If there’s one thing that worries me about the 2021 club, it’s the rotation. I know that’s a bit of an absurd thing to say to some fans. Of course the offense is the problem! Why not add offense? Well, I think we should look at offense less as this monolithic thing. You need to take into account defense and baserunning. Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, and Paul DeJong simply do not need to be any better than average on offense to be above average players. I have advocated for another infielder to pair with Matt Carpenter and possibly supplant him, but aside from that, I’m content with the position players they have due to youth, upside, and defense/baserunning.
On the other hand, the pitching is about as unreliable as they’ve been in some years. The Cardinals used to make it a habit to carry 6+ starters who could be in any rotation. There’s bound to be some unreliability in the form of Jaime Garcia’s health or really any pitcher getting hurt because throwing a baseball overhand is unnatural, but in general, they’d have six or more genuinely good MLB options, most of whom were fairly good bets.
That’s not really the case with the 2021 rotation. Jack Flaherty is a good bet, worries about his 2020 season aside. Kwang Hyun Kim is a reasonably good bet, although he did have some concerning peripherals in 2020 and generally has a complete lack of anything resembling a good sample. And that’s pretty much the list of starters you can count on for 2020.
Carlos Martinez is a gamble and at this point is basically competing for his next free agent contract unless he really surprises. Miles Mikolas is supposed to be ready by Opening Day in 2021, but the fact that he’s not healthy right now certainly means there’s a lot that can go wrong. I know a lot of fans like Austin Gomber, but he walked 12.6% of batters he faced last year and had a 4.75 xFIP and 4.82 SIERA. Daniel Poncedeleon can’t be relied upon to throw more than 3 innings in a start. Alex Reyes can’t be relied upon to stay healthy in the rotation. Genesis Cabrera can’t throw strikes. Johan Oviedo might be ready at some point in 2021 but seemed at least a half season away from being ready when he pitched last season. Jake Woodford is bad. Angel Rondon hasn’t pitched above AA ball. Adam Wainwright, if he signs, is old enough that he could stop being effective immediately.
By my count, that’s four guys I personally think should be in the bullpen in an ideal world, three proven guys who have an uncomfortably high chance of being injured or ineffective, two guys who might be ready at some point in the year but who knows, and one player I think is just straight up not good enough to be in the MLB, much less in the rotation. Reasonable people could disagree. I’m not that high on Austin Gomber, the starter, myself, but I could see an argument that seeing a full season of him as a starter could help dictate 2022 plans. In essence, the “give Tyler O’Neill plate appearances” equivalent in the rotation.
So, a long preamble to defend what I think would be a pretty good addition on paper, Rick Porcello. Porcello is nobody’s idea of an exciting pickup. He has an unflattering career 4.40 ERA, doesn’t strike out many batters, and his last two years especially look pretty ugly. On other hand, he has started at least 27 games his entire professional career. He started 32 games for four consecutive seasons and started 12 in 2020, which I think was the most he could get.
Projections aren’t exactly the best. He has a projected 4.95 ERA by Steamer in a 1.9 WAR season and 4.54 ERA and 1.6 WAR by ZiPS. His ZiPs numbers come with the entirely reasonably 156 projected innings, but it is worth pointing out he has thrown at least 170 innings in every non-shortened MLB season in his career. Both his Steamer and ZiPS ERA might change if they factored in that he’d be playing at Busch. The main reason to get Porcello is that he will start every fifth day if history is any indication.
His 2020 season is deceptively bad. He wasn’t actually bad. He had a 5.64 ERA, but he also had a 3.33 FIP and 4.38 xFIP. His BABIP against was .373 despite having his lowest average exit velocity since, well, since Fangraphs has used exit velocity in its stats. Technically it’s his lowest ever, but they’ve only been tracking it since 2015. He has a career .308 BABIP against so there’s every indication this part is a fluke.
And I also happen think he was hit HARD by being at Fenway Park. He had an 11.5 HR/FB% while he was at Detroit, which is I believe is almost exactly average. He had a 13.1 HR/FB% while at Fenway, with his Cy Young season being the only season he was below that. Last year, when he pitched with the Mets, it fell to 7.6% although obviously small sample there. But he’d be moving to Busch Stadium, which is not a good place to hit homers and is a great place to pitch if you don’t want to allow homers.
One of the bigger downsides to Porcello is that he appears to be a true talent “ERA is going to be worse than his FIP” guys. He has a career 4.40 ERA and 4.08 FIP. He has had a higher ERA than FIP in his time at Detroit, his time in Boston, and his one season with New York. In his 12 seasons, he’s had exactly three seasons with a lower ERA than FIP and just one that was about the same. His ERA is usually a decent amount higher than his FIP.
For whatever it’s worth, the ERA-FIP gap can at least partially explained by BABIP. He’s had seasons of a .344 BABIP against, .332, and last year .373. He’s had four seasons with a below .300 BABIP. Unsurprisingly, all three with a lower ERA are from those seasons and the fourth has a smaller FIP-ERA gap than his career. If memory serves me, Comerica Park is a neutral park, but bad for extra base hits if you’re a pitcher.
Basically, it’s entirely possible Busch Stadium (and good defense) can help with the BABIP and homers, making the same pitcher look better by ERA. He’s also only 32 and is almost certainly due for a one-year deal given he signed a one-year deal last year. He did sign for $10 million which is out of the Cards price range, but I imagine his price is lower now. He’s now coming off two straight down years, not one, and that will surely affect his price.
Really my entire argument hinges on price. What will he cost? If he’s close to $10 million, forget it. Not because he would be too expensive necessarily, but the Cards don’t seem to want to spend that much money and if they have near $10 million to spend (on top of Molina/Wainwright), I’d prefer better targets. But if it’s around $5 million? I would love to have a pitcher who can just pitch every fifth day. One who could benefit from pitching at Busch. I think there’s some “upside” with his numbers improving without relying on him actually improving as a pitcher.
He’s not old yet, he’s a short-term investment, and he adds stability to the rotation. He’d be a classic Walt Jocketty-Dave Duncan era signing. That obviously came at a time when the Cardinals depth in the minors was not what it is now. But there’s still value in a guy like Porcello when there’s so little stability elsewhere in the rotation.
So there’s my case. I don’t even know if I actually want the Cards to sign him to be honest. But in these spotlights, I try to present my best case. Because I think there may be a fit there. I think Porcello would raise the floor of the rotation, so it depends on what your 2021 goals are. If you’re writing off 2021, so to speak, he doesn’t make much sense. If you’re more focused on opportunities for younger guys, he also doesn’t make much sense. But if you want to have a slightly more stable rotation who can raise the floor, he’s not a bad option.