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The Benefits of Moving Quickly in Free Agency

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With an upcoming lockout, aggressive teams may benefit the most.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The free agent market has moved quickly this winter. Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard, Alex Cobb, Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Loup, Andrew Heaney, and Justin Verlander have all signed contracts. Many Pina and Pedro Severino have been the first two dominoes to fall in the catching market. In total, these players have signed contracts worth over $224 million before Thanksgiving. This is a much faster moving market than last season, and the upcoming lockout likely has played a role.

Some players, like the top shortstops on the market seem to be comfortable waiting out the market, but the pitching market is moving quickly. Since this is the market that the St. Louis Cardinals are most interested in, the team should be willing to be aggressive. This year, there is an added bonus to signing players early. Not only can teams ensure they get the reinforcements they desire, but they also get the chance to discuss an offseason workout and throwing program with the newly signed pitcher.

Once the lockout begins on December 2nd (which looks to be almost certain), players and baseball ops can have no contact. By signing players, and especially pitchers, before the lockout begins, teams are able to set up offseason workout and throwing programs with players before they must cease all contact. This provides an advantage for teams who sign players before December.

Obviously these players are professionals, so they should be able to prepare themselves for a season. Still, teams would certainly feel more comfortable knowing that a player is following their plan. Teams may also want a player to work on a specific part of his game, and they cannot tell him to do that once December 2nd arrives.

It is still unknown how long any lockout may last. Signing a player now means that a team can put a player on a plan for the entire winter. Signing a player after the lockout means that players will have significantly less time on an offseason workout plan assigned by the team that signs them.

The ability to control a player’s offseason workout plan and throwing program appears to have provided an incentive to sign players earlier. This puts pressure on teams who have not yet signed a starter to become more active in the market. Many of the mid-tier starter options are coming off the market, and Steven Matz is reported to be another pitcher who could sign in the upcoming days. He is reportedly an arm that the Cardinals are interested in, so if he signs elsewhere, then the Cardinals will have even fewer options to choose from.

The Cardinals should determine who they want to add to their rotation and pursue him aggressively. The fast-moving market provides pressure to sign players while the ability to control their offseason preparation could provide a competitive advantage over teams who wait to sign players until after the lockout.

The team may be hesitant to sign Matz before signing a bigger name like Marcus Stroman, but that should not stop the Cardinals from signing Matz if the contract is reasonable. The team may want to sign a bigger free agent first in order to see how much money they will have left, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to sign two starters. The pitching staff was ravaged by injuries last season and more high-quality depth could help the team in 2022.

Currently, the Cardinals are depending on Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson in the rotation next year. Both of these pitchers were hurt for most of 2021, so there is no guarantee that they will last a full season or remain effective for a full season. There is also the 40-year-old Adam Wainwright to consider.

There is no problem going into spring training with six established starters. If age catches up to Wainwright then he can pitch in the bullpen. If Mikolas proves to be ineffective then he could move to the ‘pen. If the Cardinals are truly interested in Matz, then they should have no problem signing him before a bigger name in order to snap up some rotation depth before it disappears and to control his offseason plan.

For the same reasons, the Cardinals should come to terms with Luis Garcia before December. During the season, I highlighted how the Cardinals changed Luis Garcia’s pitching strategy after acquiring him, and giving him an offseason to work on the new strategy would certainly benefit both him and the team. If he is signed by someone else, they may try to bring back his four-seam fastball at the expense of his sinker, so giving him the certainty that he will be pitching for the Cardinals next season would help him prepare for 2022 more effectively.

Recently, Jeff Jones reported that the Cardinals are trying to sign at least one pitcher before Thanksgiving. It remains to be seen if the team will be able to achieve that goal, but it is the right strategy. The free agent market usually moves more slowly, but this winter, there is added incentive to sign players earlier than usual. The Cardinals should act quickly to lock down their rotation and/or bullpen before the lockout begins. If the lockout stretches into the spring, then the Cardinals will not be able to sign any players until then. At that point, it is much more difficult to get a player prepared for the season. If the Cardinals have a plan, there is no harm in moving quicker to enact it. Hopefully that plan will become clearer in the upcoming days with a signing of at least one pitcher.