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The Cardinals probably shouldn’t extend Lance Lynn

There’s a lot of pitching prospects in the top half of the minors, and a fairly good class of pitchers set to be free agents next year.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been a Lance Lynn fan for a while. He’s simply a good, under-rated pitcher. From 2012 to 2015, he was the 20th best pitcher in the game by fWAR. Adam Wainwright was the only Cardinal pitcher who was more valuable. Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina were the only other Cardinals more valuable over that time frame, with Matt Holliday matching him as well. Of course, Lynn missed the whole 2016 season due to Tommy John Surgery. However, I recently found that pitchers as a whole come back relatively close to where they were before Tommy John. In fact, they came back a little better than they were expected to, when taking aging into consideration.

So I was interested when Lance recently made comments about wanting to spend his whole career as a Cardinal. He also said that it seemed to him the Cardinals wanted to see him healthy before they committed to an extension. That took me by surprise, as Lynn and the Cardinals had come to an extension before, but only for a deal covering his remaining arbitration years, when the team would control him anyway. From the outside, it was easy to see that deal as a result of the fact that Lynn was hesitant to delay free agency any longer.

Did Tommy John change Lynn’s preference for reaching free agency sooner? Were we reading too much into things in the first place? It’s impossible to know from the outside. All I know is that I haven’t given much though to extending Lance, and decided it would be a good idea to examine the merits of the idea.

Lynn has been worth 3.4 WAR/200 innings over the four years before his surgery. The projections calls for 2.9 WAR/200 innings in 2017, but while Lynn has averaged 189 innings over his four full time seasons, he’s projected for just 159 in 2016. That’s due to the fact that past injury is the best indicator of future injury. That causes his projection to fall to 2.3 WAR for the year. Pitchers who have one Tommy John Surgery are more likely to have one in the future than those without, so if we’re talking about a long-term extension, you have to figure in the risk of that. 159 is 30 less than what he averaged before hand. Over a five year deal, that’s 150 innings less, or almost a full season missed to injury. Knowing that on average, pitchers have 40% chance of hitting the D.L. in any given season, and that Lynn is at above average risk now with Tommy John, that seems like a fair assumption.

From there, we’ll use an average aging curve, $9M as the price of a win in the last off-season, and 5% inflation/year, and find out what a five year deal for Lance Lynn would look like:

This implies that a 5 year deal for $70-$75M would be around what the Cardinals and Lynn should come to an agreement on. Well, you’d have to discount that a little bit, to make up for the fact that the Cardinals are making this guarantee a year earlier, to maybe $65M to $70M over those five years. Of course, you could disagree with one of the variables, changing the overall valuation. If you adjust to 189 innings, his average over the last four years, this jumps to $96M, and is maybe around what Lynn was hoping to get in free agency before needing Tommy John. So, we’re talking about an injury that might have cut around $20M of a player’s earning potential.

But do the Cardinals need Lance Lynn? That’s a rather obvious follow up question. You can never have too much pitching, as this young season has already reminded us. However, the Cardinals will potentially have a lot options to turn to. Lynn is the only starting pitcher set to leave to free agency, leaving one spot open for competition. Using my aggregate top prospect leaderboard as a guide, Alex Reyes (1st) is unlikely to be healthy by Opening Day 2018, but him, Sandy Alcantara (4th), Luke Weaver (7th), Dakota Hudson (8th), Jack Flaherty (9th), Junior Fernandez (10th), Austin Gomber (14th), and Jon Gant (20th) all have a chance to be rotation candidates at some point in 2018.

You don’t want to depend on prospects, especially pitching prospects. That’s part of why an extension for Yadier Molina was appealing. However, the Cardinals at least have strength in numbers here. If the club waits on extending Lynn, it’ll get to see how those seven pitchers progress (as well as more fringe options such as Connor Jones (17th), Zac Gallen (25th), and Marco Gonzales (28)) and make a better decision. Lynn will then be a free agent, and could easily go to the highest bidder. However, Lynn will be just one of a number of effective pitchers set to hit free agency. Here’s a table from when I previewed next year’s free agent market a while back:

The players with asterisks by their name have decisions to make on opt-outs. Here’s the terms they’d be turning down if they do opt-out:

The Cardinals’ organizational strength, at the moment, is a large amount of pitching prospects in the top half of the minors. At the same time, they’ll have a lot to choose from in the off-season, if none of them look good enough to commit a rotation spot to in 2016.

Of course, I usually like it when the Cardinals spend money. I was glad for the Carlos Martinez extension, the Molina extension, and the Piscotty extension. Heck, I liked the Wong extension too. I was disappointed they weren’t bigger players for Justin Turner, and I hope they are in on Luis Robert. Baseball is swimming in money right now. None of these teams are struggling financially, certainly not the Cardinals.

However, it’s just not a good fit. The Cards need to give their formidable swath of pitching prospects a year to do what prospects are supposed to do: replace the need to invest in players at a free agent prices. With the savings, the team can invest elsewhere. If Lance has the season the projections are expecting, the Cards can tag him with the qualifying offer, and pick of a compensation pick for him. If the Cards have an unexpectedly weak season, they retain the ability to shop him at the deadline for a decent return, probably at least a top 100 prospect if he’s healthy and pitching like the Lance we know and love.

In the past, it was easier for someone to smirk and say “They’re not going to spend it elsewhere though”. However, at some point that’s denying the reality of what’s going on. The deals for Kolten Wong, Mike Leake, Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil, Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina, Stephen Piscotty, the acquistion of Jedd Gyorko and the fact that they blew past their international amateur budget this year all point to the same conclusion: this team is putting their money where their mouth is.

That doesn’t mean they should spend on everything though. Again, I like Lance Lynn. If he leaves, I’ll miss him. However, more than Molina, or even Piscotty, Lance Lynn is very likely to be replaceable in-house. Everything has it’s price, so If Lance was interested in $60M/5 years or something like that, then sure, that’s too good of a deal to pass up and you can never have enough pitching anyway. However, I don’t think Lance made it this close to free agency so he could take that type of offer. Hold on to that money, and keep looking for that next cornerstone player, hopefully a third baseman. I hear there’s a couple good ones in the 2018-2019 free agent market.