I am of two minds about the pitching staff. The first is that they should let the chips fall where they may, let the internal options plus Adam Wainwright if he’s open to signing fight it out for the five spots, and whatever happens will help determine the future course of the rotation, for better or worse. The other is that the Cardinals need another starter to help, because of all the options they have, most of them are probably not great options for 2020 itself.
The former is the more “fun” approach, short of signing a high profile free agent. At least, it’s more fun in the offseason certainly. Might not be during the season. But the offseason is the time to dream about unproven guys who can put it together for one season. And the pure amount of arms the Cardinals could throw at the problem and who could figure it out makes it not particularly hard to talk myself into the internal option approach.
The other approach carries a different kind of potential frustration of course. What if an MLB signing blocks a young guy? This is certainly what you would call a good problem if it were to happen. I don’t think it’s particularly likely to happen, and if I did, I would certainly not suggest potential free agent pitchers. I call it a good problem because it means the Cardinals have, apparently, five good starting rotation options plus the free agent signing who has to be doing just well enough to not obviously be kicked out of the rotation. The names the Cardinals would sign would not stay in the rotation if they sucked.
In my writeup of Rick Porcello, who best exemplifies the safer route of a free agent pitcher, at least for a one-year deal, some of you suggested a riskier option would be more appropriate. Porcello carries little upside, except maybe in the way I suggested, that his ERA would look better purely from his environment. A riskier option would raise the Cardinals ceiling without necessarily lowering their floor at all - at least the ideal version of a risky option.
Which brings me to the free agent spotlight of today: Garret Richards. Richards is both more risky than your average pitcher and not risky at all. He’s risky in the sense of wasting money, but aside from 8.2 bad innings in 2019, he has never actually pitched badly when he’s actually healthy. But of course, he’s never healthy and I mean never. He was healthy for the two months he pitched last year, which is an encouraging sign, but a full year would be more be encouraging.
He didn’t start off as the guy who never stayed healthy. He did get injured though. In August of 2014, he tore his left knee tendon running to cover first base on a groundout. He missed the rest of that year and made a late start in 2015, getting activated on April 19 of 2015. Which didn’t stop him from starting 32 games that year. If you can count 2015 as a healthy year, that was his last full season of being healthy. If you want to be technical, he hasn’t been truly healthy for a full, entire season since 2013 when he split his duties between the bullpen and rotation.
In early May of 2016, he had a high grade UCL tear in his right arm. He made what appears to have been a bad decision in hindsight. He elected to not get Tommy John surgery and instead opt for a newer biometrics surgery. Tommy John isn’t 100% effective, but it usually leads to results more successful than what ultimately happened to Richards. Richards missed all of 2016 and missed most of 2017 with a right biceps strain. In 2018, he had a left hamstring strain in the middle of June, and about a week after he came back from that, he had “right elbow UCL damage.” This time he went for Tommy John surgery.
So you can essentially trace his injury problems to that unfortunate decision to not get Tommy John surgery back in 2016, because the newer surgery did not work. He had to get Tommy John a little over two years later anyway. And he missed most of 2017 anyway. The optimistic scenario here is that this cost him about two full seasons, and the pessimistic scenario is that he might have been able to pitch most of 2017 too. But because of this, we might have a guy who looks like Mark Prior if you look at his past five years and is actually just a healthy pitcher.
Okay, so maybe the health isn’t as big of a gamble as it first appears. The flip side of this though is that I don’t necessarily think his upside is as good as it appears either. On a rate basis last year, which does include four bullpen appearances, Richards was about a 2 WAR pitcher per 150 innings pitched. He was freshly coming off TJ and we’ve seen a little bit of evidence that a pitcher might not immediately be himself when he returns, leaving some optimism for his second season away from TJ.
Unfortunately for him, his best years were pissed away. He’s turning 33 in May next year. Some of his stats last year are a little concerning. He had a career low 40.1 GB% when at his best he was best 50% in that stat. He had a 4.46 xFIP and 4.55 SIERA. Those aren’t exactly stats you’ll regret if you sign, but if that’s what we’re working with, might as well go with the internal options who will get close to that, if not best that.
The projection systems support the idea that he doesn’t have a whole lot of upside. By Steamer, he has 1.7 WAR in 150 innings pitched and by ZiPS, he is projected for 1.9 WAR per 150 innings pitched. Neither projects him for 150 innings by the way, obviously, but on a rate basis, that’s what his numbers are. And hey, nothing wrong with signing an average pitcher, but signing a projected average pitcher who has injury potential just doesn’t sound as exciting as what your imagination of Richards is.
But, and this an important but, there’s not much downside here either I don’t think. I think his downside is that he gets hurt again, and that’s not much of a downside with as many options as the Cards have for the rotation, as imperfect as they are. And the upside is in what I said above: that he’s more removed from Tommy John. Maybe he doesn’t have the arm of a normal 33-year-old pitcher and can pull a Lance Lynn.
Is that likely? No. But he won’t cost much, at least I don’t think. He’s probably going to be a short-term gamble. The risk is essentially that he gets injured and if he pitches badly, he doesn’t have the rep to stay in the rotation. He got moved to the bullpen last year when he pitched decently, so he can certainly move to the bullpen if he fails.
So what the hell? I think Richards might be exactly what the Cardinals are looking for. What the Cardinals should be looking for anyway. He missed four years from essentially the same injury, but now that he’s hopefully recovered from that, I’m not sure he has any more injury proneness than your average 33-year-old pitcher. Which is not nothing, but certainly not what his career suggests either. So come on Cards. Sign Garrett Richards.