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Missed Opportunities

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Looking back at some failed pursuits of the past two years that would have made a huge difference in how the Cardinal roster looks right now.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s early in the offseason — the GM Meetings, baseball’s version of offseason foreplay, have just gotten underway — but already the discussions have come hot and heavy, particularly here in Cardinal Land, where the natives are more restless than usual, the result of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010 while simultaneously watching an ascendant Cubs team end their championship drought and appear, at least temporarily, to be a dominant force for years to come.

The discussions of what the Cardinals need to do, should do, ought to do, would like to do, and ultimately will do, have taken all forms so far. Some people want a middle of the order run producer. Some want defensive upgrades at all costs. Others want to invest in relief pitching, seeing bargains potentially on the market and a bullpen that cost the Redbirds just enough games in 2016 to keep them out of the playoffs. Some want to focus on the infield, some the outfield. Free agency has been touted as the solution for a club with lots of money, and the trade market has been extolled as the smart route for a club trying to avoid bad contracts.

In other words, there are lots of ideas floating around out there.

Through it all, one of the more interesting themes that has emerged, at least to my eye, is the thought that the Cardinals really need to find themselves an ace to lead the pitching staff. The Redbirds lack a True Ace, this argument goes, and that’s why the club struggled so badly to get on, and stay on, a roll this past season. Put that anchor at the top of the rotation, and everything falls into place is the crux of the theory.

Now, we can debate momentarily whether the Cardinals do or do not have an ace. It’s pretty clear Adam Wainwright’s days as stopper have passed. Lance Lynn was the most consistent producer in the Redbird rotation for the past few years behind Waino, but he was hurt in 2016 and is probably a shade below what you’re thinking of when the word ‘ace’ is tossed out at the best of times.

Carlos Martinez is really the inflection point for the ace debate; going by runs allowed WAR models Carlos was absolutely elite in 2016 — his Baseball-Reference WAR number, based on RA/9, was 5.9 — but his peripherals, particularly the strikeout rate, took a hit from his 2015 numbers. It was a slightly odd year for El Gallo; he topped 190 innings for the first time in his career at 24 years old, and looked just as good at the end of the campaign as he did in April, but failed to take the big step forward into true dominance many of us expected. He’s the ace of the Cardinals’ staff at this point, it seems pretty clear, but is he one of those pitchers who truly strikes fear into the hearts of opposing hitters and fans, and gets the implied capital ‘A’ when someone used the word ace? Honestly, he’s probably a step below that level, much like Lance Lynn before him.

So, to answer the implied question of, do the Cardinals have a True Ace?, contained within the argument for going out and acquiring a True Ace, the answer is probably not. Maybe next year Carlos takes that next step forward. Maybe Alex Reyes gets his walk totals under control and doesn’t struggle with a big innings bump. But realistically, ignoring things that might happen, and focusing only on what the Cards currently have, they’re probably a little short on ace material at the top of the rotation. (And I say that as someone who very much still believes that next step for Carlos is coming.)

What is even more interesting about this particular debate is the fact that, over the past two years, there have been not one, not two, but three absolute, undoubted ace-level pitchers on the free agent market, and the Cardinals, to one extent or another, showed interest in all three. Let’s take a look at the candidates, shall we?

David Price — We all remember the Cards’ pursuit of David Price, don’t we? It was just the past offseason, after all. After years of avoiding huge contracts, the organisation went nearly to the mattresses to pull in Price, who was coming off a brilliant 2015 split between the Tigers and Blue Jays, in which he posted 2.45 ERA and 2.78 FIP, all adding up to a 6.4 fWAR total and a 6 even by BRef.

How serious was the Cardinals’ pursuit of the Tennessee native? Well, Price was quote after he signed with the Red Sox as saying he had gone to bed the night before believing he was going to be a Cardinal, and then along came Boston with their offer, believed to be close to $30 million more than what Price and St. Louis were in the process of agreeing on.

In his first season in Boston, Price went through a rough adjustment. Particularly in the early going of the season, he was extremely homer prone, and just generally seemed to struggle with pitching for his new club. His overall season numbers were fairly rough, as well: a 3.99 ERA and 3.60 FIP are not exactly ace-type numbers.

However, there is reason to believe Price’s performance in 2016 was a bit of an anomaly, or at least largely affected negatively by Fenway, and he should be better going forward. His strikeout rate only fell be slightly over one percentage point, from 25.3% to 24.0%, while his walk rate was identical in 2015 and ‘16, at 5.3%. What really hurt Price this season was a big jump in his home run rate, driven by a spike in his HR/FB%, and a somewhat low strand rate. Again, much of his struggle in 2016 felt like Fenway issues, which tend to bite lefties hard, and hopefully will not carry forward as much now that he’s had time to make some adjustments.

Regardless of how much was caused by his ballpark shift or pitching for a new club or anything else, though, it’s fair to say Price had a rough first year in Boston. However, it bears pointing out again that, if we compare Price to the five pitchers in the Cardinals’ Opening Day rotation, he would have had the highest strikeout rate, lowest walk rate, highest innings total by close to 30 innings, and still managed to put up 4.4 wins above replacement in a supposed down year.

Jon Lester — Before Lester ultimately headed off to the North Side to rejoin Theo Epstein with the Cubs, there was a fair amount of scuttlebutt flying around that the Cardinals were at least kicking the tires on Lester, and maybe more than that. The Lester pursuit came in the 2014-2015 offseason, when the Cardinals were coming off a 90 win season and their second NLCS loss in three years to the Giants.

Adam Wainwright had perhaps the best season of his career in 2014, turning in a 2.38 ERA over 227 innings, but had also just completed his age 32 season, leading to some concerns there was a cliff in his near future, particularly considering his stealthily extensive injury history. With that in mind, bringing in Lester to co-captain the Cards’ rotation would have been a doubling down on run prevention — somewhat in the same way they ultimately did with Jason Heyward, only through pitching rather than defense — and putting a huge chunk of the payroll at the top of the rotation.

Well, Lester has thrown two seasons now for the Chicago Cubs, and we all know how the most recent one just went. As for Lester’s personal performance, in the last two years he has broken 200 innings both campaigns, has posted well above average numbers in both ERA and FIP, and been worth 9.3 wins above replacement. (Fangraphs WAR, by the way.)

Lester received a six year, $155 million contract (with a 2021 option), going into 2016. If we stick a $7.5 million per win valuation on marginal wins right now, that 9.3 figure translates to just under $70 million in value. He is heading into his age 33 season, so there has to be concern about age-related decline, but so far Lester is on track to very much be worth his contract.

Max Scherzer — Somewhere in the VEB Podcast archives, there’s an episode from, I think, January of 2015 where Ben Humphrey and I debated whether signing Lester, Max Scherzer, or no one would be the best move for the team. Ben came down on the side of signing Lester, or signing no one, and letting Carlos Martinez move into the rotation. I was firmly on the side of signing Scherzer, even to the point of being willing to keep Carlos in the ‘pen for another year if absolutely necessary. My actual plan for my hypothetical offseason, though, was to sign Scherzer to anchor the rotation as Wainwright declined, trade Lance Lynn while his value was at what I felt would be its highest, and then move Carlos into the back of the rotation to begin the 2015 campaign.

It’s interesting to note that Scherzer was the only pitcher of these three who came with a qualifying offer, and thus a draft pick penalty, attached, and he’s also the one it felt like the Cardinals were the least interested in. Maybe that’s strictly because the financials lined up in such a way that they felt there wasn’t great value there (the Boras Effect was definitely there with Scherzer), or maybe it was something else, but it felt like the Redbirds showed only moderate interest in bringing the hometown kid back to St. Louis to win awards and headline the rotation.

Scherzer ultimately signed a seven year, $210 million deal with the Nationals, and while that number looks huge compared to the deal Jon Lester pulled, the Scherzer contract is a bit of an odd duck in terms of structure. Rather than simply paying $30 million a year for each of the seven years he’s pitching for them, Washington is paying the $210 million over fourteen years, deferring fully half the money each season. The way it all works out, the Nats are essentially paying Scherzer something closer to $170 million in actual value, once you factor in inflation and interest and a bunch of other financial factors. Considering Scherzer is a little over half a calendar year younger than Lester, had fewer miles on his arm when the two hit free agency, and will actually pitch most of 2017 at 32, rather than 33, I think it’s fair to say the deals were remarkably similar in value.

And, of course, since signing said deal, Scherzer has been one of the two or three best pitchers in all of baseball. He’s been ungodly brilliant, in fact, and may just win the NL Cy Young this year. He also came very close to single-handedly pitching the Nationals past the Dodgers in game five of the divisional series barely a month ago.

Over these past two seasons, Scherzer has posted ERAs of 2.79 and 2.96, FIPs of 2.77 and 3.24, strikeout rates of 30.7% and 31.5%, and has been worth an astounding 12.0 wins above replacement. If we apply the same $7.5 million per win standard we used above for Lester, Max Scherzer has already been worth roughly $90 million to the Nats in the first two years of his deal. If we compare that to the absolute value of the contract he signed, i.e. the $170ish number, he’s been worth something like half the value of the contract in 28.5% of the length.

Now, looking at these three examples of ace pitchers the Cardinals could have had raises some questions. Obviously, we can debate whether the team would be in a better position with one of these guys than without, and the real question is how dangerous are the contracts the rest of the way. Clearly, the 2015-2016 Cardinals would have been better with Scherzer or Lester than they were without them, those hypothetical situations certainly would have come with less overall flexibility, and a long-term commitment that, owing to the nature of pitching, could turn sour surprisingly fast. The 2016 Cardinals would have been better with David Price than with Mike Leake, but would the size of the difference have justified the difference in commitment?

But more interesting that the simple question of would the Cards have been better are the philosophical questions. To me, the real miss in this bunch is in not signing Scherzer, even as I admit I wanted Price more, and there’s a question to be asked about why the Cardinals didn’t go harder after the St. Louis native. They had the money, still have the money, and it is exceedingly rare that a pitcher of that caliber comes on to the open market. That we have had a run of three in two years is remarkable, and unlikely to be repeated very often.

And here’s the thing: Adam Wainwright had an outstanding season in 2014, but the Cardinals know more about aging curves than any of us reading or writing this column, and more about Adam’s specific health history as well. They must have known that he was very unlikely to replicate what he did in 2014, that it was his final bid for that elusive Cy Young award he has missed out on multiple times, and that they would likely need to find a new pitcher to stand atop the rotation soon, if such a thing is important.

At the time the Cards passed on Scherzer and Lester, they were looking to find an opportunity for Carlos Martinez, and that’s certainly understandable. But they also had an aging ace that probably needed replacing (in terms of acedom, I mean), sooner than later. Did they over-prioritise the internal candidate, and pass on a monster contributor in order to make sure they had an open spot? Or, could they have made a move like the one I stumped for way back around New Year’s of 2015, leveraged the money to bring in value, then swapped a player with then-massive value in Lance Lynn to acquire more talent? Did such a move even enter onto their radar?

I suppose all this rearview consideration, for me, boils down to just a few big questions. One, would the Cardinals be better off now had they pushed beyond their comfort zone and signed an elite talent when it was available? Personally, I say yes, they would be.

Two, are the Cards better served by the flexibility they have currently, rather than greater production but perhaps a greater concentration of risk and less liquidity? For me, I have to say no, I don’t believe they would be, since they sacrificed almost as much flexibility signing Mike Leake as they would have signing one of these other guys, and with a far lower upside on the potential payoff.

Three, did the Cardinals prioritise their own internal products over bringing in value? We often hear about how the Redbirds value their own guys, the players they’ve developed themselves, and how there’s an internal culture the Cardinals try to instill in their players they believe leads to greater continuity and a winning spirit. But that value of your own products can easily lead to insularity and a closed shop mentality, in which you look at outside options too infrequently, believing the internal choice is always the best choice, simply because you have such faith in your own development pipeline.

And finally — and this is the big one for me — did the Cardinals simply wait too long to try and fix what looked like a looming issue two years ago? Should they have been more proactive in acquiring a player who could slot in at the top of the rotation to ease the transition away from Adam Wainwright as the stopper he had been for the previous several years?

In other words, if the Redbirds had taken some payroll pain two years ago, they would already have the piece many are clamouring for them to find this offseason in place. Instead, they chose to stick with the closed shop two years ago, when Waino was coming off a career season at 33 and threw an enormous number of innings (on a surgically-repaired elbow, also, you must remember), and stood pat in order to maintain that internal continuity. Last year, they tried to go outside the shop to get the Wainwright replacement they seemed only mildly interested in the year before, but were outbid by a club with deeper pockets — or at least a greater willingness to dig into those pockets — and ended up with nearly as onerous a commitment to a player unlikely to make anywhere near the same kind of impact.

And now this year, they’re facing an offseason in which they have serious rotation questions, are hoping internal candidates step up in a big way to become what the club lacks, are counting on a pitcher returning from Tommy John to hopefully make Jaime Garcia expendable enough to move, and are hoping desperately that they can upgrade the defense enough to help out this collection of less than sure things in 2017.

Now, admittedly, there is the matter of Jason Heyward that must be allowed here. When the Cardinals were looking into Scherzer and Lester, they were also planning on Jason Heyward as a long-term piece of the club’s core, and one who would help out mightily on the run-prevention side of things specifically. His situation certainly complicated further pursuits of high ticket items in 2014-’15. I’m not sure that changes my own calculus in the matter that much, but I think it’s only fair to at least acknowledge that the Heyward situation may have affected the thinking some.

We could expand this outward, to someone like Ben Zobrist, who the Cardinals apparently had strong interest in last year, but didn’t have a defined, set spot on their team for. And it would be awfully interesting to note that three of the five players I’ve now mentioned the Cards being interested in over the course of this column ultimately ended up in Chicago, helping their biggest divisional — and historic — rival win a World Series title. But really, that’s pushing the purview perhaps further than I mean, and would invite all sorts of other considerations.

Rather, let’s just focus in on the three aces the Cardinals could have had these past two years. The circumstances of each pursuit, to whatever extent there was, in fact, a pursuit, are all different, But then again, the circumstances of each are also, in some ways, the same.

And the question, really, is exactly the same.

The Cardinals had their chances at three True Aces. In each case, they could have.

Should they have?