Earlier this week, Bruce Levine reported the Cardinals and Cubs were the two teams showing the most interest in Jake Arrieta. On the surface, such a deal doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Cardinals. Right now, the team has Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, and Miles Mikolas set for the rotation with Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes in reserve, along with John Gant able to make a few starts and Dakota Hudson hitting Triple-A last season.
In order to accommodate Arrieta, the Cardinals would need to push one of their five starters out from the gate, and there isn’t a clear candidate. Martinez is the team’s best pitcher. After entering last season as a question mark, Michael Wacha made 30 starts and pitched well. Luke Weaver pitched very well last year and has definitely earned a spot.
There are questions about Mikolas, but he just signed a free agent contract, and putting him in the bullpen to start the year would be pretty poor form. Adam Wainwright did not pitch well last season, especially in the second half (the linked post is a good one from Eno Sarris on Wainwright and Weaver), but if he gets his velocity back, he’s certainly earned the chance to keep pitching in the rotation.
The Cardinals could perhaps use some stability in the rotation, but on Opening Day there isn’t a clear spot for Arrieta, who projects closer to average than ace and would command a contract of around $100 million. The rumor doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Cardinals unless the price were to drop significantly and even there are some warning signs with Arrieta.
Arrieta made 30 starts last year and was solid with a 4.16 FIP and 3.53 ERA. Arrieta has been a FIP-beater during his career, although some of that this past season was due to 16 unearned runs not credited to his ERA. His bWAR was just 1.9 as it counts those 16 runs against Arrieta and then takes more credit away because the Cubs defense was generally good. Leaving that aside, Arrieta at this point projects as an above-average pitcher. His velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season which would explain his drop in production.
Even with that average production last season, Arrieta has had one of the better runs in baseball for a pitcher in his age-28 through his age-31 seasons, putting up 18.5 WAR, ranking as the 27th best run at those ages since the addition of the designated hitter 45 years ago.
I took a look at the pitchers closest to Arrieta with WAR between 16 and 21 at that age, and then looked at the players who had somewhat disappointing age-31 seasons compared to the previous years, with a WAR between 1.4 and 3.5. There were nine such players.
Of those nine, three had very productive age-32 seasons as Roy Oswalt, Don Sutton, and Frank Viola all rebounded to put up roughly 4-WAR seasons. Dan Haren and Aaron Sele pitched a decent amount of innings and were a little below average. Teddy Higuera, Dave Goltz, and Andy Messersmith were either bad, hurt, or moved to the bullpen and combined for about 135 innings while Johan Santana ended his age-31 season hurt and missed all of the next year. Santana isn’t really a fair comparison as Arrieta ended the season healthy, but that is 1 in 3 chance of a good outcome next season.
From 32-35, only Don Sutton could be said to have a positive outcome as Oswalt and Viola were basically done after their age-33 seasons and the rest weren’t productive. This isn’t to say that Arrieta is doomed, but there are considerable risks and investing $100 million to shore up an area not in great need doesn’t really help things in 2018 or the future.
There is one scenario where a pitcher like Arrieta could make some sense. If Arrieta was a part of another move, then his innings might come in handy and make his contract worth some risk. If the Cardinals were to trade for Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson and those trades required a pitcher in the current rotation, like Michael Wacha or Luke Weaver, then putting Arrieta into the rotation would make sense.
That said, Lance Lynn is a year younger than Arrieta, and while he doesn’t have the same track record, he probably projects pretty similarly at a much lower cost. In addition, if the Cardinals were to make a win-now move like bringing in Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson, spending for Yu Darvish might more sense given the greater upgrade to the rotation.
There is a situation where Jake Arrieta to the Cardinals makes some sense. It would require more moves to make that type of deal necessary. Even if the Cardinals found themselves needing more innings, Yu Darvish or Lance Lynn would probably make more sense.