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Taking a flier on Tyson Ross

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A possible low-risk, high-reward

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

In a somewhat surprising move, the Padres non-tendered starter Tyson Ross on December 2, 2016, which in effect put him on the market a year before he was set to hit free agency. Ross was likely to make around $10 million through arbitration next year which made him an unnecessary expense for the Padres current rebuild. Matt Snyder at CBS Sports sees Ross being offered one-year, incentive laden deals from various clubs, and with that in mind it’s reasonable to speculate whether it would be smart for the Cardinals to get involved.

That Ross is barely a year removed from being one of the better starters in baseball to being non-tendered and still on the market two and a half weeks later indicates that he’s considered a gamble. Since he’s a pitcher that means he has health issues. Save for an opening day start, Ross missed the entire 2016 season with a shoulder injury. And in mid-October he had surgery in St. Louis for thoracic outlet syndrome.

The good news is you can’t pick a better place for TOS surgery than St. Louis as the local surgeons have plenty of experience after Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia both had the same procedure in recent years. The bad news is a successful return to form following TOS surgery is hardly a sure thing. Garcia was able to rebound for a strong 2015 season while the surgery effectively ended Carpenter’s career. Former VEBer Nick Lampe wrote about this very topic for Beyond the Box Score in 2015 and noted that Carpenter’s velocity took a dive after the surgery. To be fair, Carpenter was age-36 when he had the procedure done and had 2,200+ regular season innings pitched on his odometer while Garcia was only 27.

Ross is entering his age-30 season and has only thrown 670.2 career innings so mileage-wise he’s closer to Garcia. And, as indicated, not long ago he was very good. Between 2014 and 2015, Ross pitched 391.2 total innings and was worth 7.6 wins by fWAR, which ranked in the top 20 for all qualified pitchers. He also ranked in the top 20 in ERA (3.03), ERA- (83), xFIP (3.13), xFIP- (83) and strikeout rate by mowing down 24.9% of batters faced with a repertoire of mostly fastballs and sliders.

Last season, Cardinals’ pitchers led the NL in ground ball percentage (50.7%) and in that regard Ross would fight right in. Between 2014 and 2015, he had a 59.2% ground ball rate, which for qualified pitchers was only eclipsed by Dallas Keuchel. Opinions on ground ball pitchers are often varied, and the Cardinals have made it a point to declare a “back to the basics” approach this offseason because their fielding was so poor in 2016, so whether adding one of the heavier ground ball pitchers to this staff is wise is a fair debate.

Furthermore, Ross has control issues. In the 2014-2015 timespan, he walked more batters than anyone, complimented by the fifth highest walk rate (9.6%) in the league. He also ranked fourth in wild pitches and 18th in hit batters. Even so, Ross’ 2014-2015 stats would play pretty well on the Cardinals, whose starters in 2016 fell mostly below NL average in run prevention.

Whether he’s a good fit matters less though if there’s no room for him in the rotation. The Cardinals’ current depth chart (which might be completely meaningless but for the sake of this column let’s pretend it isn’t) currently has the five-man rotation as Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, and Alex Reyes, with Michael Wacha being the first starter on the outside looking in.

That’s a crowd. But it’s also assuming that the Cardinals make it to April with the rotation intact. It’s assuming that Alex Reyes is ready to handle a full season workload. It’s assuming that Lance Lynn is ready to step back in after missing 2016 with Tommy John Surgery.

When it comes to pitchers, right after TNSTAAPP should probably be an acronym about never assuming a rotation will be healthy. Pitching depth is important, the Cardinals would have it and thereby have the luxury of bringing Ross along slowly to see if, following his shoulder issues and recent surgery, he at all resembles the 2014-2015 Tyson Ross.

Also, the Cubs are rumored to be the team most interested in Ross. If Snyder is correct and Ross could be acquired for a single year all the more reason why the Cardinals should go for it. There are two potential problems: One, due to injuries Ross might not be the same pitcher he was two seasons ago. And two, he could cause a logjam in the starting rotation. It’s in Mike Matheny’s job description to handle the second problem. The first problem would be softened by the short commitment, or Ross would resemble the pitcher he was just two seasons ago in San Diego and it wouldn’t be a problem at all.