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The Cardinals Free Agent Pitching Strategy

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Profiling potential free agent fits for the Cardinals pitching staff.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday it was announced that the St. Louis Cardinals are bringing back double play machine T.J. McFarland on a one-year deal. This a good start to bolstering the pitching staff. McFarland will almost certainly be unable to replicate his 2.56 ERA next season, but he should at least be a decent middle reliever. I doubt that McFarland gets double plays at the same rate as he did last year, but one thing is for certain - he will get ground balls. The southpaw has a 62.9% career ground ball rate, and his 63.7% ground ball rate last season is right around that.

The 32-year-old seems like a prime candidate for regression, though. McFarland dramatically outperformed his career numbers when runners were on base last year, and specifically he improved at stranding runners. The problem with this is that it is unlikely to continue. McFarland’s left on base rate last season was 81.5%, which is well above his career average of 72%. The league average in 2021 was 72.1%. McFarland also allowed a BABIP of just .261 (career average - .315). McFarland is probably not going to replicate either of these numbers. That does not mean that he will become a bad pitcher, though. He still gets ground balls and he still doesn’t walk many batters. With a Cardinals defense that just won five gold gloves behind him, that should be enough to make a decent middle reliever and a good left-handed option behind Genesis Cabrera.

With McFarland coming back, there is one less open spot in the bullpen, which already had plenty of competition among younger players. Gallegos, Cabrera, Hicks, and Reyes (assuming either of the latter two aren’t in the rotation) were already locks for the bullpen. Kodi Whitley and Ryan Helsley seem like strong candidates to join them. That is seven names, without even considering Jake Woodford and the possible return of Luis Garcia.

There is plenty of concern about the bullpen staying healthy, though, as Reyes and Hicks both have extensive injury histories and Ryan Helsley had a stress reaction in his elbow and knee surgery in 2021. Because of this, the Cardinals shouldn’t worry about having an extra big league arm or two in camp this spring.

With four rotation spots filled and five to seven bullpen spots locked in, the Cardinals will likely bring in another two to three pitchers and maybe one or two on minor league deals with the chance to earn a spot in the bullpen.

The question then becomes - what should the Cardinals prioritize with these pitchers? An emphasis on limiting walks helped the team down the stretch in 2021, but even with five gold glovers, it is unlikely that the team would be able to replicate its success with a staff consisting of pitchers like J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, Wade LeBlanc. This should not take away from the magic of the season, but it should serve as a warning that the Cardinals do need to improve. Obviously health will play a big role in that improvement, but filling in the gaps with a bunch of pitchers who throw 90 on a good day is not a great recipe for improvement (no disrespect to Adam Wainwright).

This does not mean that the Cardinals should not focus on low walk rates and maybe even high ground ball rates. McFarland has both of these things. So does Marcus Stroman. Stroman should absolutely be near the top of the Cardinals wish list. The right-hander has posted 3.0 fWAR of more in five of his seven seasons. Stroman dealt with injuries in the two seasons that he did not reach this mark. He is consistent and dependable and has the attributes that the Cardinals should prioritize in the offseason. He has a career 6.7% walk rate and a career 57.4% ground ball rate (although his ground ball rate has been lower since 2019). He would give the Cardinals rotation a major boost, and there should be room in the budget to sign him.

If the Cardinals want to go with a lower-end starter or two, it could also pay dividends. Strikeouts are great, but the Cardinals are in a position where they can bring in contact-oriented pitchers and reasonably expect them to over-perform. Strikeouts tend to be expensive. The Cardinals could find a bargain by signing a lower-end contact oriented pitcher to bolster the rotation and reap the benefits of an elite defense.

This may be a strategy that the team takes if the Cardinals were truly interested in Andrew Heaney before he signed with the Dodgers. The league average walk rate among starters was 7.8% last year. Heaney finished at 7.3% and has a 6.7% career walk rate. He has always struggled with the long ball, but Busch Stadium could help with that. (of the 29 home runs that he allowed, 22 would have been home runs at Busch). Heaney is also a lefty. If the Cardinals are interested in Heaney, it’s a good bet that they are interested in other pitchers of his type, and also pitchers outside the top options.

An option in the second tier of starters is Steven Matz. Matz is dependent on his defense as he throws his sinker over 50% of the time. He also has a career walk rate of 7.1%, including a walk rate of just 6.6% last season. Matz has a nasty changeup, which he throws 23.4% of the time, and two breaking balls. Finally, Matz is a left-hander, which would make him the only lefty in the rotation. In his career he has been strong against lefties (3.73 FIP, 3.66 xFIP) and still decent against righties (4.51 FIP, 4.09 xFIP). Matz may never have the breakout that some expected in the past, but he is coming off a solid 2021 season, and he profiles as a good fit with the Cardinals.

If the Cardinals want more of a mid-to-back-end starter, then Matz is the way to go. A cheaper back-end option is Brett Anderson. Anderson, who is also a lefty, has an incredibly low strike out rate. He also has a career 6.3% walk rate and 56.9% ground ball rate. That’s about it though. He does not offer much besides that. He would be an intriguing fit as a back-end starter or swingman type pitcher, but if the Cardinals only sign Brett Anderson (or someone similar), then they have not done enough to improve the pitching staff. The first priority should be to sign someone like Stroman or Matz. Beyond that, depth options should be considered, but depth should not be the only priority.

In the bullpen, it is good to see the Cardinals re-sign McFarland, if only because it means they will stay out of the higher end reliever market in which they have struggled in the past. Bringing back Luis Garcia and maybe one more reliever should be enough to fortify the ‘pen. A couple of one-year deals limits the risk while still filling the bullpen with quality arms. The Cardinals should use most of their money to sign Stroman, but if they want to split up the money, then Matz and a lower tier starter like Anderson would be a good bet to help this team next year. The Cardinals should continue their strategy from last year and capitalize on their elite defense by signing contact-oriented pitchers, and Stroman, Matz, and Anderson all fit that profile.