In 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals will pay $19.5 million to Adam Wainwright, $15 million to Mike Leake, $7.5 million to Lance Lynn, and they will pay a first-year arbitration salary to Carlos Martinez. These four seemingly will form a formidable core for the 2017 rotation, and depending on the severity of Michael Wacha’s recent injury, there is some doubt as to what the Cardinals should do regarding Jaime Garcia.
The Cardinals have a club option in 2017 for Jaime Garcia, and exercising said option would cost the Cardinals an additional $11.5 million (his salary would be $12 million, but since there is a $500,000 buyout, this portion of the salary is a sunk cost).
Barring an extreme turn of events (an injury that would force him to miss a significant portion of 2017, a sudden outburst of Rick Ankiel Syndrome), this should be an easy decision for the club. The Cardinals should absolutely pick up Jaime Garcia’s option for the 2017 season.
The odds that Jaime Garcia remains with the Cardinals certainly increased with Michael Wacha’s trip to the Disabled List, and with looming doubt about Wacha’s ability to shoulder (pun partially intended) an MLB’s starter innings load again, but that Garcia’s option should be picked up was true regardless of Wacha’s circumstances. Jaime Garcia is too good and his cost for 2017 is too low to let him go to free agency.
In a vacuum, Jaime Garcia is worth $11.5 million for one season. In 2016, a season in which Garcia’s earned run average (4.04) and fielding-independent ERA (3.73) are higher than his career marks (a 3.42 ERA and a 3.40 FIP), FanGraphs estimates that Garcia has been worth $15.3 million. And this is with nearly two months left in the season.
Sure, health is always a consideration with Jaime Garcia, but since his rookie season of 2010, even including his injury-abbreviated seasons of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, and his yet-to-be-completed 2016, Garcia has been worth an average of over $15 million per season. Even after weighing the possibility of a Jaime Garcia injury, he has been so excellent when healthy (only 11 pitchers have more innings and a lower ERA/FIP this decade, and each is a household name and a multiple-time All-Star) that it is worth the risk.
The problem with evaluating Jaime Garcia in a vacuum, however, is that the Cardinals do have depth at starting pitcher. He would not be replacing fungible, replacement-level roster filler; he would be replacing players who have shown, at worst, competence, and often have shown potential for excellence. Each of Leake, Lynn, Martinez, and Wainwright (and Wacha, for whatever that’s worth) has accumulated at least 2.3 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in a season since 2014.
Additionally, the Cardinals will have the options of promising youngsters Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, among others, and may not even need to give much consideration to Tyler Lyons, the theoretical sixth starter for much of this season. The options are numerous and even if you are bullish on Jaime Garcia’s pitching acumen, the Cardinals may not need him in 2017.
But more good players is preferable to fewer good players. It seems obvious, but if nothing else, the Cardinals would have use for superfluous starters, whether in relief while simultaneously serving as potential spot starters or in the minors, awaiting an opportunity to start if the natural attrition of a baseball season continues as it tends to do. It would diminish his value, but it is not as though an extra starter would languish in purgatory, unable to contribute at all to the 2017 Cardinals in a lesser capacity.
This, however, is a worst-case scenario for the extra starter. The real value of picking up Jaime Garcia’s 2017 club option is that he would have trade value for the Cardinals.
Simply put, if the Cardinals were to decline Jaime Garcia’s 2017 option, the contract Garcia would receive as a free agent would exceed a one-year, $12 million deal. This would probably be true anyway, but it is especially the case with the upcoming free agent crop, which will be historically weak.
The top three starting pitcher free agents listed by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter back in May were Rich Hill, Bartolo Colon, and Andrew Cashner. Although Hill has been shockingly effective this season, it is Garcia who has led the four pitchers in fWAR and bWAR since 2015 (and keep in mind that Garcia’s first game during this stretch wasn’t until May 21 of last year and that Garcia only had seven starts before July 28, 2015). He is considerably younger than Hill and Colon, and is only two months older than Cashner, who has been below replacement level by Baseball Reference standards in 2016 and has not been much better by FanGraphs.
It would not be far-fetched to consider Jaime Garcia the most appealing free agent pitcher if it comes to that. Again, it’s a terrible crop this year, but the scarcity of options generally leads to some inflation in player contracts. Garcia would not magically get David Price or Zack Greinke money, but there is quite a bit of wiggle room between that level of contract and $12 million.
Admittedly, I’m far too infatuated with the qualifying offer, and I spend way too much time considering players who may receive one. But hypothetically, if Jaime Garcia were a true impending free agent, it would not be a stretch to give Garcia the qualifying offer, which would mean a one-year contract for over $16 million. This is for the same reason Rich Hill was a candidate for one before the Oakland Athletics traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers: if a player can help you in the short term to such a degree that you would invest tens of millions of dollars in his services, losing a draft pick which may not materialize is a fairly small part of the equation.
And if a team would be willing to lose a first-round pick for the right to give Jaime Garcia a multi-year deal, it stands to logic that a team would be willing to trade a meaningful package for the right to acquire Jaime Garcia on a one-year deal during which he will earn below his market value (not to mention that Garcia would be eligible for the qualifying offer after the 2017 season).
Sure, that it’s a one-year deal means it is unlikely that a team would trade multiple top prospects for Jaime Garcia. But the return would be more than the return of declining Garcia’s option, which amounts to paying a very good Major League pitcher $500,000 to take his valuable services elsewhere. And this simply would not make sense for the Cardinals.