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Fitting the Pieces Together

The Cardinals have taken care of their business. Now they can be opportunistic.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, the day after a big signing, I would take the time to do a deep dive on the new player but I’ve already done that. I’ve been breaking down pitching targets all off-season and the St. Louis Cardinals finally signed a player that I’ve already covered. So instead of doing a full breakdown I’m instead going to do more of a stream of consciousness piece on Sonny Gray and the Cardinals rotation as whole.

I’ve had enough time to think about all the moves now and my initial apprehension has turned into cautious optimism and that’s what I want to explore.

Regardless, though, this has been an incredibly Cardinalsy offseason. At least in terms of the signings. The team plugged it’s gaps with shorter contracts and less risk, perhaps at the expense of some upside.

And in the end, the Cardinals signed the most Cardinalsy of all the so-called “top” free agent pitchers. Sonny Gray fits right into their level of risk tolerance. He’s a good arm who only gets a 3-year contract, and thus has less risk than the other top options on the market.

He’s the pitcher I expected the Cardinals to sign all along. In fact, here’s what I wrote on October 15th when I did my deep dive on Sonny Gray:

So, again, this is the pitcher I expect the Cardinals to sign, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they reached a deal pretty early in the offseason as the Cardinals will likely try to lock up at least one higher end starter early.

I guessed the arm and the timing but what I didn’t expect was that Sonny Gray would be the 3rd pitcher signed before December. I’ll get more into why that matters later.

For now I do want to take a brief look at Gray because, even though I already did a breakdown of him, I have more information to cover.

I’ll go back to my previous article for a second, though. When considering how good Gray might be going forward, I wrote:

Gray certainly had a great season but 5.3 fWAR is simply not sustainable year over year.

Can he hit 3 fWAR, and maybe even 4? Sure. It’s possible. In fact, I would expect him to settle into the 3ish range at the beginning of his new contract.

So, what does ZIPS have Gray pegged for this year? 3.5 WAR. And that’s with a 159.1 IP projection. Give him the 184 innings he pitched this year and that ZIPS projection goes up to 4.0. That might not be the elite option that many fans were hoping for but it’s a good one.

The Cardinals got better with this signing.

Looking at the rest of the contract, ZIPS drops Gray to 2.9 WAR in year 2 and then to 2.2 in the final guaranteed year of his contract. That’s a good projection. He should be a useful pitcher throughout his entire contract, which is likely what drew the Cardinals to him in the first place.

There’s a lot less risk with signing Gray than there is with signing Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, or Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the first year ZIPS projection will probably end up being pretty similar to the rest of that group.

This is a good signing.

But why is the ZIPS projection (3.5 WAR) so much lower than Gray’s 2023 WAR (5.3)? There’s some age-based decline factored in but the biggest reason is due to regression in the righty’s career low home run rate.

Last year, Gray gave up just 0.39 home runs per nine innings. ZIPS is projecting that rate to rise to 0.90 HR/9 in 2024, which would be just above Gray’s career average of 0.84.

The reason why that’s a reasonable projection is because an unbelievably low number of his fly balls left the yard in 2023. In fact, just 5.2% did so.

Nobody runs a career 5.2% HR/FB rate.

In fact, since 2010 there are only 19 instances of a pitcher finishing a season with greater than 100 innings pitched and a better HR/FB% than Gray.

All but one of those pitchers saw their HR/FB rates increase the following season while the average increase was 5.7%, which means the average HR/FB rate for that group in the following season more than doubled.

So, no, Sonny Gray probably isn’t going to win a Cy Young award with the Cardinals like he almost did with the Twins this year. But that’s okay. He’s a good arm and gives the Cardinals a guy who can lead the rotation, which is something that was clearly lacking beforehand.

In fact, outside of Yamamoto, I’m not sure the Cardinals could have done better to fill that high-end gap. Between the injury history, questions about his ability to pitch deep into games, and control issues, Blake Snell is too risky for a big, long term contract. Jordan Montgomery is also likely to get overpaid.

That leaves us with Aaron Nola as the other “top” option and he was never likely to leave Philadelphia and actually has a worse ZIPS projection (3.4 WAR) than Gray next year which also comes with a ZIPS projection of just 0.9 and 0.5 in his final two seasons.

ZIPS isn’t everything but that’s notable. I’m okay with the Cardinals not wanting to go 7 years and $177 million with him when Gray was available for 3 years and $75 with a club option for 2027.

So to find a talent similar to or better than Gray, we’re left with Yamamoto, who is expensive and popular, or a trade target like Dylan Cease, Tyler Glasnow, Shane Bieber, or “insert favorite trade target here”.

I can see how the Cardinals ended up with Gray as the best starter.

I like the Gray signing, in fact, but it does seem to complete the rotation, barring a trade or surprise signing, both of which are possible.

For now, though, I’m going to assume for the sake of this article that with Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and Sonny Gray in hand, the Cardinals now have a full rotation. That means they brought in 3 pitchers who combined to throw 559.2 innings last year.

As someone aptly pointed out in the comments of yesterday’s Sonny Gray announcement article, between Miles Mikolas, Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and Sonny Gray, the Cardinals now have 4 of the 44 pitchers who were considered “qualified” (meaning they threw 162 IP or more) this past season.

There are two important considerations here. The first is that the Cardinals not only had to rebuild the rotation but also fortify the bullpen. That’s a tall order for one offseason. By adding guys who are durable and can pitch deep into games, the Cardinals are, in a way, accomplishing both of those tasks at once.

Don’t get me wrong. They still need relievers. But if you think about this offseason less in terms of position (i.e starter or reliever, #1 starter or #5 starter) and more in terms of innings that need to be covered, the Cardinals have done a great job of finding that coverage and doing so early.

The other consideration is that it means the other 40 qualified pitchers are scattered across the other 29 teams in the league so it’s likely that the Cardinals will have the largest concentration of those 44 players.

That’s an advantage for them. I will freely acknowledge that there is a difference between quantity innings and quality innings the Cardinals but the Cardinals are now a lot less likely to have an overworked bullpen, which, in theory, should help it perform better.

I won’t argue that this is the best rotation in the league. It’s likely going to be an average or worse rotation with some leeway either way depending on whether or not pitchers reach their projections. In fact, I would have preferred one of Kyle Gibson or Lance Lynn but not both. So it hasn’t been a perfect offseason and I won’t argue that.

I do think it’s interesting, though, to compare the current starting 5 with the starting 5 heading into opening day of the 2023 season.

Last year, the Cardinals went into the season with Jordan Montgomery (projected 2.7 WAR, actual 4.3 WAR) leading the rotation. In 2024, in all likelihood, it will be Sonny Gray taking over that duty. His ZIPS projection is 3.5 WAR (4 WAR if he matches his 2023 innings pitched), which is well above Montgomery’s last year. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Montgomery’s 2024 ZIPS projection come in even with Gray’s or perhaps a bit lower.

So Gray may or may not be able to match Montgomery’s production from last year but it’s pretty much a wash to me and if we want to consider where the two teams are before the start of the season then the 2024 rotation has a better guy at the top.

And then there’s Miles Mikolas vs...well...Miles Mikolas. I do expect some decline from last year so 2023 Mikolas gets the advantage over 2024 Mikolas.

Then I’ll call the Steven Matz/Zack Thomspon duo of 2024 a wash compared to the Steven Matz/Zack Thompson duo of 2023. I consider this pair together because of Matz’s injury history and the fact that it’s Thompson, the 6th starter, who will fill in for him when he goes down.

It’s actually this duo, which combined for 2.5 fWAR in 25 starts last year, that may provide the best production behind Sonny Gray.

Where things get interesting is at the bottom of the rotation. Can the Cardinals get 2023 Jack Flaherty production from Kyle Gibson? I think it’s close. Flaherty put up 1.6 fWAR in 20 starts with the Cardinals last season. Prorate that for 32 starts and we’re left with 2.6 fWAR.

That’s exactly what Gibson was worth in 33 starts last year.

I, for one, question if Flaherty would have maintained his pace over a full 32 starts with the Cardinals, so factor that in and factor in age-based decline for Gibson and I’m ready to call this spot a wash too. Maybe a slight edge to the 2023 rotation if you think Flaherty could maintain his 2.6 WAR pace.

The final spot is where the difference is. Adam Wainwright was worth -0.4 fWAR last season. Lance Lynn was worth 0.5. Give him some home run regression and 1-1.5 fWAR seems pretty reasonable for Lynn this year. That’s a 2 win difference over Wainwright.

This is where the bulk innings matter, though. In the 2023 season, Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford, and Drew Rom combined for 28 starts and accumulated -0.5 fWAR in those starts.

Buying innings in bulk helps reduce the chances of similar futility from depth starters in 2024.

So is this rotation better than the opening day 2023 rotation? Maybe a little bit. Maybe not. It’s close. So the Cardinals have done the bare minimum already. They basically rebuilt the rotation with a similar level of talent.

The good thing is that this rotation is probably more stable than last year’s. Trading starts from Jake Woodford, Dakota Hudson, Drew Rom, and Adam Wainwright for starts from Gibson and Lynn is a dramatic improvement, even if the latter two aren’t the most exciting names.

It’s this security that also gives the Cardinals flexibility. They already filled a large chunk of the innings gap, which was the biggest need the Cardinals had this offseason. What that means is that the Cardinals have bought security. Now it’s time for them to be opportunistic.

Working from J.P.’s latest payroll update the Cardinals now have about $5 million left to spend. It could be more and it could be less but that’s the prediction we’re working with here.

That’s not a ton of money to spend. But the Cardinals can get more.

There’s been a lot of smoke this offseason around the Cardinals outfielders and Derrick Goold mentioned in his latest chat that there has been interest in the duo. There may also be interest in trading Steven Matz.

Steven Matz has a $12.5 million salary in 2024, Tyler O’Neill is projected for $5.85 million salary in 2024, and Dylan Carlson’s projected figure is the lowest of the three at $2.1 million

Trading Matz and O’Neill, specifically, could free up a substantial amount of money in the budget.

So my point here is that the Cardinals don’t have to be done. They can still chase upside. Now that they have finished most of their business, they can be opportunistic on the trade market. That means they can call the Rays about Tyler Glasnow and the White Sox about Dylan Cease and maybe the Mariners about any of their pitchers and they won’t feel forced into an overpay.

If the Cardinals do acquire another starter then someone like Lynn or Matz can move to the bullpen and bolster it that way. The Cardinals can also shop around for good relievers to bolster the bullpen because they could still use at least a few more arms.

The point is that the Cardinals can look for the best deal and they have a full rotation to fall back on if they don’t like the price. That removes the pressure to make a deal.

That kind of freedom and flexibility is a good thing.

I don’t think the Cardinals are done, either. They just struck early in the free agent market in a way that I can’t recall ever seeing them do, at least with this front office. I don’t think the point of that was to be finished by November 27th.

There are options. And now the Cardinals have 3 months to explore those options.

So while it’s fair to question the upside of the rotation as it’s currently constructed, the Cardinals don’t have to be done. There are more innings to add to this team and there’s a real chance that those will be quality innings, one way or the other.

This may not have been the offseason that some wanted and it’s certainly not my favorite offseason but it does give the Cardinals the chance to be competitive in 2024. It’s time to see what comes next.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Tuesday.