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Potential Plan B: Yu Darvish and the All-In Rotation

Considering an upgrade to the pitching side, rather than the Big Bat of our breathless exclamations.

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Ladies and gentlemen, sick. Not just a little under the weather, either, mind you; I am sick enough this morning that between my fever and the appalling pressure behind my eyes, the world has taken on a vaguely hallucinatory quality. Too sick to write a proper column, I’m sad to admit, and sick enough I’m actually going to take a sick day from work for the first time in about two years or so.

Nevertheless, let it not be said I did not give my all to this blog, and thus I bring you this abbreviated look at what I think is a very attractive option to upgrade the Cardinals’ roster.

Look, we all know that the pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton is Plan A for the Cards’ offseason; it’s been basically all we’ve read about, talked about, possibly dreamed about since pretty much the day the hot stove was lit. He’s an easy fit, playing the position at which the Redbirds are the weakest, and represents the kind of consolidated value at a single position the club really needs. Yes, the contract is huge and kind of a bummer, and the acquisition cost is obviously going to affect how we view any deal, but Stanton is the ideal option for this club, at this moment in time, trying to take a big step forward.

The bad news is that, if not Stanton, then who? Josh Donaldson would be nearly as good a fit, but you can’t force a team to trade a player. J.D. Martinez can really hit, but does everything else so poorly that he gives back a big chunk of that value. Maybe the Marlins will trade you one of their other outfielders, but there’s really no guarantee. Manny Machado will probably be on the market at the deadline this coming season, but not yet, it doesn’t appear.

The bottom line is this: if Giancarlo Stanton doesn’t work out, then the path to the upgrade the Cardinals need this offseason becomes much more convoluted. At least, in terms of that Big Bat we’ve all become accustomed to hearing about.

It does occur to me, however, that there’s another route the Cardinals could take, and why it’s gone so underexplored is really beyond me. At some point in time, the Cards made the decision to go full-bore with a youth movement in the rotation, stick with the internal options entirely, and live or die with the results. It’s a big part of the reason why they dealt away Mike Leake. It’s why they’re letting Lance Lynn walk. Sure, there’s been some concern here and there about a potential innings shortfall, but those concerns have mostly centered around the need for someone like, well, Mike Leake or Lance Lynn to come along and munch some innings for the club.

However, there is a high-quality pitcher on the free agent market this winter, sitting right near the very top of the pyramid, and while it’s easy to look at the Cards’ situation and scoff a bit at the idea of paying top dollar for a pitcher, considering just how many arms they have coming, and how seriously they’ve committed to a pitching pipeline in both theory and practice, I think we also need to be realistic about how much of an upgrade signing Yu Darvish would be to the club. After all, while there are certainly arms galore to choose from in the system, let us not forget in all the clamour for a Big Bat that the pitching was less effective in 2017 than was the offense.

There’s also the attractive fact that pitching upgrades don’t require positional fits nearly to the extent offensive upgrades do. Signing or trading for a pitcher simply slides everyone else down one spot, rather than having to focus only on right field or third base.

Now, admittedly, signing Darvish will not be at all cheap. I would imagine he’ll require a six year deal, probably in the ~$27 million/year range. That’s a big contract. And really, more than the money, it’s the years that are worrisome. Darvish is 31, and a six year deal is going to run him through his age 37 season. There’s a chance you’d be looking at the end of that contract the same way we’re all looking at Adam Wainwright’s waining, er, waning days now. In other words, the back end could get ugly. That’s just part of the deal with these long contracts, unfortunately.

There is some good news, in that Darvish, by dint of being traded this past season, was not eligible for a qualifying offer, and so does not come with a draft pick penalty. That’s not as big a deal as it was under the previous equation, but it’s still a bonus.

And then, of course, the big good news is that Darvish also just happens to be an excellent starting pitcher.

As it stands now, what the Cardinals have going into 2018 in their rotation looks like this, according to the Steamer projections (once ZiPS comes out we can use those numbers, but Steamer is fine as a ballpark figure for now):

  • Carlos Martinez, projected for 202 innings and 4.0 wins above replacement. So, yeah, pretty good place to start.
  • Michael Wacha, projected at 168 innings and 2.8 WAR. That sounds about right; he’s really good, but don’t count on more than about 160-170 innings. Maybe more like 150, if you want to be aggressive in terms of strategy. Just plan on getting a smaller quantity of higher quality from him. No problem.
  • Luke Weaver — 155 innings, 2.7 WAR. Holy shit! That’s a hell of a projection for Weaver. He was awfully good last year, though, and has consistently missed a ton of bats in the big leagues. If he stays healthy, he looks like a keeper. He also threw about 140 innings in 2017, so you could probably push him to more like 170 this coming season, which would put him right around three wins. Basically, he and Wacha are pretty similar in their projections.
  • Jack Flaherty — 114 innings, 1.1 WAR. That’s not bad at all for a guy who just turned 22. Roughly average over the course of a full season, and hopefully there’s more upside in there.
  • Alex Reyes1.6 wins above replacement in 92 innings. Which sounds about right. He dominated when he was on the mound, even with shaky command.

Now, here’s the good news: that’s a hell of a talented group. If all five give you exactly what Steamer thinks, you’re getting over 12 wins of value from them. If we bump Weaver’s innings up just slightly we get to right around 12.5 WAR from that rotation. Not too shabby, comrades.

Here’s the bad news: those 12.5 wins cover only about 730 innings. Given there are 1458 innings in a standard major league season, that means those above performances would only get you about half a season. And, of course, that completely discounts the downside on any of these guys, due to injury or ineffectiveness or gigantism caused by a miracle tonic.

I do have some further goodish news for you. Adam Wainwright is actually projected for 171 innings and 2.0 wins in 2018. Now, in this particular case I think the projections lag behind what we know as observers; namely, Waino was making it on guts and sleight of hand last year, and then had an elbow cleanup after the season. As much as it pains me to say it, I’ll take the under on Wainwright’s projection. And maybe way under, as in he just can’t get back to pitching strength. On the other hand, if Wainwright did hit those projections, you’ve got ~900 inning covered over six pitchers. In which case, you really don’t have a problem.

However, let’s take a look at Yu Darvish’s projected numbers, shall we? Steamer pegs him at 179 innings and 3.6 wins above replacement in 2018. Which means that, if we were to slot him in to the Cards’ rotation, it would go:

  • Carlos — 4.0 WAR
  • Darvish — 3.6
  • Wacha — 2.8
  • Weaver — 2.7
  • Wainwright — 2.0

Again, the caveat about Wainwright’s health is in full effect, but in that case you could push Flaherty into the rotation and between he and Alex Reyes I’ll bet you could get those same two wins without much trouble.

There’s also the upside in terms of workload, which is that those top four with Darvish are projected for ~700 innings. That’s much more like it. Add in the 170 projected for Waino or the 200 from the Flaherty/Reyes combo and you’ve got your innings covered. And if we assume the Cards should be able to cobble together two wins out of that fifth spot somehow, then you’ve got a rotation pushing right up around 15 WAR. And, obviously, there’s some extra upside there in that Flaherty/Reyes group.

A two and a half win upgrade on paper may not sound like much, but that’s also a much safer group. You’re not relying nearly so much on a ton of young pitchers to step right in and never have any growing pains in order to compete. Michael Wacha having a recurrence of his shoulder issues wouldn’t be completely devastating as it could be right now.

Obviously, the real question with Darvish is going to be whether you want him on your club for the next six years, rather than just the next one, and admittedly that’s a thornier question. Signing over-30 starters to long-term deals is, in many ways, a losing proposition, and again it’s worth pointing out that Yu Darvish at the end of a six year contract would be one year older than Adam Wainwright is now. So there’s certainly some downside there. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to look at a Carlos/Darvish/Reyes/Weaver group and see a dominant rotation in 2019 and ‘20.

In the short term, Darvish would upgrade the rotation in terms of quality, and would allow the Cards to experiment with some piggybacking at the back of the rotation with Wacha and Wainwright as they try to cover the innings that need to be covered and still limit those workloads. In the longer term, signing Darvish as a high-end #2 could give the Cards a fearsome rotation over the next three to four seasons. Sure, they have a whole lot of pitching depth on the way, but pitchers break, and the new blood percolating up from below can always be used on the market to acquire the other upgrades the club needs.

Darvish doesn’t get you all the way where you need to go by himself, but then again there’s an argument to be made that Stanton or Donaldson don’t by themselves either. Rather, what Darvish would give the Cardinals would be a co-anchor at the top of the rotation, allowing them to be more aggressive in trying to build a dominant staff with the new philosophies they seem interested in applying.

So far, the Cards have not appeared to be that interested in adding to the pitching staff — or at least not the rotation — instead focusing on the middle of the lineup. And that seems fine; a Stanton or Donaldson could net you 3-4 wins over internal options, which is extremely enticing. By contrast, adding Yu Darvish probably only nets you around a two win upgrade, as well as helping to add some certainty. But if the Cards miss on Giancarlo, the Jays won’t bite on a Donaldson deal, and the Orioles hold on to Machado until the bitter end, there are much worse ways a club could go about building its next contender than to invest in dominant run prevention. And adding Yu Darvish to the group the Cardinals already possess could very much push them into that elite territory.