The Cardinals are doing something peculiar. At the beginning of the offseason, John Mozeliak said that the Cardinals were going to raise payroll. An unusually blunt statement from a man known for avoiding saying anything specific. Now maybe we have different definitions of “raised” payroll or Mozeliak is playing fast and loose with accounting trickery, but the Cardinals haven’t really raised payroll meaningfully. His comments were not the sort that you say if you want to raise it by $5 million. Maybe the market changed the plans.
But here’s where it gets weird: In Willson Contreras’ recent five-year deal, it was revealed his salary for 2023 is just $10 million. If the Cardinals are done spending, this is an absolutely bizarre thing to do. This is in addition to Adam Wainwright having a $7 million base salary with $10 million being deferred. I realize all $17 million goes to the payroll, but they aren’t actually paying that in 2023. And surely Wainwright agreed to do this - which he hasn’t done in his previous contracts - because he was told the Cardinals would use that money.
And yes, the Cardinals haven’t really raised payroll. The Cardinals current estimated luxury tax is $183 million according to Roster Resource. The year before the pandemic, the Cardinals estimated luxury tax was... $186 million. I know what you’re thinking, that was the end of season payroll. Yes, but I’m looking at who was paid and seeing no midseason add that would have raised it by much. They traded Jedd Gyorko for Tony Cingrani, but the Dodgers picked up most of his salary. Their payroll last year, which WAS impacted by midseason moves, ended at $177 million. We are basically at the exact same point we were in 2019. Payroll not raised.
So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and say it’s possible more money will be spent. The Cardinals are linked as the mystery team with Carlos Rodon, but I’m pretty sure we can ignore that rumor. As Jeff Jones said on the VEB podcast, the Cardinals are a popular “mystery” team because the Cardinals are tight-lipped and won’t deny it, plus they’re a credible team. But I will say signing someone like Rodon makes all the rest of the payroll shenanigans make complete sense. But alas, I’ve already written my piece on Rodon.
So I’ll take a different tack, a more affordable one if you will. What if the Cardinals signed another starter or borderline starter? We all know how this works: all five starters look healthy right now, but by Opening Day, one of the starters will get injured. In 2022, Jack Flaherty got injured, in 2021, it was Kwang-Hyun Kim, and while the 2020 season was crazy, Miles Mikolas proved unable to pitch as early as February that season. Why not be proactive?
While Rodon would be preferable to me, that doesn’t seem remotely likely. And there is certainly some question as to whether signing a guy who doesn’t currently improve the rotation makes financial sense. But well, injuries happen. And any of these guys can help get a head start on the 2024 rotation. Would be nice to have a second arm with MLB experience locked down. (Though I think the worry over this is very overblown, and I’ll probably write a future post about it)
Who’s left on the free agent market? Let’s look at the options:
Chris Bassitt (34)
Projected Stats: 165 IP, 20.9 K%, 6.8 BB%, 4.03 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 2.1 WAR
Projected Salary: 3 years, $51 million
Who knows what kind of market Bassitt has right now? The most similar pitcher to him, Jose Quintana, just got 2 years, $26 million. Bassitt has a bit of a better recent track record certainly (pre-2022 anyway), but I would not necessarily assume he’s going to get a crazy deal. The bigger issue is probably convincing him to sign with no apparent spot in the rotation for the moment. He has been far too good of a pitcher in the recent past to accept that.
But if the Cardinals have the best offer, they have the best offer. While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for a 34-year-old pitcher for what he can do next year, the fact is that in 2022, he ate innings. In 30 starts, he threw over 180 innings. That’s certainly the kind of guy the 2024 rotation can use. They will probably be average innings, but it’s hard to imagine that not being useful.
Also, this is one of the rare times that I think you could legitimately carry a 6-man rotation. I realize that won’t happen. But with Bassitt in the mix, you have... six pitchers that are very nearly the same. My issue with a 6-man rotation is usually that one or two guys is clearly better than the rest and that them starting less games is bad. That’s not the case here. Anybody falters or gets injured, boom five-man rotation. Think outside the box.
While none of the vets are really in a position where you “manage their innings,” at least three members of the rotation would seemingly benefit. Jack Flaherty has barely thrown in MLB games the past couple seasons - asking him to throw 150-180 innings is a tall order. Adam Wainwright will turn 41 this season. Less work for him is good. And Steven Matz too threw just 48 innings - I want him to be healthy for 2024. This admittedly does nothing for Jordan Montgomery or Miles Mikolas, except maybe some nebulous performance boost. But this is also assuming everyone stays healthy all year which very rarely happens, so it will only be an issue for a short time.
Nathan Eovaldi (33)
Projected Stats: 126 IP, 21.4 K%, 5.4 BB%, 3.90 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 2 WAR
Projected Salary: 3 years, $51 million
Bassitt is kind of a floor play. He gives you a high floor, and a bunch of competent innings. Maybe that’s what the rotation could usually, especially for 2024. Eovaldi, on the other hand, is the ceiling play. He has a fairly high ceiling, especially when you factor in his price. In 2021, he had a 5.7 fWAR season. Now there’s no reason to expect anything of that sort if you sign him, but that wasn’t very long ago!
On average, he fits in with the rest of the rotation. 2 WAR in 126 innings makes him closer to a 3 WAR pitcher if he manages to stay healthy. But maybe something close to that 2021 version shows up. He definitely has the potential to be the best member of the 2023 Cardinals if signed. The 2024 rotation needs stability, the 2023 rotation needs upside. Eovaldi gives you that. And given his injury problems, if you have to go with a 6-man rotation, I wouldn’t mind keeping his innings in check (as opposed to Bassitt where his innings is kind of his value).
Noah Syndergaard (30)
Projected Stats: 106 IP, 16.9 K%, 6 BB%, 4.63 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 1 WAR
Projected Stats: 2 years, $24 million
Syndergaard is in a different way also an upside play. Eovaldi’s upside is easier to see. Syndergaard has diminished stuff since returning from Tommy John, and as you can see, has stopped striking people out. But he will be a year removed from TJ and you never know. Maybe his stuff will return.
An example is Lance Lynn. He was not a very good pitcher his first year back from TJ, so the Cardinals understandably let him go. Weirdly he had a good ERA and really bad advanced stats. The next year, his advanced stats improved and his ERA wasn’t good. But in 2019, he was a Cy Young candidate. Now, you can’t expect the same thing to happen to Syndergaard of course. And there’s certainly risk - way more risk than Eovaldi - that he just sucks now and you wouldn’t want him on the 2024 rotation anyway.
I personally am not a fan of signing him, but it’s certainly a valid approach and he won’t be pricey.
Sean Manaea (31)
Projected Stats: 139 IP, 22.3 K%, 6.6 BB%, 4.05 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 1.7 WAR
Projected Salary: 2 years, $24 million
Manaea was actually not that bad last year even though his ERA was very bad and his fWAR was bad as well. Because his xFIP was 3.96, his SIERA was 3.90, and his xERA was 4.05. What went wrong? Homers. He gave up a lot of homers. His FIP was 4.53. What’s interesting is that his HR/FB% was not totally out of line with his career, but I guess HR/FB% went down last year because his xFIP (which acts like a pitcher gives up an average HR/FB%) and FIP were very different. His career FIP and xFIP are nearly identical. Weird.
His BB% also was his highest since 2017, although a 7.5 BB% is still not very high. Lots of homers, more walks than ever is not the best sign admittedly, but he wouldn’t be a viable option if his 2022 went well, right? He’s another upside play of sorts. He’s still just 31, he shouldn’t cost that many years, and he is one year removed from a 3.2 fWAR season. The upside isn’t that high here, but if he can return to what he was, he is a fairly strong and cheap option for 2024.
He has since been signed by the Giants, so he’s out.
Ross Stripling (33)
Projected Stats: 118 IP, 19.3 K%, 5.7 BB%, 4.32 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
Projected Salary: 3 years, $30 million
Stripling is very much used to being the man out of the rotation who then steps in when someone gets injured. Whether he wants to continue being that guy is another story. For the first time in his career, he has control over what he wants to do, that is unless no team is offering him a starting spot. But Stripling has pitched at a few games in the bullpen in every season of his career.
Like I said, I’m not sure if he wants to play that game anymore, but you could tell him “As soon as someone gets injured, you’re the guy and also you’re definitely getting a spot in 2024 if you perform.” It’s not a terrible situation for him, frankly. I’m guessing his options are to do that on a good team or be a 32 start guy on a bad team, but I could be wrong.
Clevinger (32) has too similar an argument to Syndergaard for me to rehash it, but he was also worse than Syndergaard and is projected by Fangraphs to land a one-year deal. That makes a bit less to me since one of my main motivators to get a starter is for 2024.* Similarly, Corey Kluber is also projected for a one-year deal, and I can’t see that happening unless a man goes down and Kluber is still a free agent. He would be a very strong option if that happened though. And lastly, Michael Wacha (31) is another option, but I don’t really want to watch him pitch after not enjoying watching him pitch in his final season in St. Louis. (Also, his 2022 was pretty flukey) Harsh? Maybe.
*I did not realize he had already signed a deal with the White Sox. My Bad.
While I do not expect them to sign any of these guys, their price range makes the rest of the offseason make more sense than it currently does. Their words and actions suggest they will spend more money - but where? My current theory is that they are saving a little bit of budget because they are expecting to trade for a starting pitcher during the season. That’s about the only thing that makes sense, unless they truly do go after Rodon or one of these starters.
Would you take any of these guys or roll with what we have?