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Jack Flaherty is Better than Labor Negotiations

Baseball (and Jack Flaherty) might be back soon. Here are some thoughts on just how good Flaherty is because it makes me happy.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Who knows if we will have baseball this season. Earlier this week, MLB offered the players a 60-game season with expanded playoffs. The players agreed. Then they didn’t. Then the PA countered with a 70-game season that they knew would get rejected.

Now several Phillies players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and teams are pulling their players out of Spring Training facilities.

Baseball is so close and yet, it remains so far away.

It’s Saturday and it’s summer. I want to feel happy.

Jack Flaherty makes me happy. Let’s talk about him!

Earlier this week, Jack Flaherty was the subject of the silliest Cardinals-related Twitter/sports radio conversation of the last few months:

I did not hear the radio segment and I don’t really care to go back and listen to it. I will answer the question, though: No.

The Tweet did start me wondering exactly how valuable Jack Flaherty is and will be as a Cardinal, which (unlike trading him for an age-29 third baseman — a position where the Cardinals have at least four promising prospects) is a thought worth entertaining.

In just under 370 innings as a pitcher, Flaherty has produced 7.0 fWAR through his age-23 season.

Where does that rank among recent Cardinal products?

If you guessed “first”, you’re right. The chart above (derived from here) shows where Flaherty ranks in WAR among Cardinals pitchers since 1995 through age 23. The Cardinals have produced an amazing quantity of decent-to-great starters in the last quarter-century but Flaherty is at the top of the list.

Matt Morris, who was a candidate for the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2020, is second. The rest fall out as you might expect. Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller both did their best work early in their career. Carlos Martinez’s high ranking is somewhat surprising, if only because he spent quite a bit of time in the bullpen in his early twenties. Rick Ankiel’s WAR totals don’t quite reflect his pre-yips production. He produced 4.5 WAR before losing control and -.6 fWAR during the 2001 season.

In terms of production, Flaherty is miles ahead of other quality players like Jamie Garcia, Luke Weaver, Dan Haren, Dakota Hudson, and even Adam Wainwright.

Waino reached the majors at age 23 in 2005, receiving 2 forgettable innings. You might know what happened in 2006 when he earned 75 innings in relief and postseason closing duties at age 24. Wainwright was 25 before he had any chance in the rotation and he did produce 6.1 fWAR during his first two seasons as a starter, one of which was cut short by injury.

All things considered, there is no debate. On the list of the Cardinals young superstars of the past quarter-century, Jack Flaherty is the best of them.

What about the rest of his career?

As many of the names on this list prove, it’s difficult to project a player’s entire career when they are young. Flashes of youthful dominance — like the Cardinals saw from Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha — did not lead to sustained success. Miller has produced just 7.4 fWAR in his career and has two consecutive below replacement level seasons. In seven seasons in the majors, Wacha has 10.8 fWAR. It’s a respectable career total, but far short of what fans dreamed on.

Expectations for Flaherty far surpass those WAR totals. How far? Three names on the list above stand out.

Dan Haren — 40.4 fWAR
Adam Wainwright — 40.2 fWAR
Matt Morris — 28.9 fWAR

(Did you realize that Dan Haren has a higher career fWAR than Adam Wainwright? Neither did I. Wainwright might have a chance to pass him this season, if the season occurs.)

There’s our range for Flaherty. Surely he will be more productive than Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha (at this point) in his career. Can he be as productive as Matt Morris and enter Cardinals Hall of Fame territory? He certainly has the arm talent. I loved Morris as a pitcher by Flaherty’s upside surpasses Matty Mo’s.

Beyond Morris, we have two players who just needed better luck with injuries and awards (Wainwright) or more longevity and national attention (Haren) and they might be in Cooperstown.

Of course, all of Wainwright’s production has come with the Cardinals. The club shipped Haren out in the infamous Mark Mulder trade. There is a lot of conversation about whether or not Jack Flaherty will remain a Cardinal.

In my opinion, this is very simple: Flaherty will be a Cardinal if the Cardinals pay him what he feels he is worth.

Yes, it’s very popular to gripe about how cheap DeWitt is (especially in light of the current labor debacle) but the Cardinals have done a very good job of retaining their best talent. Sure, Albert Pujols walked eventually, signing a contract that the Cardinals would have regretted with the Angels, but the Cardinals were able to keep him in-house for eleven seasons.

The rest of the leading producers for the Cardinals in the 2000s were paid to stick around. Consider the following list of players who were either high price roster additions from outside the organization or were developed by the Cardinals and paid past their arbitration years:

Hall of Fame-caliber playersAlbert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Yadier Molina, Scott Rolen*
Cardinals Hall of Fame-caliber playersAdam Wainwright, Matt Morris, Chris Carpenter, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday
Pretty Good players & TBD’s – Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong

(Rolen is an awkward fit in this conversation since the Cardinals did trade for him and extended his contract before then trading him away because of clubhouse conflict.)

What about those who got away? There’s Dan Haren, who was traded by the Cardinals for a high-priced established producer in Mark Mulder. Edgar Renteria is, in my opinion, a Cardinals Hall of Famer, and the Cardinals were not able to retain him when he reached free agency. They did get six seasons from him, though, which I believe carried him past his arbitration years. It should also be noted that Edgar was probably just the 5-6th best player on the Cardinals when he hit free agency after 2004. Lance Lynn fits relatively well in the “pretty good” category. The Cardinals never offered Lynn an arbitration buy-out deal and allowed him to walk in free agency. (I still believe the Cardinals should have tried harder to hang on to him.)

With only a few exceptions in a quarter century, the Cardinals have shown a willingness to spend to retain their own talent. They’ve been much more successful at keeping their best players in St. Louis than they have in drawing players to St. Louis from outside in free agency. That will likely remain true for Flaherty. Expect the Cardinals to at least try to delay Flaherty’s free agency by buying out extra years. It will require them to pay what the market demands. Flaherty has already shown that he will be unwilling to accept any discounts.

Let’s hope that the picture I outline above plays out: that Flaherty remains the best of the young starters the Cardinals have developed, exceeding even Haren in career WAR and Wainwright in career longevity. Isn’t that a happy thought? Enjoy your Saturday.