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Transaction Analysis: The Lizard King, Cafecito, and Wieters

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It’s been a busy week for John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar just turned to March, and spring training has already been on brand for the Cardinals front office. Buy out a year of arbitration from a beloved player? Check. Fill in a dark crevice at the back of the roster with a non-roster invitee? Check. Then they doubled down and inked another player to a new contract. John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have had a very busy week. It began last weekend when José Martínez signed a two-year contract that provides security to the player and team. Miles Mikolas signed a contract extension on Tuesday that covers 2020-2023. Finally, the Cardinals brought in Matt Wieters as catching depth on a minor league deal. Let’s take a look at these deals.

The Mikolas Extension

The Mikolas extension is for four years and $68M. You can evaluate this multiple ways, and all of them come out as a positive.

Dollars: Two years of slow markets has left the traditional dollars-per-win figures in flux. This off-season, it’s around $9.5M per win once you remove relief pitchers and include the value of draft picks lost. From there, the math is simple. To justify the Mikolas extension without reservation, Mikolas will need to be worth 7.2 wins for the Cardinals from 2020 through 2023.

He was worth 4.3 last season, and projection systems see him between 2.7 and 3.0 this year. Even if he regresses, 7.2 wins is a very attainable goal for Mikolas.

Production: Since command and a minuscule walk rate drove his 2018 success, there’s a tendency to inaccurately think of it as a fluke.

His velocity is well above average. Among pitchers with 500 fastballs of any kind last year, Mikolas was 72nd percentile with an average velocity of 93.9 mph. His average slider- 88.0 mph- was 89th percentile. He tunneled those two pitches together as well as anyone.

His repertoire is one of the deepest in the game. Per Baseball Savant, Mikolas was one of just four pitchers in all of baseball who used four different pitches 20% or more of the time. If advanced stats are your thing, he ranked 13th in FIP, 19th in xFIP, and 34th in DRA- (out of 207 starters with 30+ IP).

Years: Injuries are a concern with any pitcher. The number one predictor of future injuries is past injuries. For Mikolas, the last time he was on the disabled list in the United States was a seven day stint in August 2013 as a member of the AAA Tucson Padres. His lone injury in Japan was shoulder tightness in 2016, which limited him to 14 starts. It didn’t prevent him from full seasons in 2017 and 2018, nor did he miss time in 2015. While committing to any pitcher for five seasons (2019 through 2023 in this case) is a gamble, Mikolas is as good a bet as any to stay healthy.

Even if an injury does happen during the deal, please refer to the dollars section. The goal is for Mikolas to earn 7.2 wins from 2020 through 2023. If that includes a missed season due to injury but 7.2+ wins otherwise, nobody should care.

Security: This deal brings the Cardinals some much needed roster continuity after 2019. They entered spring training with two-fifths of the starting rotation scheduled to reach free agency after the season (Mikolas, Michael Wacha), plus two sluggers in the lineup (Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna). That’s anywhere from 10 to 15 wins that would need to be replaced had all of them reached free agency, and it would gut a significant part of the core. By extending Mikolas, at least one piece will return for 2020 and the front office can now focus on extending any of the other three they’d like (read: Goldschmidt).

The Mikolas deal is as simple as you think. They’re gambling that he can match the last four seasons for, say, Jake Odorizzi, Tanner Roark, or Wade Miley. If he does better, it’s gravy. The risk is health, but that’s no different from any other pitcher. Unlike other pitchers, Mikolas has fewer concerns.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Matt Wieters

Shortly after the Mikolas extension, news came out about a non-roster invitation for former Oriole and National Matt Wieters. In a perfect world, a backup catcher should do one of two things. Either his defense should be good enough that he can cover for your starter when he can’t play, or he should hit enough to render the glove moot. Wieters has raised concerns in both areas over the last two seasons.

Since 2017, 69 catchers have amassed 200 plate appearances. Wieters’ 72 wRC+ is 50th in that cohort. His wOBA is 45th. His bat was slightly better in 2018 than in 2017, but the difference amounts to approximately one flyball clearing the fence, 7-8 more walks, and a flyball landing between outfielders for a double. If he has a 72 wRC+ again, it’s certainly an improvement over Francisco Peña’s 2018. However, a 72 wRC+ or worse means he needs to provide value with his glove.

The last few years, Wieters’ defense has scored very poorly by advanced metrics. By Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs, Wieters ranked 98th out of 117 listed catchers in 2018. He was 108th out of 111 in 2017. He fares much better in blocking (13th in 2018, 12th in 2017), but it’s not a pretty picture overall. Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing metric, Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), has him 97th last season and 109th in 2017. If you prefer Fangraphs data, he finished 29th out of 43 catchers in DEF (Defensive Runs Above Average, minimum 200 plate appearances as catcher) last season.

Wieters’ experience level is right, the cost is right, his familiarity with pitching coach Mike Maddux is right, and he’s likely a better option than Peña. However, it’s been a rough few years for Wieters and the decline raises legitimate concerns that years of wear and tear for a big-bodied catcher will further limit his future production.

The Martínez Contract

Last weekend, the Cardinals inked Jose Martinez to a two-year contract spanning 2019 and 2020, his first year of arbitration eligibility. Per Spotrac, Martínez will receive $1.125M in 2019 and $2.125M in 2020. Without the contract, he may have gotten more money next season, but certainly would have had less in 2019. After an off-season full of trade rumors that apparently included the possibility of playing in Japan, the contract supplies Martínez with security in St. Louis.

The deal does not affect his service time. After the deal is done, the Cardinals will still have two more years of arbitration with Cafecito before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

It’s a very simple deal with a few ramifications. By guaranteeing money to Martínez next season, the team seems set on having him in St. Louis. Whatever his defensive misgivings, the deal is an acknowledgement that Cafecito has been a very productive hitter, one who is almost impossible for a pitcher to exploit. Additionally, it keeps a wildly popular player (the team “erupted in cheers” when the deal was announced in the clubhouse) in Cardinal red for the foreseeable future.

In other words, a popular player is going to get more money this year, more job security for this year and next, and saw his good fortune applauded by his teammates. It’s a win all the way around.