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Should the Cardinals Pursue Gio Gonzalez?

There is a starting pitcher hitting the free agent market today. The Cardinals would do well to at least check in.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Today is Monday, the 22nd of April. Yesterday was Easter Sunday for those who celebrate that sort of thing; I attended the big car show in Forest Park, which has been a tradition for us for quite a few years now, and then ate a bunch of ham. It was a pretty good day, as holidays go.

More importantly — or, at least, more to the point of this column — the fact today is the 22nd of April means that the baseball season is well and truly underway by this point. Obviously, we’re still early on, and the samples are all still generally quite small. But as we sit here this morning, the Cardinals’ record is 12-9, which puts them on track for something right around a 94ish win season. A touch over an eighth of the way through this 2019 campaign, the Cards have both the record and the run differential of a low- to mid-90s win club. And honestly, that feels about right. In spite of the difficulty of their schedule so far, the Redbirds have looked good. Sometimes very good. If it wasn’t for the presence of Christian Yelich hanging around in half the games so far, El Birdos might be undefeated.

Okay, so maybe not undefeated. But overall, this club is shaping up to potentially be a very good one. The Cards have the third best run differential in baseball, behind only the Dodgers and Rays, and factoring in strength of schedule the Cards have been the second-best team in baseball behind only Los Angeles. As I said before, the samples are still small enough on all of this that we shouldn’t draw really hard conclusions from anything just yet. However, I do think we’ve seen enough that we have some idea of what we’re looking at.

The offense is potentially very, very good. Even with the outfield being unsettled and Matt Carpenter not really hitting yet, the Cardinals have power up and down the lineup, and plenty of on-base skills as well. Paul Goldschmidt is having one of the strangest seasons I can remember so far, basically hitting home runs at a 60/year pace, but also running a BABIP 80 points below his career norm, like he’s doing a 2001 Mark McGwire impersonation. Even so, he’s still about a third better than a league-average hitter, and I expect that number to increase as we go on. The middle infield has been the greatest strength of the club so far this year, which might have been believable defensively back in February, but certainly not on the offensive side. The bullpen has been a strength, and to an absurd degree boasts perhaps the highest upside of any particular unit involved with this club.

On the other hand, the starting rotation has been a big liability. In fact, it’s really been probably the only serious liability the club has shown this year. Yes, there were a couple rough days for the ‘pen early on, when the team saw leads slip away late, but those things happen. On balance, the bullpen, particularly if we don’t worry about Alex Reyes not looking ready for prime time coming back from multiple years of injury, has been a serious strength. The rotation, meanwhile, has been both shaky in terms of results and has generated a huge shortfall in innings, leading to the bullpen being forced to pick up more of the workload than is ideal. A strong bullpen and aggressive deployment are great things, but no team can survive when asking said bullpen to get 15-18 outs every single night.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s column, and a news item of very recent vintage. Over the offseason, the New York Yankees signed Gio Gonzalez, former super prospect, former top of the rotation starter, and current, um, well, he’s still a starting pitcher. Just not, you know, what he used to be. Gonzalez was one of those players who seemed to take the recent chilliness of the free agent market as an indicator that he should get himself signed, by basically any means necessary, particularly after having been traded last season. He’s exactly the sort of player — averageish at this point, old enough clubs are not looking at him as a long-term solution, and a pitcher to boot — who has seen his earning potential severely curbed the last few years. With all that in mind, it isn’t surprising Gonzalez took a modest contract offer from the Yankees, especially since it looked like a situation with so much upside, should things work out a certain way.

The reason Gonzalez’s contract with the Yankees is newsworthy right now is because there was a clause built in to the deal. Said clause, similar to many minor-league deals signed by major league free agents, dictates that if not added to the 25-man roster by a certain date (in this case, the 20th of April), the player could opt out and seek another contract.

Well, 420 has come and gone, and Gio Gonzalez was not added to the Yankees’ active roster. He exercised his opt-out clause on Saturday, and the Yankees were given a 48-hour window to either add Gonzalez or allow him to walk. There’s an interesting aspect to Gonzalez’s contract with New York, in that he was owed something like 300K per start, making him a fairly expensive luxury item even for a team with a shaky starting rotation should he make it in to their rotation and stay there.

So here’s where we are right now: the 48-hour window expires today, the Yankees seem likely to allow Gonzalez to leave, and at that point he will become a free agent, able to sign anywhere. This isn’t like a waiver claim, where the original team is paying and the team claiming the player only pays league minimum or whatever, a la Greg Holland 2018. Gio Gonzalez is going to be free and clear to sign as of sometime today, and there are at least a few teams around right now who could really use some starting pitching help.

Chief among that number is the New York Mets, fresh off losing two of three to the Cardinals, and they have been the club most often tied to a pursuit of Gonzalez to this point. The loss of Jacob DeGrom for an unknown period, the abject awfulness of Jason Vargas (though the Cardinals certainly didn’t light up the junkballing lefty as one might hope....), and watching both Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz underachieve this season has put the Mets in a rough spot with their pitching. Gio Gonzalez would certainly seem a good bet to bring some stability to that sort of situation.

The Mets are far from the only club who could benefit from bringing in another pitcher at this point, though. Oakland’s rotation is a patchwork horror at the moment. Cleveland is suffering from Mike Clevinger’s back injury and Corey Kluber’s sudden vulnerability. Atlanta, for all their young positional talent, is looking very, very shaky in the middle and back of their rotation. And, as we well know, the Cardinals have had a tough go of things so far in 2019 trying to get consistent production from their starting pitchers.

So the question is this: should the Cardinals be interested in Gio Gonzalez? I mean, I’m sure they’re at least somewhat interested; once upon a time Gonzalez was the sort of pitcher you couldn’t pry away from the team which had him, and there’s still some talent left there. But would Gonzalez really be that much better than the other options the Cardinals are currently working with?

Well, let’s start with looking at Gonzalez himself. The lefty has made three starts in Triple A this year, and taking a surface look we might think he’s been bad. After all, he’s made three appearances, all starts, for the Yankees’ farm club, and has thrown fifteen innings. In those fifteen innings, he has amassed an ERA of 6.00, which is....not encouraging. A pitcher putting up a six ERA in Triple A probably doesn’t need to be pitching in the big leagues for a contender.

However, there’s more context to be had here, including the fact Gonzalez has struck out 28.4% of the hitters he’s faced so far this season. More importantly, it’s worth noting that in his first start of the season, Gonzalez threw just four innings, walked three batters, and allowed eight earned runs while striking out just one hitter. Since then, however, he’s made starts of six and five innings, respectively, and put up a strikeout to walk ratio of 18:3. His overall BABIP against this season is .439, so there is probably some bad batted-ball luck in there, one would have to imagine. The point is, Gonzalez has, in his most recent outings, looked very good.

He has also, over the course of even just his recent career, been a very reliable starting pitcher. As recently as 2017 Gonzalez put up a sub-3.00 ERA, and even last season when things did not always go his way he ended up a roughly league-average starting pitcher. Admittedly, his velocity has declined over the past couple years, and his curveball is no longer quite the weapon it once was, likely because the lesser arm speed he works with nowadays doesn’t allow him nearly the spin capabilities he used to possess. His strikeout rate fell below 20% for the first time in his career last season, which is very worrisome for a pitcher who was always better at missing bats than he was managing contact.

As for the Cardinals, it’s relatively easy to see how Gonzalez would fit. As things stand now, there are two spots of real concern in the starting rotation. Miles Mikolas has been mostly fine, was very good yesterday, and offers such a bulk of quality innings he’s really the least of the club’s concerns, even if there’s a contingent of fans who apparently think ‘Bob Tewksbury with better velocity’ is, apparently, not something you absolutely want in the rotation of your team. Mikolas is not going anywhere, nor should he. Jack Flaherty, similarly, is not going anywhere nor should he, because Jack Flaherty, homeritis and BABIPitis and all, is still very much the future of this team. Michael Wacha, at least for right now, is safe as well, despite the walk issues and everything else, because you just don’t have a ton of great options. However, Dakota Hudson and Adam Wainwright both feel like very worrisome elements of the rotation to me, in spite of Waino probably actually being the Cards’ best overall starter so far this season.

Hudson certainly has the stuff, and at times has been able to overwhelm hitters in the zone with the quality of his sinker and cutter/slider thing. On the other hand, he’s still running a K:BB ratio of only about 1.5:1, which is quite bad. As talented as Dakota Hudson is, I’m just not sure he’s a very good pitcher right now. Adam Wainwright, on the other hand, has mostly been a good pitcher this year, but he’s also 37 years old, has had some walk issues at times this season due to working entirely on the edges of the zone, and isn’t throwing any harder than he did last year, when he appeared to be constantly teetering on the precipice of viability. Both Hudson and Wainwright feel as if they could sink this season, while the other three, shaky results to date and all, are still very clearly competitive, contributing major league pitchers.

Now, the good news is this: the cavalry is on the way, in the form of Carlos Martinez, who I have to believe at this point will be stretched out for a starting job when he comes back, rather than being pressed into service as a relief arm. A fully healthy and operational El Gallo could easily slide into Dakota Hudson’s spot in the rotation, allowing the big right-hander to go back down to Memphis and continue trying to develop and improve. The downside, of course, is that Carlos himself has been a shaky asset since about May of last year. It’s hard to believe Martinez is entirely past the shoulder injury/weakness/soreness/whatever has hampered him, and it feels very long ago that we saw what he did in April of 2018 and felt like this, then, was the emergence of the pitcher Carlos was always meant to be.

It also should be pointed out Martinez is not the only option the Redbirds have to potentially take some starting innings in the big leagues at some point this season. Austin Gomber has rebounded from a really bad spring training and is currently having a nice season in Memphis. Alex Reyes is working out of the Triple A rotation right now, both to get more work in on a more structured schedule, and also because he’s not needed to fill a hole on the big league club right this second. Ryan Helsley and John Gant both have starting experience aplenty, though Gant might be too valuable in that hybrid role to move him back to the rotation right now. So there are things the Cardinals could do.

However, it’s hard not to look at Gio Gonzalez hitting the free agent market and think the Cardinals could really help themselves shore up the biggest vulnerability this club has shown so far in 2019 by going after him. I can understand why the team would be hesitant to sign Dallas Keuchel; even looking for a shorter-term deal Keuchel has concerning peripherals and declining stuff for a guy you’ll probably need to sign up for three years. Gonzalez, though, would almost certainly be available on a one-year deal (he signed a minor-league contract in the offseason; I have to believe one year of an actual guaranteed salary would be very attractive to him), and thus brings with him really no risk.

I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that the Cardinals should go chasing after Gio Gonzalez, should he in fact make it to the free agent market as it currently appears he will. (I don’t know exactly what time today is the deadline for the Yankees to add him to the active roster.) Gonzalez was, by both ERA and FIP, the barest bit below a league-average pitcher in 2018. He’s not going to magically transform this pitching staff into a dominant force. However, considering the tight rope the Redbirds are walking so far this season with their starting rotation, the addition of even just an average pitcher is nothing to sneeze at. The offense is very good, the bullpen has crazy upside, and on balance the team has been pretty solid defensively, with one or two exceptions. This is a club with championship aspirations, and looking at the overall talent pool those aspirations do not appear delusional. To see them do nothing, and let this club continue to slide along with such large question marks in the starting rotation, would seem a very, very big risk. Certainly a much bigger risk than handing a one-year deal to one of the more durable, consistently solid starting pitchers of this decade.