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The Cardinals should sign Joe Blanton

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He’s still available for just money, and with this week’s events, there is an opening.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, things seemed pretty set in the bullpen. There hasn’t been much talk about a need for relievers. Seung Hwan Oh had a fantastic season. Trevor Rosenthal showed signs of recovery from last year’s struggles. Brett Cecil was brought in to replace Zach Duke. Matt Bowman was perfectly acceptable for a middle reliever. It seemed likely that either Alex Reyes or Michael Wacha was going to be forced to the bullpen...

And that’s where we begin today. There was a lot to like about the bullpen, but Alex Reyes’ torn UCL didn’t only lower the ceiling of the rotation, it took a little bite out of the bullpen as well. While I wrote this Thursday that the Cards’ don’t need to shop for a starting pitcher, the fact is the rotation is worse off with Alex Reyes sidelined for the season. Adding another quality reliever would not only replace whoever would have went to the bullpen between Wacha and Reyes, but will also be able to help shorten games for a rotation that will have one less exciting option then they were counting on.

Enter Joe Blanton, also known as the best reliever remaining on the free agent market. Blanton is no superstar, but it’s kind of odd that he’s still available. After several years of middling numbers as a starter, he converted to relieving in 2015. In his two years in the pen, he ranks 42nd in fWAR among relievers, tied with new Cardinal Brett Cecil. It’s understandable if you were skeptical when you first read Blanton’s name: he was a fairly unremarkable starter for a number of years, and announced his retirement in 2014. After taking 2014 off, he came back as a reliever and has been completely different:

So what changed? Well, he made his slider a much more important weapon. From 2008 to 2013, he threw the pitch just 13% of the time, and hitters came up empty 31% of the time. As a reliever, he’s thrown the pitch 36% of the time - 14th among qualified relievers in that time frame - and it gets empty swings 42% of the time. According to Neil Weinberg, a drop in arm slot is responsible for increasing the pitch’s effectiveness. He ditched his sinker, which produced his fewest swings and misses and not enough grounders to make up for it. He also started throwing his four-seamer more, which gained a full MPH as a reliever compared to his time as a starter.

As a result of still being available, Blanton has received some attention lately, with two great recent articles by Travis Sawchik. Between those two and Weinberg’s article, there’s plenty of in-depth analysis of Blanton’s repertoire. I’m going to concentrate on what Blanton adds to the Cardinals specifically. Here’s how he compares to the current Cardinals pen:

Last year, Blanton performed better on a rate basis than all but two current Cardinal relievers. Only Oh beat him in terms of total value. He’d be projected for the worst FIP in 2017, but I can’t help but believe that has a lot to do with missing 2014, and being a marginal starter for several years. Blanton has made successful adjustments, and sometimes it’s hard for the projections to see that.

At the least though, Blanton offers upside, in the form of maintaining the numbers he’s established as a reliever the last two years. In Oh and Cecil, the team has two well-above average relievers. Blanton has performed like one over the last two years, but the market isn’t treating him like one. Dave Cameron predicted at the beginning of the off-season that he’d receive $14M over two years. The median crowd-sourced prediction matched that, as did MLB Trade Rumor’s predictions. It’s easy to assume that if he’s available in mid-February, it won’t take all that much. Something like $10M over two years may be all that’s necessary to secure him.

While $10M may be world-altering for you and me, that’s pennies in the current MLB economy, worth just a little more than a win on the free market. For that, the Cardinals get plenty of flexibility. If Blanton turns out to be a fluke, well whatever, $10M down the drain. If he pitches similarly to 2015 and 2016, he can contribute in two ways. If the team is competing, his presence could prevent the team from dealing for a reliever at the deadline. Since 2011, the Cardinals have dealt for six relievers at the deadline: Octavio Dotel, Edward Mujica, John Axford, Jonathan Broxton, Steve Cishek, and Zach Duke. This could be an opportunity to get 2016’s bullpen acquisition now, but for just cash and no prospects.

Conversely, if the team has a poor first-half and decides to think of the future, Blanton becomes an extra piece to sell. Sure, Blanton obviously doesn’t seem like a strong trade chip now, being that none of the 30 teams have signed him at this point. Give him another strong half, and maybe teams finally believe. Pitching is always in demand at the trade deadline.

Blanton could help shorten games if the starting pitching injuries get worse. He could pair excellently with Brett Cecil to set up Oh. Even if the Cardinals’ season goes sideways, he could help bring the team some young talent. It’s Spring Training, and an easy roster upgrade is available for just cash, and a small amount of it at that. This seems like an easy decision: sign Joe Blanton.