clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This Offseason Calls for a Different Approach to Pitching

The 2021/2022 offseason led to depth signings and pitching to contact. This offseason should focus on swing and miss and a frontline starter.

St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Last offseason, pitching was the major need for the Cardinals. I would argue that nothing has changed this offseason. The Cardinals have brought Adam Wainwright back, but that’s not an improvement, it was simply keeping the band together.

The organization needs to do more to improve the rotation because elying on Jack Flaherty to give ace-like production is a fool’s errand.

That requires two things...

  1. Health
  2. Ace-like production

He hasn’t proven to be able to provide either of those things outside of the second half of the 2019 season. If he returns to that form, then great! But relying on him to do so is setting the rotation up for failure. Or, at least, for mediocrity.

The good news is that the team has money to spend. That’s been widely reported and J.P. has discussed that in depth here at VEB.

The Cardinals, like they did last year, should use that money to prioritize pitching. But they shouldn’t do so in the way they did last year.

One year later, it’s hard to argue that last offseason was successful. Here’s a quick recap of the signings.

2021/2022 Offseason Pitching Acquisitions

Aaron Brooks 7.71 6.76 -0.2 $1.4 mil
Drew VerHagen 6.65 6.53 -0.6 $2.75 mil
Nick Wittgren 5.90 3.84 0.1 $1.125 mil
T.J. McFarland 6.61 5.32 -0.3 $2.5 mil
Steven Matz 5.25 3.78 0.7 $11 mil

That’s nearly $20 million in average annual value. Only VerHagen and Matz signed multi-year deals, but that’s still a lot of money to spend for -0.3 fWAR. Of the 5 players signed, only 1 even finished the season with the team.

Wittgren, and McFarland were released, Brooks finished in Triple-A and was released in October, and VerHagen was buried on the injured list. Even Matz, who wasn’t a total failure, was still injured for most of the year and finished with a 5.25 ERA when healthy.

I think he’s better than his ERA suggests, but that won’t stop me from saying that none of these offseason moves paid off for the Cardinals in 2022.

Now, I’m not here to bash the last offseason. It certainly could have been better, but it was a low risk offseason. It didn’t do much to improve the team this year but it didn’t blow up spectacularly either.

That’s because there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal. If it doesn’t go well, there’s no strings attached. I guess a one-year deal can be considered bad if it prevents spending elsewhere, but I don’t blame the Cardinals for not wanting to get burned on another Brett Cecil.

The thing about all of these signings is that they were depth signings. Matz is a back end starter. VerHagen and Brooks are swingmen. McFarland and Wittgren are middle relievers.

The team took the quantity over quality approach to fill innings and provide depth. They also took the pitch-to-contact approach instead of the missing bats approach.

That’s not what’s needed this year. The team has the depth. Now they need a difference maker.

If the Cardinals are going to spend, that money shouldn’t be split up into a bunch of signings. I would rather have a catcher and a front-end pitcher. If there’s any money leftover, it should be spent after.

To me, that means letting Quintana walk to sign someone better. There’s nothing wrong with Quintana and he’s certainly a difference-maker. He was a 4 WAR player last year after all.

But the Cardinals would be better off spending on someone who gets whiffs and can lead a rotation.

(As an aside, I would take Quintana over no one but I would prefer the Cardinals aim higher. Quintana is a good pitcher but the team needs bat missing ability and a front-line starter.)

This is a pitching staff that ranked 29th in strikeout rate last year. The rotation was a little better but still ranked 24th in the league. The idea with last year’s team was that pitching to contact would pair well with an elite defense. That’s all well and good but next year’s defense might not be elite.

Harrison Bader is gone. Edmundo Sosa is gone. Yadier Molina is gone. Paul DeJong is likely gone too. I think Tyler O’Neill could be a trade candidate as well.

Now, Brendan Donovan looks like a full time starter. Paul Goldschmidt declined defensively (according to OAA and DRS). There’s a new centerfielder and whoever it ends up being will certainly be worse than Bader.

The Cardinals ranked 4th in OAA in 2022 with 24. Bader accounted for 5 of that. Sosa accounted for 3 of that. DeJong accounted for 5 of that.

Edman is a great defender and so is Arenado, but Donovan, despite winning a gold glove this year, posted just -1 DRS and -2 OAA at second base this year. Paul Goldschmidt also tallied 2 DRS and -6 OAA.

Strictly based on numbers, that leaves the Cardinals with 2 elite defenders in the infield, 2 average-ish defenders in the infield, and an outfield that should probably be average to above average defensively.

Defensive statistics aren’t perfect but that still doesn’t seem like an elite defense. It certainly doesn’t seem like a defense that will replicate last year’s success.

Relying on pitchers who can’t miss bats won’t work as well with a defense that is simply good. Placing all the Cardinals’ eggs is the pitch to contact basket feels even riskier next year, and this year’s staff was only average.

When a pitching staff is built around defense, changing the defense requires a change to the pitching staff.

This team needs pitchers who can miss bats and that starts in the rotation because there’s a lot of opportunity to add to it.

The Cardinals already have 5 starters who they can pencil into the rotation - Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, and Jordan Montgomery.

But you can never have too much pitching depth. Adding a frontline starter who can miss bats may bump someone out of the projected rotation, but that’s okay. I have yet to see a team only use 5 starters in a season.

In fact, I have yet to see a team not need an extra starter before June. Whoever would be the odd man out would easily make at least 20 starts.

Last offseason, the Cardinals looked for swingmen. That led them to VerHagen and Brooks, but that shouldn’t be the goal this offseason. They shouldn’t be looking to add a few swingmen to the staff and call it good.

In fact, they already have their swingman on the roster, he’s just in the rotation right now. Basically, signing (or trading for) a frontline starter gives the rotation a higher ceiling and turns a starter into a swingman.

Dakota Hudson also qualifies. I would think that Zack Thompson and Andre Pallante could get some consideration for such a role as well.

The biggest boost to this team doesn’t come from signing a swingman and spending money elsewhere. It comes from improving the rotation and giving it something it doesn’t have. A pitcher who can miss bats and not be overly reliant on the defense.

A rotation headed by (insert favorite available front line starter) and Jack Flaherty is a good start toward a rotation with some swing and miss.

As both Gabe and I said on the latest VEB podcast, Carlos Rodon would be a great signing. He’s been a 5-to-6 WAR player for each of the past two seasons, struck out more than a third of the batters he faced this season, and is still 29 years old (he’ll be 30 when the season starts).

If the Cardinals don’t get Rodon, they should be looking for a similar player. Regardless of who it is, this offseason should not be like the last one.

The team should be chasing impact players not depth. It should be looking for swing-and-miss, not pitch-to-contact guys. It should fill out the rotation at the top, not at the bottom.

Last year’s offseason wasn’t a total failure, but it really wasn’t much of a success. This time around the St. Louis Cardinals are well positioned for a successful offseason. That can take many different forms. An elite shortstop would certainly qualify as a success, but I don’t think it would be the same level of success as a front line starter because a front line starter fills the biggest need.

Thanks for reading VEB! Let me know who your favorite available pitcher is or if you would target a frontline starter or a shortstop.

Now that the offseason is in full swing after everybody’s favorite team won the World Series, we’ll have plenty more offseason content on deck here at Viva El Birdos.