While the Cardinals have gotten better this off-season, they have not added payroll. The team let go of Kolten Wong in order to save money, and then brought back Adam Wainwright on a one year, $8 million contract. Additionally, the Rockies are paying all of Arenado’s first year salary. This means that the Cardinals have so far accomplished their offseason goals of improving without adding payroll.
The Dexter Fowler trade also saved the Cardinals $1.75 million. What it also did was open another 40-man roster spot. This, combined with the rumors that the Cardinals are interested in Jake Odorizzi, make it pretty clear that the Cardinals are still looking to add to the roster. It also seems pretty clear that the next addition will be a starting pitcher, as the Cardinals sound confident in their young outfield, and their revamped infield.
It is good that the Cardinals are looking at the starting pitching market because, as the roster is currently constructed, it seems that the rotation is short on depth and upside. These are two things that can be fixed with the right free agent signing.
With who the Cardinals are likely considering, there are two classes of free agents starters still available. The first consists of Jake Odorizzi and James Paxton and offers the Cardinals legitimate upside as well as depth. These two pitchers are clearly the best starters still on the market, and they are not too far removed from 4-WAR or near 4-WAR seasons.
The second class of free agents consists of Rick Porcello, and Homer Bailey. These are pitchers that could still help the Cardinals, but are more likely to be end of the rotation options. If things go well for them, then they could have solid seasons, but they have more risk than the first class of pitchers, and significantly less upside.
Jake Odorizzi has compiled 6.8 fWAR since 2018, including 4.3 fWAR in 2019. The difference between his 2019 season and his 2018 season (2.5 fWAR) was that his strikeout rate jumped to a career high 27.1% while his walk rate dropped to its lowest rate in the previous three seasons (8.1%). He also posted a career low HR/9 in 2019 (0.91). Odorizzi dealt with multiple injuries in 2020, including a sore back, an abdomen contusion, and a blister, that allowed him to pitch just four games. Because of this, he did not get a chance to prove that his 2019 season was more than just a one season breakout.
However, there are reasons to believe that Odorizzi could maintain a similar level of his performance in the future. To begin with, Odorizzi actually posted a career high BABIP of .302 in 2019 while his left of base rate (75.5%) was only slightly higher than his career average of 74.4%. Because of this, it does not appear that luck was a major factor in his success.
According to Baseball Savant, Odorizzi’s xWOBA (.304) was higher than his wOBA (.289), but it was not too big of a difference. Both of these numbers were also a career low. Also, Odorizzi has actually outperformed his xWOBA every season since entering the majors and the 15 point difference between the two in 2019, was right in line with the 18 point difference on average in his career.
For Odorizzi, it appears that this improvement in 2019 was based on two things, a jump in velocity paired with more fastballs. Odorizzi’s fastball velocity jumped nearly two miles per hour from 2018 to 2019 (91.1 in 2018, 92.9 in 2019) while the right hander also threw a career high 57.9% fastballs. In 2019, Odorizzi posted a career best .299 xwOBA and 30.7% whiff rate. However, he was unable to match his success with this pitch before and after 2019, although he maintained his velocity gains in 2020 despite his injuries.
It seems that 2.5 fWAR is a solid baseline to expect from Odorizzi in 2021, with the potential for an even better season.
The other top pitcher still on the market, James Paxton, is an intriguing option as well. Like Odorizzi, the 32-year-old struggled with injuries in 2020, as he dealt with a flexor strain in his forearm. This injury is a little bigger than any of Odorizzi’s, so it presents more risk. However, Paxton reportedly reached 94 mph in a workout in December, which is close to the 95.4 mph that his fastball averaged in 2019. With a full Spring Training, it is possible that Paxton could regain all of his lost velocity.
If this happens, then it is possible that Paxton could return to the consistently solid production that he provided from 2016-2019 when he averaged 3.8 fWAR per season. While Odorizzi had one very good season in 2019 and one solid season in 2018, Paxton has more of a history of success, which could make him a solid acquisition if he can fully recover from his injury.
Beyond Odorizzi and Paxton, RIck Porcello and Homer Bailey are the next best options still available. Porcello has a longer history of success as he has posted at least 1.7 fWAR in every one of his MLB seasons. However, as Porcello has averaged just under 2 fWAR in his last four seasons, he has a solid floor but not a high ceiling. Homer Bailey, on the other hand, does not have a history of consistent success. He had a few solid years with the Reds, and then struggled for a while. However, he rebounded in 2019, posting 2.9 fWAR before struggling with a biceps injury in 2020. If he can return to the way that he pitched in 2019, then he could be a solid addition to the Cardinals roster.
Odorizzi and Paxton appear to be the best options for the Cardinals, while Rick Porcello and Homer Bailey could be viable back-end options. However, each of these options comes with risks due to age and injury. If the Cardinals are able to add another starting pitcher, then the rotation will be much more secure, but if they can add Odorizzi or Paxton, then the rotation could become much more productive.