus over two years, and that's before you account for the injury risk of Lynn for two seasons vs Hamels over four in his mid-thirties.
Now here's where it gets tricky. As part of the Hamels deal, the Phillies took on Matt Harrison's contract, worth roughly $33 million total. It was a fairly brilliant bit of dealing from the Phils' perspective, really, as they managed to turn payroll space into talent, since them taking on Harrison and his bad contract essentially had value to the Rangers. So, the Phillies basically bought $33 million in surplus value for the Rangers, adding it to the $4-5 million he probably already had. And yes, this kind of makes my head hurt, too, so don't feel bad.
So if we take the dead money the Phillies saved the Rangers and add it to Cole Hamels, we get something around $38 million. Add in Jake Diekman, the lefty reliever who came with Hamels, and maybe we can assume $40-45 million in value. Call it $40 million.
That isn't so different from the surplus value Lance Lynn is offering, is it? Hell, the Cards could pick up a third of his salary the next two years and we would be pretty much dead even.
And what did the Rangers pay for that surplus value? They gave up one toolshed outfield prospect in Nick Williams, who took a big step forward in Double A this year, one toolsy-but-troublingly-raw catching prospect in Jorge Alfaro, one arm in Jake Thompson who made it onto plenty of top 100 prospect lists this offseason due to mid-rotation upside, and two lower-upside but near-ready arms in Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher. For reference, I'll direct you to a Chris Mitchell piece at FanGraphs. His KATOH system has plenty of issues, but as I'm only moderately familiar with these players, the context is useful, I think.
Translated to Cardinal prospects, it would be something like maybe Anthony Garcia in the place of Williams, though Garcia is more of a hitter and less toolsy overall, Rob Kaminsky (single tear), in the place of Thompson, though Kaminsky might be a tad bit better, Carson Kelly for Alfaro, with Alfaro having a bit more pedigree, and then say...Zach Petrick and Tim Cooney. These aren't perfect equivalents, of course, but just as a general idea.
Now, to be fair, I don't expect Lance Lynn would return quite as much as Cole Hamels. He probably should, given the numbers we're looking at here, but there is still that value placed on the name, and the pedigree, and probably on some other intangible things that are tough to pin down but come with that ace designation. So maybe we lop off one player. To even out the values, let's say it would be roughly A. Garcia, Kaminsky, Carson Kelly, and Cooney. I'm putting Cooney in here because I think the values on Garcia and Kelly are probably a little low compared to the players in the actual deal, while he should be higher.
Would you do that for two years of Lance Lynn? Think for a moment about it. Maybe not in a vacuum, where you're just considering holding on to Lynn and what that would mean to your major league club vs the benefit to the farm. But if the club were to sign Price? I'd do it in a hearbeat. And if they didn't? Well, that's tougher, but I still think I would. This deal shouldn't be considered in a vacuum; this deal should be considered in the context of a Cardinals system that has been pumping out high-quality pitching prospects at an unbelievable rate over the past few years. It's why, as disappointed and frustrated as I was to see Rob Kaminsky shipped out of the farm system, I've tried not to overreact. Pitching depth on the farm is a position of strength for this club, and even as much as I liked Kaminsky I have to admit there are a ton of other arms that are very, very promising on the way.
The Cards would likely be focusing less on pitching depth in a potential Lynn deal than the Phillies did, obviously, since it's the depth of pitching prospects that would likely make one comfortable potentially trading Lynn in the first place, but this framework, in terms of value, is why I would be all in favour of shopping the big man this offseason, even as the club continues to try and contend. Adding two top 100 prospects to the system alone would be a huge boon, and any complementary pieces you might be able to pull would just be a bonus.
So if that was the return, how would you feel about dealing Lynn this offseason? I hope I've made my case as to why I feel it makes sense, even absent a new addition to the starting rotation, as the Cards have enviable pitching depth that could make Lynn at least mostly replaceable, if there was the chance of bringing in some real positional upside to the system in return. If the Redbirds had been serious about Lynn being a core piece going forward, I have a feeling they would have gone harder after a long-term deal with him, rather than just buying out his arbitration years for a reasonable sum, and Lynn himself seems fairly set on testing free agency, given what we heard later about his preference to only go shorter term with the Cards. I think he'll be looking for a big payday, and while he's been very, very solid for the Cardinals, I don't think they view him as a big payday, long-term building block kind of player. Part of it is his fairly late start in terms of cracking the rotation, which will have him hitting free agency at 30, which might have the Cards looking at him as a good player to let walk. The other part is that Lance Lynn is an outstanding number three starter, and a pretty good number two, but is a little short of a pitcher you absolutely cannot afford to let go of. Particularly considering that depth of pitching we've already discussed.
And that, in not-so-brief terms, is why I could see Lance Lynn being used as a very valuable trade chip as soon as this offseason, while so many teams are trying to decide if they want to bite the bullet and go long-term and big money for a David Price or Johnny Cueto type. A guy like Lynn, with his short commitment in years and extremely reasonable salary just might tempt a team to make an offer the Cardinals would be smart to at least consider long and hard.