I know what you’re thinking. Why do we need to do a free agent spotlight on a player the Cardinals will never sign? Well, first off, that applies to the vast majority of free agents, and even most of the free agents we talk about who are much more plausible. Secondly, I feel like it still makes sense to cover free agents who make sense for the Cardinals to sign. And Carlos Rodon makes sense for the Cardinals to sign.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth recapping. The 2023 rotation does not really need another starting pitcher, not really. I would say the Cardinals have the most depth at starting pitcher since probably the 2017 season. Not even projected to be in the rotation is Dakota Hudson, who I know a lot of people criticize but a bunch of teams would kill for him to be the 6th starter. Andre Pallante is the next man up, although he should probably be the 6th. And 8th is a top 50 pitching prospect. Three pitchers need to get injured for him to play (unless they’re all aboard the Pallante in the bullpen train).
It’s difficult to say who is 9th, but it could be Connor Thomas, who has about two full years in AAA of starting behind him, or Zack Thompson, if they’re not putting him in the bullpen for good, or Gordon Graceffo, depending on how quickly he’s ready. And Jake Woodford might be in the mix somewhere as well. For the 2023 team, this is enough depth.
What the 2023 rotation is missing is upside. They have some. But All-Star level upside requires some serious rose-colored glasses. It’s not so unrealistic that we’re talking drunk goggles required, but you usually don’t want to leave it to that much chance. Jack Flaherty has that upside. Jordan Montgomery has that upside. If Matz can pitch to his advanced stats of 2022 for 32 starts, he does as well. But not something you expect in the slightest in any of their cases.
Which is where Carlos Rodon comes in. With Rodon, at least for the 2023 rotation, it’s mostly a matter of health. It does not require a lot of optimism for him to be an All-Star caliber starting pitcher right away. Hopefully for a few years too. To put it in perspective, he has 11.1 fWAR in his past two seasons. Steven Matz, Miles Mikolas, and Jack Flaherty don’t even have 10 career fWAR. He’s just on another planet, as far as upside goes.
Before I look at Fangraphs’ projected salary, I’ll figure out a value and compare. Rodon was originally projected for 107 innings for the 2022 season. And given his injury history, I actually expected even less than that. Because he missed over half the season in 2017, 10-12 starts in 2018, and he barely pitched in either 2019 or 2020 (he pitched just 7.2 IP, so it wasn’t the 2 month schedule doing it). In 2021, he even missed games - he missed about two weeks in August and then pitched once every 10 days in September, and then had a terrible start in the playoffs.
But then he went out and threw 178 innings. So you can bet that his innings pitched projection is going to increase. And it’s here where I am once again annoyed that Steamer does nothing to correct for playing time projections. They project him for 178 innings, which no projection system that accounts for playing time would do. ZiPS actually has a formula, but I’m going to have to guess since there is no ZiPS yet and I’m landing at 140 innings. It might be a little higher, it might be a little lower, but it’s going to be relatively close to that I’m sure.
Since Steamer projects for a 4.6 WAR season in 178 innings, that means his new projection is 3.6 WAR in 140 innings. Much like Brandon Nimmo, it’s something of an underwhelming projection, but there’s definitely a difference between a 3.6 WAR player in a full season and one who does it in 140 innings. So keep that in mind. Plus, Rodon may very well stay healthy, pitchers work in mysterious ways. But you shouldn’t pay him as if he will be though.
For this offseason, I have typically took off 0.3 WAR until the free agent turns 32, however I don’t really think I should do that for starting pitchers. When you decline WAR years into the future, it tends to be more for the fact that as the years pile up, the chances for injury are ever-increasing. Diminished performance plays a role, but whenever you see a 5-year projection from ZiPS over even a 3-year one, which we will see soon - pay attention to the innings. They usually keep going down the farther away you get. That’s simply accounting for potential injury risk. As such, I’m going to decline him 0.5 every year.
Since I have the framework for a deal in place, I’m going to cheat and see what Fangraphs is projecting, years-wise. My assumption is 5 years, but he might be a good enough free agent to get six. But my first assumption was in fact correct, and they project him for 5. So let’s map out a 5-year deal with 3.6 WAR in 2023 as the starting point and 0.5 decline thereafter. I am using $9.5 million per win to figure out the dollar total:
5 years, $124 million
Ben Clemens projects.... 5 years, $120 million. We may be using a similar system to figure out these projected deals. Crowdsourced sees more than that, at 5 years, $135 million. Not a huge difference, frankly.
The other reason to get a starter, and I’ll probably get more in depth with this point if I do a future article on a starting pitcher who isn’t elite, is the 2024 rotation. The current 2024 rotation is Steven Matz, Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, Gordon Graceffo, Zach Thompson/Connor Thomas/Michael McGreevy. That is obviously not what the rotation will be, but it just illustrates that they need 2-3 starters next year. Why not get a head start?
So at 5 years, $120 million I kind of think this is a no-brainer personally. You’re getting massive, massive amounts of upside for about half the price of what you’d normally need to pay for this amount of upside for a 30-year-old free agent starter. I don’t know how the Cardinals are planning to spend whatever money they have, but there aren’t that many ways to spend it. They are unlikely to get a top free agent shortstop. I don’t feel like they’re likely to sign Nimmo either (although maybe they are, given their left-handed bat comments). Catchers, aside from Willson Contreras, are just not going to be super expensive, and even less expensive if they go the trade route, which certainly would make sense.
So... get that upside. Get that #1 starter. Put yourself in a better position for the 2024 season. I mean this is a win now move, but it’s also going to make constructing the 2024 team way easier. You could argue they could try to sign the Carlos Rodon equivalent in 2024, but the problem is that guy will probably cost $200 million and the Cardinals are not touching that contract. This is relatively affordable.
I mean look at the above 2024 rotation. With Rodon, they probably don’t need to do anything but re-sign a current Cardinals starter. Rodon, re-signed starter, Matz, Graceffo/Liberatore, Hudson. But you’re not blocking anybody, you’re not putting too much pressure on the young guys to instantly perform, and you’ve got that coveted ace that the Cardinals have mostly lacked the last few seasons. And really, it only makes sense to sign a starter if you’re actually improving on the five guys we already have, which is why Jose Quintana never made much sense to me personally (his projection is not meaningfully better than any of the five, but I’m not going to complain if they sign him, I’ll take what I can get)
So I feel fairly confident that most people would take that deal, so what is the breaking point? I may even do as high as 5 years, $150 million, but I’m not super comfortable with that. At that price, and anything more, I won’t blame the Cardinals for not signing him. Anything significantly less and I think it’ll be a major missed opportunity unless they spend that money in other smart ways.
But 5 years, $120 or $125 million? Sign that immediately if you can.