With spring training going on, it’s seemingly in vogue to want the Cardinals to do something. It’s not exactly clear what this means- maybe they should have done different things over the winter, maybe traded better, or maybe just shown a little more urgency generally. Put in some face time with the baseball gods, you know? On the hitting side, this generally comes down to an overall uneasiness with giving Dexter Fowler the rightfield job. It’s pretty easy to understand why fans might not like that- Fowler was awful last year, and we have a sampler platter of other medium to medium-plus outfielders who are in the mix. It’s kind of a half-hearted complaint, though- as much as it’s fun to say wow, I wish the team would play the guy I like over the guy I like less, it’s hard to realistically argue that there’s much to either side of the decision. When it comes to starting pitching, Dallas Keuchel is an easier thing to fret about. Here’s a Cy Young winning pitcher sitting at home eating potato chips, and the Cardinals can’t so much as lift a finger to make the team 25 wins better (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea). Now, I mean, if you’re willing to discount any effects of late-spring-training rust, maybe he’s a one or two win upgrade? That’s not meaningless, even if it’s not without risk.
The part that trips me up, though, is that mostly the analysis stops there. The Cardinals didn’t go grab an ace, so they’ve failed. I understand that that’s an extreme form of the take, but it hits on something that’s long struck a nerve with critics of the Mozeliak front office. The thing is, you can quibble with their methods, but you already kind of knew they were going to do it. Not only that, but it’s not even clear that adding Keuchel is a good use of resources. See, adding a pitcher who is going to throw some better-than-league-average innings is nice, but one of the reasons it’s so valuable is because it displaces some worse-than-league-average innings you’d have to throw with the back end of your rotation. This is pretty intuitive- Manny Machado plays third base or shortstop (and preferably third base), so you’d have to let him play there. Pitchers just play, well, pitcher. No one’s asking Jack Flaherty to sit out so that Keuchel can play number two starter. This is part of the eternal give and take of pitchers versus position players- pitchers break, and they play less often, and they random become bad with no warning. Teams need them more or less endlessly, though. League average hitters get DFA’ed because teams have surplus at their position. League average pitchers get multi-year contracts.
Those are just generalities, though. In practice, a pitcher doesn’t bump off a nebulous conceptual replacement. He’s replacing a specific player on each team, or more likely a specific group of a few players. In the Cardinals’ case, the starters projected to get the 5th through 9th most starts are mostly guys you’ve heard of. After switching Carlos Martinez from 5th-most starts to 4th-most (that would bias the sample a bit), we’re left with Adam Wainwright, Alex Reyes, John Gant, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson. Daniel Ponce de Leon is also projected for three starts, and that’s a pretty good 10th starter to have. Now, I’m not crazy. I, too, would like to have Dallas Keuchel over one of those guys. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t prefer it by that much. We’re blinded a bit by watching the Cardinals all the time. All of us have seen those guys pitch, and it’s very medium. They have some good days and some bad days, and sometimes Wainwright comes in trying his heart out and throwing 85 and everyone is very sad. Still, though, it’s easy to want something new and different.
I posit, however, that the Cardinals are one of the teams least-suited to adding Dallas Keuchel. In that list of five starters who form the Cardinals’ starting pitching replacement level, I can squint and see greatness in some and adequacy in others. Alex Reyes is obviously amazing, and for once it sounds like his timetable for returning might not get delayed (knock on infinite wood). Dakota Hudson could be something, if his AAA contact-management is real, and he’s probably totally playable even if not. Adam Wainwright is going to give it his all- and for all the doom and gloom last year, he recorded a 4.46 ERA (4.28 FIP) and struck out a batter an inning. As for Gomber, Gant, and Ponce de Leon, they’re totally adequate, and none felt miscast as fourth starters last year when the team went through a stretch of extreme need on the pitching front. Are any of them going to wow you? Definitely not. Still, though- the Mets are trying to make the postseason, and their FIRST option for the fifth starter spot is Jason Vargas. The Phillies’ first option behind Zach Eflin (who might not be better than Gomber even) is Enyel De Los Santos, who has thrown 19 innings in the bigs and ran a 4 FIP last year in AAA. We haven’t gotten into the 7/8/9 spots with these teams- and they’re both playoff contenders. To wit, here are the top five teams in baseball by projected FIP of the 5th-9th starters:
Well, okay, the Dodgers are a weird case. Their projected fifth starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu, had a sub-2 ERA in 82 innings pitched last year. Their projected seventh starter was an All-Star last year. They’re loaded. The Braves, for their part, look like they’re finally reaping the benefits of their years of pitching-focused rebuilding. The back end of their rotation actually projects slightly better than the front end, and four of the five of them are top-100 prospects in baseball right now. Then we have the Cardinals. As I mentioned, there’s nothing amazing going on. Two of these guys are legit prospects, one of them is a lion in winter, and the rest are just major league depth pieces. As depth pieces go, though, they’re off-the-charts good. The Reds were celebrating this offseason when they acquired Tanner Roark as something like the fourth or fifth starter in their rotation. Meanwhile, I’m not convinced Tanner Roark is one of the best ten starters on the Cardinals.
There are other reasons you could think it makes sense to pay up for Keuchel. The Cardinals are in a three-way dogfight for the NL Central title this year, and you could make an argument that paying for marginal improvements makes sense given that. That’s just what it would be, though- a marginal improvement. There are probably two teams in baseball who gain less on the field by adding Dallas Keuchel. Maybe you don’t care about that. Maybe you think Wainwright is wain-wrong, Gomber is a goober, and I don’t know, some other pun about some other starter, I’m fresh out. Know, though, that the Cardinals accrue real value out of these depth pitchers. Gant, Gomber, Wainwright and Ponce de Leon combined for 42 starts last year, a full quarter of the season. They recorded a 3.87 ERA and a 4.03 FIP, both comfortably better than league average. They looked like- well, they kind of looked like Dallas Keuchel, who turned in a nifty 3.74 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 34 starts. Want to replace that production with Dallas Keuchel’s projected 2019? The team will certainly get better. It might not get better by that much, though.