It’s no secret that starting pitching has been the biggest weakness on the 2019 edition of the St. Louis Cardinals. Other areas of the team have struggled at times, and the loss of Jordan Hicks raises new concerns about the bullpen. Still, the most glaring weakness remains starting pitching. When pitchers reported to Florida in February, the Cardinals carried nine starting pitching options for the upcoming season. There was ample risk in the front five, but also a strong safety net with four alternatives if anything went wrong. The hope was that a lot of quantity would alleviate any quality-related problems. Time makes fools of us all.
The Cardinals desperately need to add at least one solidly above average starting pitcher. In the very least, it’s past time to find a replacement for Michael Wacha, his recent starts against the Angels and Marlins aside. Fortunately, the trade market is about to kick into gear, and two particular options stand out- Zack Wheeler and Marcus Stroman. Let’s take a look at the full market.
MLB Trade Rumors just released their Top 50 Trade Candidates for the upcoming deadline, and it’s as good a starting place as any. The starting pitchers on that list:
- Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija, SFG
- Marcus Stroman, TOR
- Matthew Boyd, DET
- Tanner Roark, CIN
- Jordan Lyles, PIT
- Andrew Cashner, BAL
- Mike Leake, SEA
- Danny Duffy, KCR
- Mike Minor, TEX
- Zack Wheeler, NYM
- Trevor Bauer, CLE
We can immediately eliminate several options. Cashner carries an xFIP that’s worse than Wacha’s. Considering the proximity of the Reds and Pirates to the Cardinals in the standings, Lyles and Roark are unlikely. Leake is also unlikely.
That leaves Bumgarner, Samardzija, Stroman, Boyd, Duffy, Minor, Wheeler, and Bauer. For these players, I’m assuming they’re traded in mid-July, 100 games into the season, with 38% of their 2019 salary remaining. That also means I’m pro-rating their rest of season ZIPS projections accordingly. Finally, I’m going to adjust the $/WAR down to $9.5M, as the market has done some funky stuff since the D-Rays Bay Surplus Value Calculator was created. Here’s how they look, along with the years covered by their current contracts:
Surplus Value, Trade Targets
Folks will surely clamor for Boyd, but his surplus is enormous. He would likely cost Nolan Gorman, one of Andrew Knizner or Dylan Carlson, and a few additional lower future value prospects (think players like Elehuris Montero and Ryan Helsley). As great as it would be to add Boyd to the Cardinals, it seems unrealistic and highly damaging to the future. Given Minor’s value, even if the Rangers collapse in July, he still appears to be integral to any hopes they have for 2020 contention. He’s safe to remove as well.
There’s a robust set of options remaining. We’ll use Craig Edwards’ outstanding prospect evaluation work (here and here) to try to gauge what a return package would look like from the Cardinals for these pitchers.
Wheeler’s pending free agency drives down the asking price. A package for Wheeler could be cobbled together with multiple prospects below the Gorman/Carlson/Knizner threshold at the top of the Cardinals farm system. Tyler O’Neill may be an overpay (or he might be the perfect option). It’s hard to gauge what 2019 has done to his trade value. A group consisting of some combination of 40 FV players (Lane Thomas, Malcom Nunez, Genesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez, Griffin Roberts, Delvin Perez, Johan Oviedo, Randy Arozarena, etc.) and 40+ FV (Elehuris Montero, Ivan Herrera, Ryan Helsley, Jhon Torres) could get this done.
How much competition there is for Wheeler’s services will dictate how many of those players would be included, and how many are of the 40+ FV variety. A similar deal last summer involved Nathan Eovaldi going from Tampa to Boston for 45 FV pitcher Jalen Beeks. The Cardinals don’t have any 45 FV prospects.
With an arsenal comparable to Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom, Wheeler’s results have never quite matched the talent. There’s a breakout lurking and it would behoove the Cardinals to be the beneficiaries.
Stroman is a little trickier, and would be hard to acquire without one of Carlson or Knizner. Of course, either one of those players would satisfy most of the asking price. If the preference is to keep Carlson and Knizner, the package would likely have to include several 40+ FV players. Even then, it’s doubtful it gets the deal done unless the Blue Jays are wildly enamored with any of those players and evaluate them much differently from Fangraphs’ FV scores.
On the other hand, Stroman is under contract for 2020, which might lessen the blow of losing Carlson or Knizner. Since 2016, he’s 22nd in innings pitched, 25th in fWAR, and 31st in xFIP, and boasts the best groundball percentage (min. 200 IP, 251 total) among MLB starters. He has been a steady commodity.
Bauer’s surplus has a 4.4 fWAR baked in for 2020, generated using a 4.0 fWAR 2019 and the simple 3-2-1 method for weighting recent seasons. It’s not rocket science but it gets us close enough. Using that, we get just under $35M of surplus value. That means either Carlson or Knizner, plus two of the 40+ FV prospects (Herrera, Montero, Nunez, Helsley), would head to Cleveland. Bauer’s on-field production is a thrilling prospect, but it’s hard to see the Cardinals winning a bidding war for his services, even if Cleveland does fall far enough to deal him in the first place.
A single 40+ FV player (Torres, Montero, Herrera, Helsley) should complete a deal for either of these players. If the Giants or Royals prefer, the Cardinals could instead offer multiple 40 FV or lower prospects (Delvin Perez, Johan Oviedo, Edmundo Sosa, etc.)- the KFC Famous Bowl of lesser prospects. Anything beyond that and the Cardinals should walk away.
Bumgarner is a brand name whose actual value has plummeted in recent seasons. A solid early 2019 showing helped him recoup value, but he has a 0.8 fWAR projection over the final two months, with a pro-rated salary of $4.56M until the end of the season. It’s an upgrade, but only marginally. Duffy is similarly valued. He’s due $30.75M total in 2020 and 2021, and erratic performances make it hard to know what he’s worth in the remainder of the deal. I projected him at 1.9 and 1.4 fWAR in those two seasons, plus 0.8 rest of season this year, and even that felt generous.
The Shark is due $24.8M through the 2020 season, projects to 0.5 fWAR for the rest of 2019, and I projected him at 1.4 fWAR for 2020. Even if you very generously project him with a 2.0 fWAR in 2020, his surplus value is zero. At 1.4, he’s a net negative. If the Giants want to pay the freight on him, you can trade a sub-40 FV prospect in return. Otherwise, you’re in the Cashner realm. Why bother?
Bauer, Wheeler, or Stroman would be significant additions, with the caveat that Cleveland won’t move Bauer if they’re anywhere near the wild card. That leaves Stroman and Wheeler, who offer a contrast in preferences. If the Cardinals want multiple years and another Hudson-style ride on the BABIP dragon, Stroman is the choice. Considering how effective their infield defense has been this year, they’re positioned to maximize Stroman better than most other teams. If they want firmer production, less BABIP dependent, and the potential for a game-changing pitcher, they can waive Stroman’s 2020 cost control and instead chase Wheeler. There’s no wrong choice between those two.
That doesn’t mean Bumgarner or Duffy aren’t acceptable low-cost alternatives. Either could be a reasonable depth acquisition as long as it’s in conjunction with Wheeler or Stroman (or Bauer).