Okay, so first things first: I have to admit, I kind of have a thing about trading Lance Lynn.
It’s not because I don’t like Lynn. I mean, I honestly don’t enjoy watching him pitch — for whatever reason, Lynn falls into that Jeff Suppan category of pitchers I find just torturous to watch — but as long as he’s producing good starts for the St. Louis Cardinals, hey, I’m on board. It’s also not because I don’t think he’s a good pitcher. He is. From 2012 — his first season as a more or less full time starter — to 2015, Lynn threw 756.2 innings and averaged about three and a quarter wins above replacement per season. Lance Lynn is a very good pitcher, and the Cardinals have benefited greatly from his presence in the rotation.
And yet, all the same, I seem to be trying to trade away this very solid, very productive starting pitcher on a fairly regular basis. After the 2013 season, when LL put up a near four win season, I was trying to trade him while his value was crazy high. Back in the 2014-’15 offseason, I was advocating via the VEB podcast to sign Max Scherzer and trade Lynn to open up a rotation spot for Carlos Martinez. Just a few weeks ago I was trying to ship him off as a midseason value injection as part of a Jose Quintana deal. And just this morning, judging by the title of this column I’m currently working on, I’m apparently once again advocating a trade involving the Cardinals dealing away one Lancelot Lynn. (Yes, I am 100% sure Lance is short for Lancelot. Quit asking dumb questions.)
The reason I keep coming back to the idea of trading Lance Lynn is fairly simple, honestly. Lynn has made no secret on the occasions the subject has been broached that he plans on exploring the free agent market, and judging by how little we’ve heard about the Cards approaching him about a possible long term deal, it would seem the organisation is pretty well accepting of his desire to test the waters. And that’s absolutely fine; Lance Lynn has every right to go to free agency. The organisation is well within their rights to view Lynn as something less than a core player, as well, which is exactly how it seems they view him.
Given those facts, that neither Lynn himself nor the Cardinal organisation have shown any real desire to extend their relationship over the long haul, I can’t help but view Lynn as an endlessly fascinating trade chip, if only because the Redbirds, by dint of their perpetual competitiveness and propensity for locking up the players they wish to keep, very rarely have much in the way of actual trade chips they might really consider trading.
Admittedly, Lynn would not command the kind of haul right now he might have a couple offseasons ago. He’s not going to pull in a Chris Sale-sized package of talent, or an Adam Eaton package either. However, remember that we are talking about a starting pitcher who has averaged over three wins a season since becoming a starter. Remember also that when it comes to trade deadline deals, there appears to be a tax paid by the acquiring team, particularly on pitching for whatever reason.
As it stands now on the first of March, there’s no way Lynn is tradeable. He looks healthy, is something like fifteen months clear of Tommy John surgery, and has not had any setbacks in the recovery process we know about. All the same, until Lynn is back on the mound showing he can take the ball every fifth day, teams aren’t going to pay a premium price for his services, I don’t believe.
However, at the deadline, things could very well look different. If Lynn comes out this season and looks at all like his previous self, and looks stronger as the season goes on, there’s every reason to believe he could have tremendous value in July. If we look back at last year’s deadline, we find a pair of pitchers with far bigger questions than Lynn should have in July who were dealt in Drew Pomeranz and Rich Hill, both of whom netted fine packages of talent for the trading team.
Pomeranz, whose medicals were so shaky after the deal between the Padres and Red Sox was made that the deal was nearly voided (not a shocker from the Padres at this point, unfortunately, considering their GM situation), brought back Anderson Espinoza, an eighteen year old fireballer who enters 2017 as San Diego’s number one prospect according to most, if not all, prospect evaluators. Hill’s situation is a little tougher to parse, as he was dealt to the Dodgers along with two months of Josh Reddick for a three-player package of Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Grant Holmes. That package is more of a risk/reward gamble by Oakland, but still, you’re talking about a couple top-100 overall prospects at least.
So if we were to project Lance Lynn out this season as roughly a 2.5 WAR pitcher (to account for some rust coming back from surgery), who should be pitching as well or better in July as he will at the season’s outset, we could fairly safely conclude that, with the deadline value bump included, Lynn could easily net a top 100 overall prospect, and probably closer to a top 75. Maybe a top 50, depending on how the bidding went and how well Lynn was pitching at the time. Top 50 might be a little too optimistic, though. Let’s say a top 75 guy.
If we just pull up the MLB Pipeline rankings (which I’m not saying are the best, only the quickest to get to), and look for prospects in that 50-75 range, we find names like Franklin Barreto, the A’s infielder who made up such a big part of the disastrous Josh Donaldson trade. Which, of course, is not Barreto’s fault; he just put up a .750 OPS at age 20 in Double A, mostly holding up his end of the bargain. Alex Verdugo, the Dodgers’ power-hitting outfielder (who I preferred as a LHP out of high school, admittedly), appears at 61. Riley Pint, fireballing high school draftee of the Rockies last year, clocks in a 51. Our own Luke Weaver appears at 68. Dominic Smith, the Mets’ Dmitri Young clone first base prospect, checks in at 63. I’m just choosing some of the better-known names from that range, to give an idea of the kind of prospect we could be talking about.
If you had a chance to trade Lance Lynn at the deadline for some other team’s Luke Weaver, a #3/#4 starter type or potential impact reliever with six years of control, would you do it? I would, personally.
Here’s the tougher question, though: would the Cardinals?
If, god forbid, the 2017 season gets off to just a terrible start, things go wrong, the defense still sucks, and the Redbirds are struggling just to keep their heads above water, I have to believe Lynn would be one of the players the club would seriously consider dealing. Trevor Rosenthal, particularly if he’s still relieving, would have to be at the top of that list, and Lynn would seem to be an ideal candidate as well.
In other words, if we pass Independence Day and the Cards are five games below .500, I would think they would have to make some moves for the future. If we get to the fifteenth of July and they’re hanging right around .500, I still think it would be time for the organisation to do something they’ve resisted for a very long time and actually go into sell-off mode. Not fire sale mode, mind you; just selling off the Rosenthals and Lynns and, if healthy, Siegrists. Ohs, too, as much as it pains me to say. Maybe even consider moving Kolten Wong in a change of scenery fresh start deal.
To me, though, the more intriguing question would be this: what if the Cardinals were having a very good season come the middle of July? Would they, or should they, still consider moving Lance Lynn?
My reasoning in even considering such a move is that, of all the things the Cardinals have going for them right now, pitching depth is still number one on that list. Even since losing Alex Reyes for the season, we’ve talked ad nauseum about how much pitching the Redbirds have stockpiled and how much more is on the way.
As it stands now, the Cards’ rotation looks something like Carlos, Waino, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, and Michael Wacha. Trevor Rosenthal will get his look, but it seems a foregone conclusion he’s never actually going to start a game for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Beyond the guys at the major league level, Luke Weaver and Marco Gonzales represent the immediate pitching depth in the high minors. Gonzales is obviously a concern at this point, but Weaver looks very closer to ready for a big league job. Both will likely start the season in Memphis. After them, Jack Flaherty will start out at Double A this year. The trio of college arms the Cards drafted last year, Dakota Hudson, Connor Jones, and Zac Gallen, are all likely to reach at least High A this year, if not higher. Sandy Alcantara and Junior Fernandez could both reach Double A. It’s not likely we’ll see any of those pitchers in the big leagues this year, but the amount of depth approaching the high minors now is very impressive.
So say the Cardinals make it to the middle of July. They’re...ten games over .500. Probably a little ways back of the Cubs, but holding the first Wild Card spot. Luke Weaver has done to Triple A what he did to all the other levels before, and made a very nice spot start in late May.
At that point, if a club in contention suddenly suffers a pitching injury, or just realises they don’t have enough guns, and calls you up and offers the 65th best prospect in baseball for Lance Lynn, do you take that deal? Or is the risk too great to move a part of what has mostly been working and potentially leaving yourself exposed?
There’s an additional consideration here, in that Lynn will certainly be extended the qualifying offer after next season is over, and if he pitches to the kind of level that could make him worth a top 75 prospect, he should receive a contract over $50 million heading into the 2018 season. Given the new rules and where the Cardinals sit in the economic pecking order of the league, they would receive a pick right after the first round in that case, similar to where the picks have come the last several years. So by holding onto Lynn and letting him walk after 2017, you could potentially net a pick in the 35 range.
I’m not sure what I would do, honestly. And this isn’t really about Lance Lynn, the pitcher, so much as it is a thought exercise about where the Cardinals are as a franchise right now. They’re obviously not a rebuilding club; even if things went horribly this season it wouldn’t be the sort of team you necessarily blow up and start over. But they are still very much a team that feels like it’s in transition, trying to find their way out of high-floor low-ceiling land back into true title contention.
If forced to answer, forced to make the decision, even with a club in prime position to grab a wild card spot, if I felt I had an option to step into the rotation and could pull a prospect in that top 75 range for Lynn in July, I think I would pull the trigger. It might concern me a bit how the optics of selling off a starting pitcher might hit the rest of the team, but I think I would have to take the opportunity to build the future some more. Particularly considering how tough the draft is likely going to be for El Birdos this year, they need to continue adding to the pipeline.
So yes, once again, as always, I think I would end up advocating to trade Lance Lynn in July, even if the club is too good to be a traditional seller. The kind of value we’ve seen returned in trades recently is just too attractive for me to turn down.
I promise, I really do like Lance Lynn. And no, I don’t expect you to believe me.