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Free Agent Spotlight: Madison Bumgarner

Should the Cardinals sign Madison Bumgarner?

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I’m not sure what the Cardinals will do this offseason, but I think they will do something. That is an all-encompassing word designed to cover free agent signings and trades. They will literally do something. They will do at least one thing that will involve the MLB roster in 2020. Now, I’m intentionally being vague, because honestly I don’t know what the Cardinals will do.

I think I have a pretty good idea of what they will not do however. They will probably not sign a free agent starting pitcher, even though they should. I’m not the biggest Kyle Gibson fan, but that kind of deal is what the Cardinals would be all over if they were to sign a pitcher. Nonetheless, this is a long offseason where pretty much nothing will happen, so I will cling to the hope that they might sign a pitcher.

And the best of the bunch of pitchers the Cardinals could, you know in theory, sign is Madison Bumgarner. Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and even Zack Wheeler are very likely out of their price range. Bumgarner, to be clear, probably is too. (Self-imposed price range I should say. They have the money) But he has enough recent troubles that it could drive his price down. And maybe there’s only three teams willing to spend big on pitchers - leaving a guy like Bumgarner with a deflated market.

Well, let’s explore him as an option. Bumgarner is a pitcher who became a free agent too late. He easily represents the downside of signing a team friendly deal. Had he not signed it, he would have been a free agent three years ago, at the age of 27. He was coming off a 4.3 fWAR season having thrown 226.2 IP. He was one year removed from his outstanding playoff performance, and had a 1.21 ERA in his last 66.2 IP in the playoffs. He had six straight seasons with 200+ IP. He would have gotten BANK.

And then he got injured. His next two seasons barely beat his 2016 inning total, with a combined 240 IP. He rebounded last year, and his injuries may have been two freak injuries, but his reputation as a reliable 200 IP guy has taken a huge hit. Plus, free agent as it was collapsed since then and teams aren’t really paying the middle of the road free agent options. If one considers Bumgarner a middle of a road option that is.

Count me among the people who did not realize that Bumgarner had such a great 2019. Which, I assume, is just about everyone who isn’t a Giants fan. Or a fan of one of the NL West teams who had to play him a lot. He started 34 games, pitched 207.2 IP, saw his highest strikeout rate since 2016, his BB rate dip below his career average and his WAR jump to 3.2. Not classic Bumgarner, but better than his 2017 and 2018 seasons combined, and that’s only partially injury related. He also just pitched better last year than those seasons.

On to the injuries, in 2017, he was in a dirt bike accident on an off-day and didn’t return until after the All-Star break. I don’t think this is going to be a recurring issue. In spring training of 2018, Bumgarner sustained a fracture of a metacarpal in his pitching hand when a line drive was hit back to him. He didn’t return until June. The injuries aren’t cause for concern I don’t think.

What is probably more concerning though he that he was a rather significantly worse pitcher in those years. His strikeout rate in 2015 and 2016 was 27.2%. It dropped to 21% in 2017 and 2018. His walk rate was 5.2% and rose to 6.3%. It’s not usually a great sign when a pitcher has a worse strikeout rate and higher walk rate and this was in his age 27 and 28 seasons. His 2019 did alleviate some of these concerns however. And obviously, the injuries could have made him rusty. But declining at age 27 and age 28 certainly makes me worried for when you’re in your 30s.

Okay with that out of the way, I’ll go to as trustworthy a source on these things as we’ve got as this point, and thats MLBTR projected salaries. MLBTR predicts that Bumgarner signs with the Twins (which I do not expect) for 4 years, $72 million. Their predicted team is less important than the predicted salary for this exercise. That salary is $18 million a year, which would more or less be paying for 2 WAR a year. Bumgarner was worth 3.2 fWAR last year. Steamer projects 2.1 fWAR, but has an absolutely absurd HR/9 for some reason. He has a career .94 HR/9 and last year, it rose to 1.30. They predict it will rise to 1.66. I’m going to take the under there.

So let’s fix that. I could maybe buy an argument moving away from Oracle Park could increase his HR rate, but if he’s moving to Busch Stadium it’s not going to be much different. I’m going to put his HR rate at last year’s 1.30, which lowers his projected FIP from 4.67 to 4.12. Steamer has so many quirks with its projections you have to look at the specifics. It’s also not reliable on playing time at all. They predict 190 IP, which seems basically fine but ZiPS is going to be lower. Anyway, a 4.12 FIP in 190 IP given last year’s run environment is 2.7 WAR, which sounds fair. He’s probably young enough that you wouldn’t necessarily expect the 0.5 decline every year, but even with that, he lands at 7.8 fWAR over those four years. A fair deal.

However, there is that pesky qualifying offer. It is a bit more difficult to calculate how much to dock a player’s salary due to the qualifying offer than it used to be. The Cardinals did not receive revenue sharing so they would lose their second highest pick and $500K of international bonus pool money. Here’s the problem. We don’t know what the Cardinals second highest pick is right now. Cardinals are one of the 14 teams who receive a competitive balance pick (or at least historically speaking - things could change), but we don’t know right now if it’s Comp Round A or Round B. B comes after the second round while A comes after the 1st round.

So the Cardinals are either giving up an early 30s pick or the 59th overall pick. (I may be off a little, but the values aren’t going to change much.) So the draft pick could be worth anywhere from $9.8 million to just under $5 million. That’s according to former VEB editor Craig Edwards article on Fangraphs.

Either way, the contract as proposed by MLBTR appears to be basically fair, without taking into account the qualified offer penalty. Whether that’s $5 or $10 million, you could argue it pushes the contract into unacceptable territory. I’d be more confident about this opinion when I have his ZiPS projections to be honest. Unless you get him for cheaper though, it sort of feels like he’s in the same vein as signing Mike Leake or Dexter Fowler, and there are options similar to that for much cheaper than Bumgarner, even if they probably won’t be as good. I don’t know I wasn’t honestly expecting my conclusion to be no, but for now, I think I’d go a different route.