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Possible routes to improve the starting rotation next year

There are more than you think

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

You know when I say “in theory?” When I use it in a baseball blog, I basically mean “if things happen the way I imagine.” The way things should work. Which is not to say it’s a prediction, but what I consider a fairly plausible outcome. I bring this up, because the following statement comes with perhaps the biggest “in theory” I’ve ever written.

In theory, the rotation shouldn’t be that hard to fix. Honestly. The front office certainly won’t have an easy job, but given the resources at hand and the many different directions they can take, there are a good number of ways to fix the rotation, which makes them pretty doable. If the Cardinals relied on rebuilding their rotation through just one way, then it would be a difficult job. If for example, the only possible way to fix the rotation was to sign Shohei Ohtani, then the rotation would be incredibly hard to fix, given the unlikelihood of it happening.

The difficult part of rebuilding the rotation is trying to get specific. I don’t think the Cardinals have a specific player or players in mind at this moment. Do they want certain players? Yes. But if they don’t feel it will make sense in the moment, then they won’t do it and will shift to another player. The offseason plan is essentially, well this happened so now we can do this or this didn’t happen, so let’s do this instead.

The Cardinals are, in my opinion, virtually guaranteed to do at least two things this offseason: they will trade someone or multiple someones for a starting pitcher and they will sign a free agent starting pitcher. They at least say they need to acquire three starting pitchers next season, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee at all that three starting pitchers will become new Cardinals and be a part of the starting 5.

First off, let’s establish what kind of money the Cardinals have to work with. There seems to be some disagreement with how much money the Cardinals will spend. The Cardinals have $111.67 million in guaranteed contracts. They have just six players in arbitration, most of whom are relatively easy to calculate due to having a baseline. Tyler O’Neill ($7.4 million), Dakota Hudson ($3 million), Tommy Edman ($5.6 million), Ryan Helsley ($3 million), and Andrew Knizner ($1.5 million) have all been through arbitration before and I applied the 25/30/40/60 rule. With the exception of Andrew Knizner though, everyone else might actually be lower than my estimate due to having down years.

Dylan Carlson, entering arbitration for the first time, is not the easiest player to guess, but since O’Neill came off his best year and had $3.5 million in his first arb, well that’s certainly the absolute ceiling for Carlson I would think. O’Neill had a much shorter track record though, so it’s not probably not as far as apart as you’d think. So I’m going to guess $3 million. So that’s $24.5 million added to $111.67 million, so let’s just make this easy and say $136 million.

But this group is filled with players who might not be Cardinals. In fact, I would be shocked if all six of these players are Cardinals. Whichever of the two is traded, you’d have to think the combo of Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson is very likely to get traded. The Cardinals have shown interest in trading Helsley in the past and is very much on the table, even if unlikely. Andrew Knizner could either be traded or nontendered to make room for Ivan Herrera. (Knizner does have an option so a third possibility is a trip to Memphis for depth). Tommy Edman is the closest to free agency of the middle infield options and thus would be easier to trade. Hudson is a possibility for getting nontendered as well.

So the odds that $24 million is added from arbitration salaries seems pretty low to me. Let’s just for the sake of this exercise say it’s $20 million from arbitration and now we have a $132 million salary. So 11 roster spots plus two outside acquisitions at least means 13 players in arbitration or on a free agent deal, which is an additional $9.75 million, but we’ll make it $12 million to account when injuries happen and even more players get the league minimum. We’re at $144 million.

This year, the Cardinals have a $178 million salary. This will go up. Let’s say $190 million. The Cardinals have about $46 million to spend, and keep in mind that I actually think $20 million through arb is probably high and that I think the Cardinals are willing to have a higher salary than $190 million. Reasoning: the Cardinals intended to have a budget higher than $178 million and I don’t think $190 million is far off what they may have intended. So I feel it is reasonable to assume $190 million is the floor, unless they end up acquiring two starting pitchers through trades or something.

They also have a situation where they are essentially required to trade from their position player depth. In the majors or very close to the majors are Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, Nolan Gorman, Masyn Winn, Cesar Prieto, Alec Burleson, Juan Yepez, Luken Baker, Thomas Saggese, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, and we’ll throw Victor Scott II in this group. That group of 12 is going to be fighting for four spots in the lineup (2B,SS, OF, DH), if you assume that Lars Nootbaar and Jordan Walker are guaranteed two spots (as well as Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt plus a catcher)

The Cardinals will probably use some combination of those 12 names to get a starter in a trade. So while the actual wheeling and dealing of the offseason will not be easy, there are many many many ways to build a good rotation with those 12 trade pieces (really 13 if you throw Ivan Herrera in there) and $46 million. There are many variations, but in essence there are three distinct plans the Cardinals could use for the rotation.

#1 The All-Free Agent Option

I don’t see how they get through this offseason without trading some of their position player depth, but I think it is theoretically possible to keep all 12, because most of the group hasn’t run out of options. Or isn’t required to be on the 40 man.

So I think the disconnect between me and the people who have trouble imagining the Cardinals being able to build a good rotation is that I think they are mostly thinking about the free agent route. Only what starters the Cardinals can sign. Not what starters they may trade for. And I definitely understand why you’d think it’d be a problem if this was the only route. We don’t know what SP prices will be.

So within this category, there are variations I’m imagining with a budget of $46 million.

Ace, #4 starter

Assuming the starting pitching market is out of control, the Cardinals can still afford an Aaron Nola or Yoshinobu Yamamota and then a Steven Matz level signing. In this version, they trade some of that glut of position players for reliever(s), since it’s the all free agent section.

Ace, mid-rotation starter

Small distinction, but maybe the SP market isn’t as crazy as last year, and you could sign an ace and Jordan Montgomery. Or maybe there’s a mid-rotation arm that slips through the cracks and isn’t too pricey. That’s not as crazy as it sounds since this free agency does not lack mid-rotation or mid-rotation adjacent arms. (Montgomery, Marcus Stroman, Eduardo Rodriguez, Julio Urias, Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, James Paxton, and possibly more, depending on how you define mid-rotation)

Two mid-rotation starters

This would be very Cardinals, that is if the only option they had was to sign two starters. Two mid-rotation arms leaves a gap that isn’t large enough for another starter, but I also don’t think has a chance in hell of being $46 million, so I suppose in this situation, they spend the remaining money on relievers. This option would not please many I imagine and while the rotation wouldn’t be great, it would probably be fine.

Two mid-rotation starters, back of rotation

I said that there wouldn’t be enough room in the budget for another starter, but there is a scenario where there is, but this starter won’t be very high demand or reliable, but he does have a higher floor than any of the prospects by virtue of being fine as an MLBer. The market this offseason would have to be pretty poor for players for this option.

#2 Trade for Cost Controlled Pitcher

When you read this section, you probably immediately think the Marlins or Mariners, but that is not the only type of cost controlled they might trade for. There are cost controlled pitchers who have nowhere near the value of a Logan Gilbert or Jesus Luzardo. Which of course means there are different subcategories of this too.

Trade for established mid-rotation piece (or ace) AND sign an ace

It can be difficult to define whether a pitcher is an ace or a mid-rotation starter or something in between, but the same basic thing has to happen regardless. The Cardinals trade a lot of value and still have loads of money to spend. This sounds like the very obvious route to go, except this version means there is definitely no Nolan Gorman or no Masyn Winn. It highly depends on who the pitcher is, but there’s a good chance one of them is involved, a top pitching prospect, and another member of the 12 trade pieces. It’s a price that most fans wouldn’t actually want to do. That’s the catch with this option.

Trade for established mid-rotation piece (or ace), sign two starters

I’m not going to make a separate category for it, but the two starters could vary wildly. It could be an ace and a longshot, it could be an ace and a mid-rotation starter, it could be two mid-rotation starters, I mean the possibilities are endless. But they have the money for two starting pitchers if they make this trade, no question.

Trade for a back of the rotation arm, sign an ace

Trade for back of the rotation arm, sign two starters

Upside: you don’t have to trade one of the big guns, you don’t need to add a pitching prospect to the deal either

Downside: Will barely improve the rotation, just give it a higher floor, you still need to give up a #5-15 prospect most likely

Trade for a one-year rental

This is my personal pick for most likely to happen. What this option does is fit the Cardinals’ risk aversion strategy. They can get two genuinely good pitchers in the offseason while only committing long-term money to one pitcher. And I doubt a one-year rental is going to demand a Gorman or Winn, so they can also keep their high upside prospects. Don’t give up prospects they fear they’ll regret trading and also only one long-term commitment? This is the most Cardinals option in my opinion.

Trade for ace or ace-adjacent, sign starter

This is your Shane Biebers, your Tyler Glasnow section. Chris Sale doesn’t technically fit, but his salary fits this section as well. Think of this section as the high salary option, featuring a starting pitcher who will make a similar salary as a free agent option, just for one year. It leaves room in the budget for just one more starter. (If the Cardinals really raise their salary beyond my estimate, you can get another though)

Trade for solid and cheap-ish, sign two starters

The best example I can give is if Paul Blackburn only had one more year until free agency. I am not searching for a better example, Blackburn’s exactly the type of pitcher this category is designed for. What this trade does is give you more certainty in the rotation and you definitely have room in the budget for two starters. What would one year of Blackburn-type would demand? Can’t be much honestly.

So there you have it. It all depends on who the Cardinals are willing to give up. And since there’s a version where they don’t have to give up the type of prospects that would make you cringe to lose, that’s why I think it’s the most likely. As skeptical as people are of the Cardinals spending this time, I really just think they have pretty much put themselves in a corner where they actually have to have a higher salary next year.

So within my framework, which route do you pick?