Author’s Note: My timing, as always, remains absolutely impeccable; I began this piece yesterday evening, got through everything but the third pitcher-specific section, then put it aside to finish up today. And, of course, sometime overnight it was announced that James Paxton would be signing back up with the Seattle Mariners, the team which originally drafted him. So, you know. That’s how my life is going. — A.
The Super Bowl has come and gone, and most years we would be but a day or two away from pitchers and catchers reporting. Sadly, this particular year sees us still in the grip of a pandemic (a slowly-loosening grip, hopefully, but a grip all the same), and spring training has been pushed back a couple weeks. Not too terrible, really; if camp opens on the 28th instead of the 14th or the 17th, I can live with that.
This very strange and largely delayed offseason has put us in an interesting position, though, even just a week or two away from the opening of spring training. Teams that looked like they were fully decided on a direction back in December have circled back, and now appear to be interested in making some noise. Other teams have continued to do what they did earlier, which in most cases amounts to a whole lot of nothing. The end result is that sitting here on Valentine’s Day, there are players, good players, still on the market, and teams with both needs and apparent interest in filling those needs. This is not the usual landscape of mid-February hot stove season, but then, the past year has really been anything but usual, hasn’t it?
If I were to hazard a guess right now, or have to put money down on it, I would say the Cardinals are likely done adding. Of course, I also thought they were taking the offseason off completely and going for a hard reset once several contracts fell off the books, but things changed, and the Cards look for all the world now like a club that actually wants to win the NL Central, and maybe more besides. Still, they’ve made most of their moves so far without adding substantial 2021 payroll, and have been pretty open about that being an important consideration. Given that the additions we’re still pining for would likely come from the free agent market at this point, and free agents very rarely agree to play for free even for one season, it looks a little doubtful another move is in the cards.
That being said, the pitching, specifically the starting rotation, worries me. I did a radio spot a couple days ago and described the Cards’ 2021 pitching situation as a slasher flick, the sort of thing you watch mostly through your fingers. For a club with serious title contending aspirations, the pitching staff seems extremely risky.
Jack Flaherty seems like a good bet to be an ace or close to it, weird short-season 2020 ERA and all, but beyond him things get dicey in a hurry. Adam Wainwright was the club’s most dependable starter last season and is back for another one last hurrah, but the track record of 39 year old pitchers is, um, yeah. No good way to finish that sentence. Carlos Martinez is almost a complete cipher at this point, his once-prodigious talent now obscured by totally transformed mechanics and multiple years impacted by shoulder injuries. (And I don’t believe those two things I just listed are unrelated, by the way.) Kwang-hyun Kim was good last season, but in a way that feels tough to repeat. Miles Mikolas missed the 2020 season with a flexor tendon strain, which correlates to Tommy John surgery about ~20% of the time. The Cards will have to fill Dakota Hudson’s spot in the rotation, and while they certainly have options to throw at the issue, none of them feel like the sort of sure things you want for a club looking to play deep into October. Daniel Ponce de Leon can miss bats, but just isn’t a starting pitcher for me. Johan Oviedo is talented, but could use more time. Alex Reyes is incredibly talented, but also has an arm that Ralph Nader has been campaigning against for years. Austin Gomber has some upside and looks like a solid fit in a swing role, but the Rockies seem like they’re going to be real Stiffly Stiffersons about not letting him fill in for the Cardinals this year.
That’s the bad news. The good news is twofold. One, the Cardinals have some talent percolating up in the minor leagues, and a couple of their top prospects right now are starting pitchers. And two, there are starters still sitting on the open market right now who could add some real certainty, or at least serve as solid insurance policies against collapse. To be fair, those prospects on the way make it a little more complicated to sign an outside arm, because you would like the opportunity to be available should one of your young dynamos decide to seize that brass ring in March, or April, or May. Still, this is Martinez’s last ride with the team, almost certainly, and it’s very likely Waino will not be back in 2022. (I didn’t say certain, only very likely. I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to assuming Adam Wainwright is finished.) Kim is a free agent after 2021, and it’s really impossible to say what his plans are at this point, given how crazy his MLB tenure has been so far. In other words, signing a pitcher this offseason does not equal a blocked pitching prospect in anything but the nearest of terms.
With that in mind, let’s talk about three pitchers who would seem to fit the bill. We know the names, but taken in tandem they cover the spectrum of what you might be looking for. So let’s dive in.
Candidate One: James Paxton — The Upside Play
So right off the bat, we have to talk about counterintuitive ideas, when they might be good, and when they just really don’t make sense.
See, here’s the thing: adding James Paxton to a rotation in order to try and reduce its volatility and/or vulnerability to breakdown is, on its surface, a supremely counterintuitive notion. No pitcher over the past decade has more consistently broken down than Paxton, at least this side of the aforementioned Alex Reyes. James Paxton does not, in any way, shape, or form, represent a safer bet or a healthier, more dependable alternative than, well, just about anyone you can think of. So why in the world would he be a good choice?
And that’s where we have to consider that the counterintuitive choice may, in fact, be just the thing you’re looking for. We know that James Paxton is basically never healthy for a full season. He’s not a great bet to even reach 150 innings in a given year, and even when he made 29 starts for the Yankees in 2019, he was on a short leash most of the time and only threw 150.2 innings for the season. There’s another thing we know about James Paxton, though, which is this: when James Paxton is healthy enough to take the mound, James Paxton is almost always pretty damned good.
Now, I do say almost always, because in 2020 Paxton was actually quite, um, not good. His velocity was way down as he struggled with a balky forearm that was eventually diagnosed as a flexor strain, the same injury I mentioned just a few minutes ago in regards to Miles Mikolas’s uncertain outlook. He also had back surgery prior to the 2020 season, which seemed to impact his strength and velocity as well. So yeah, the most recent version of Paxton we saw actually was not very good.
However, before that, what we saw from James Paxton was four straight seasons from 2016-’19 in which he was worth at least 3.5 wins or more, despite only reach 160 innings once in that time. (And only barely that, with 160.1 IP in 2018.) He may never pitch a full season, but Paxton usually manages to pack a good full season’s worth of work from most pitchers into his 135 innings.
So here’s the rub: Paxton doesn’t really give you much in the way of certainty, and definitely doesn’t make your rotation significantly more stable. However, if you happened to have a rotation full of numerous candidates to throw some good innings, but maybe not a full season of them, then it might just make sense to add another guy who is probably only going to make ~20 starts and throw 100-120 innings, but could easily blow the doors off the stadium every time he makes one of those twenty-or-so starts. Paxton doesn’t simplify or clarify your rotation, but he adds a tremendous amount of upside to a collection of arms. If you think you’ve got enough arms that six or seven pitchers who all throw 120-150 innings is just as good as five who all throw 180, then it’s possible that signing James Paxton means you now have the best 120 innings of anyone who will take the mound for you in 2021.
Candidate Two: Rick Porcello — The Sure Thing
Here is the other side of things, a 180 degree turn from James Paxton’s pyrotechnics (by which I mean both his pitching brilliance and habit of bursting into flames in low-speed collisions, which I’m trying to think of a joke for that doesn’t duplicate my earlier bit about Alex Reyes). Rick Porcello is one of the most dependable, durable pitchers in baseball, and if what you want is a surefire thing to pencil in to your rotation and not have to worry about those innings, then Porcello is probably the best choice you could possibly make for yourself. Ron Popeil solid his shitty rotisserie with the motto, “Set it, and Forget it!”; Rick Porcello is, in many ways, the Showtime Rotisserie of pitchers. The downside? Rick Porcello, much like the Showtime Rotisserie, usually fails to deliver the kind of results you actually want.
Did you know that, up until the abbreviated 2020 season, Rick Porcello had never, and I mean never, made fewer than 27 starts in a season in his major league career? It’s true. He made twelve starts in 60 games last year, also, so he was very much on his usual 30+ start pace even with all the complications of a pandemic-disrupted sport. In eleven pre-pandemic seasons, Porcello made 30 or more starts eight times. He fell short of 170 innings only once, in 2010 (the season he only started 27 games, his lowest total). Rick Porcello takes the ball every fifth day, and he’ll give you six innings pretty much every time his turn comes around.
Whereas James Paxton is brilliant when on the mound but all-too-often on the shelf instead, though, Porcello comes with the opposite problem. He’s incredibly durable and dependable, but has rarely been anything more than an average pitcher, and usually a little worse than that. There was, of course, his brilliant 2016 campaign which netted him a Cy Young award (still hotly debated), but that season sticks out like a sore thumb when you look at his career overall. Porcello’s career ERA- is 102; his career FIP- is 97. It’s hard to get much more average than that over the course of almost 2100 innings.
It’s also a fact that Porcello was not good for most of his time in Boston, having contracted a real nasty case of homeritis pitching in Fenway and Yankee Stadium and, actually, pretty much all the NL East parks, come to think of it, and his ERA in 2020 was 5.64, which is also very not good, despite pitching in the much friendlier confines of the Mets’ home ballpark. He will pitch the 2021 season at 32 years old, and so it would seem pretty obvious you shouldn’t really expect a whole lot of quality from Porcello, just bulk innings at best.
However, I have to say that I like Porcello as a buy-low candidate right now more than most people probably would. Despite the ugly ERA in 2020, his peripherals were actually really good, leading him to have a 3.33 FIP and a 76 FIP-, both of which are downright elite in the current run-scoring environment. He was bitten by those twin bugbears of pitchers everywhere: left on base percentage and BABIP, to the tune of a 59.5% LOB and a .373 BABIP. Now, to be fair, he also got a little bit lucky on fly balls staying in the park, but he was also pitching in Chase Field, where home runs go to die. You know another park that suppresses home runs, long the bane of Porcello’s existence? That’s right, Busch Stadium.
I’m not saying Porcello is my favourite choice, nor does he have to be yours. But I have to admit, I thought he was a less attractive pitcher when I started researching this piece than I do now. He is the guy who brings the track record of unquestioned durability, but I also think there is some sneaky upside with him that one might not expect taking a surface glance. Signing Porcello now would feel a lot to me like signing Kyle Lohse back in early spring of 2008, and that seemed to work out just fine for all involved.
Candidate Three: Jake Odorizzi — A Little Bit of Both
There has been quite a bit of digital ink spilled already regarding the possibility of Jake Odorizzi wearing a Cardinal uniform, both because the Cards have been publicly identified as a possible suitor for his services, and also because it just makes too much sense not to consider. The Cardinals have long made it a priority to acquire players who seem to have an active fondness for the St. Louis region, the franchise, or both. Players who want to play for the Redbirds always get a little extra credit, it seems. Odorizzi, having grown up less than an hour from St. Louis in Highland, Illinois, grew up on the right side of the Cards/Cubs dividing line, and while he’s never gone full Mark Buerhle with his affection for the franchise, he has mentioned from time to time how big a fan he was as a child. Anytime there’s a hometown connection for a player, it makes it just that much easier to draw the lines.
Really, though, we don’t actually need the narrative of the local kid coming back home to make the case for the Cards pursuing Odorizzi. He makes enough sense just on his merits as a pitcher even without the local connection. If Rick Porcello represents the dependable, bulk innings route, and James Paxton the risky single-number roulette bet, hoping he’s healthy at the right time to help propel your club to greater heights, then Odorizzi represents a solid middle ground, with both durability and upside working in his favour, though in neither case to as great an extent as the other two pitchers here.
To begin with: Odorizzi has been, to this point in his career, nearly as durable as Porcello, having suffered no serious arm injuries, nor even minor arm issues that I’m aware of. The one injury I know has popped up on a handful of occasions in his career is a relatively minor blister issue, but even that has not really kept him from taking the mound consistently.
Odorizzi’s career took some time to get going; he was drafted out of high school in 2008, but didn’t really establish himself as a full-time major leaguer until 2014 with the Rays. Interestingly, part of what seemed to stall Odorizzi’s development was the same thing that stalled Adam Wainwright’s march to the majors all those years ago: in both cases, the pitchers flashed high-grade velocity as amateurs which then never really showed up consistently in the minor leagues. Wainwright touched 94 as a skinny high schooler, but the projected velocity gains scouts dreamed on never really came even as he filled out and matured. Odorizzi flashed 97 the spring of his draft year with a beautiful, simple arm action, but once he hit the grind of the minor leagues, he settled in at 90-92 and never pushed much beyond that.
Once he got established, though, Odorizzi proved his reliability. From 2014-2019, he made at least 28 starts each season, and threw at least 159 innings in five of those six years. The sole exception was his disastrous 2017 campaign, his last with Tampa Bay, which saw his K:BB ratio barely stay above 2:1 and his home run rate spike to nearly two dingers per nine innings. Still, he wasn’t hurt that season; he was just bad, and threw fewer innings as a result.
The one difference it’s important to point out between Odorizzi and Porcello is how few innings Odorizzi typically throws compared to the kid from Jersey. Porcello had thrown eleven full seasons in the big leagues prior to the 2020 season, and in those seasons he averaged just over 185 innings per year. Odorizzi, meanwhile, over the course of the six seasons he worked (again, not counting 2020), after becoming a full-time major league starter, averaged 165 1⁄3 innings. Twenty innings a year isn’t a huge deal, admittedly, but it’s also decidedly not nothing. Part of the discrepancy is the fact Odorizzi pitched much of his career for the extremely pitch-count-conscious Rays, but there’s also the simple fact Odorizzi has just never been a particularly efficient starting pitcher.
The upside shot is that Odorizzi had arguably his two best seasons in a Twins uniform, particularly his excellent 4+ win 2019 campaign, and his fastball was one of the best weapons in baseball over the course of those two years. His 2020 was absolutely a year to forget, as he struggled with blisters and an oblique strain, but there’s no reason not to expect him to be healthy for 2021.
It’s interesting to me that Odorizzi represents a middle ground of sorts here, but will probably come away with the biggest contract of any of these three pitchers. Paxton will almost certainly have to take a one-year deal to prove he’s healthy (narrator: he did), and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Porcello on another one-year contract as he tries to prove he’s worth a long-term rotation spot for a contender, despite a decidedly up and down recent track record. Odorizzi, on the other hand, had a tough 2020, but so did lots of players, and the most recent representative sample we have from him was basically the best baseball of his career. It was reported earlier in the offseason he was seeking a three year contract worth something in the $13-15 million range annually, and he just might get it, though the market is certainly taking its sweet time getting around to these guys.
Taken as a trio, this group of pitchers represents, for me, the full spectrum of what you might go looking for as a club with legitimate October hopes and a shaky, uncertain rotation. Paxton is off the market now, but represented a calculated gamble to try and gain a small quantity of high-quality performance. Porcello will almost certainly give you 30 starts and 170+ innings, offering valuable insurance against any more injuries or simple performance shortfalls amongst the starters already on the roster. Odorizzi could be the best of both worlds, or he could end up feeling like a half-measure, depending how things turn out.
When I began this column, I was firmly in Camp Odorizzi, which probably isn’t surprising given how much I’ve liked him since writing him up in one of my very earliest draft posts back in 2008, then being very disappointed when the Cards chose to pass up the local kid with the golden arm in favour of Brett Wallace’s college-educated bat. I have to say, though, that having looked at both he and Porcello in greater depth now I may actually be leaning toward Porcello as the better option. It’s easy to look at Porcello and see a disappointing pitcher in recent years, but as I said, he was better in a lot of ways than might be immediately apparent in 2020, and I think pitching in a ballpark that doesn’t accentuate home run issues would suit him extremely well. His pitch mix and approach has been all over the place throughout his career, but he reemphasised his two-seam fastball in 2020, and it seemed to bring back a measure of the success he saw in Detroit and early in his Red Sox career, before he flipped his fastball percentages in favour of the four-seamer and saw his home run rate explode.
I could see either pitcher being a good fit for the Cardinals, though Porcello has always been better at avoiding walks and would seem to be an ideal fit for pitching in front of what could be the best defensive team in baseball. It’s probably unlikely the Cards end up signing either player at this point, but if they’re serious about trying to play deep into October this autumn, one more mid-sized investment could make all the difference in the world, I believe.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. I hope you can spend it with someone special.