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To sign or not to sign: free agent SP edition (Part 1)

I attempt to guess their market

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on which Cardinals’ position players made sense to trade, without actually knowing their trade value. I had to assume if their trade value was greater or worse than what it should be, in addition to having to guess if getting traded, for whatever they could return, would make the 2024 team worse and by how much. I’m going to do something similar today.

There are a good number of starting pitchers on the market. Here’s what’s difficult: we don’t know what the SP market looks like. We don’t know which starters will be highly desired and which won’t. What we do know, based on past seasons, is that a few pitchers will be given a contract higher than they should and a few won’t seem to get as much as they should. It’s inevitable. Even if the starting pitcher market is crazy, there will pitchers signed who don’t seem to match the rest of the SP market.

What I will attempt to do, to the best of my ability, is to try and guess who makes sense to sign and who doesn’t make sense to sign, purely based on my guesses on what their market will be. I will not be guessing their actual salary. I will be looking at the type of pitcher they are, and trying to guess if that’s the type of pitcher who will go under the radar or get overpaid. This is very far from being scientific.

But the Cardinals will be attempting to sign at least two starters, and maybe three, and in order to do that, they need to spend their money as smartly as possible. Maybe for the ace, they throw caution to the wind, but they will definitely be going after the relative bargains after that. Since he is not going to be starting next year, Shohei Ohtani will be excluded from this topic.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Makes sense to sign? Yes

I do not have enough information to answer this question. I changed my answer, no joke, over five times. I have written and re-written this section, because I am truly on the fence on how to answer this objectively. I don’t have a 2024 projection, so I have no baseline upon which to guess. The rumor is he’ll get $200+ million and since he’s the best starter on the market, I find it hard to say those are wrong.

I looked at three pitchers who were in a similar position to him to make my decision: Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. On the surface, these would be a reason not to sign him actually. If Yamamota signs a $200 million or greater deal and that does not include the posting fee, only Darvish would be worth that deal. And it’s pretty close to market value. I don’t actually know how Yamamota rates in comparison to these guys at the time of the signing, but this is the best I got.

But if you use those three guys, the downside is.... pretty high all things considered. Dice-K is the one clear bust of this group. He only managed three seasons of 2+ fWAR and didn’t top 3 fWAR in his career. But in three of his first four seasons, he would be an improvement to the current Cardinals staff. Tanaka’s deal worked out better, probably not worth $200+ million, but certainly acceptable. And we wouldn’t regret carrying him on the roster for 5-7 seasons. Darvish would obviously be hugely beneficial in the short term at least, as he started his career with 12.8 fWAR in his first three seasons.

Blake Snell

Makes sense to sign? Not at all

Blake Snell is extremely overrated. Did you know he has 3.8 fWAR this season? Did you know he has a 13.7 BB%? Did you know he has a .255 BABIP against this season? 86.2 LOB%? He is the perfect storm of everything going right. He’s not this good. He’s just not. His FIP is pretty close to his career FIP of 3.45, in fact it’s slightly worse at 3.48. His ERA however of 2.33 is way better than his career ERA of 3.22.

Teams are smarter so I don’t exactly think teams will take his ERA at face value, but of course I do think it will cause his price tag to go higher. He also is not even remotely an innings eater. Which he doesn’t need to be, but he’ll get paid like he is one. This year isn’t bad, but he’ll make 33 starts and throw a little over 180 innings, but this is very much not his norm. He made 27 starts in 2021 and threw just 128 innings. 24 starts last year and just 128 innings. In 2019, he made 23 starts and threw just 107 innings. He’s a 5 inning guy.

Like I get everyone wants strikeouts, but strikeouts for the sake of strikeouts when it comes with a ton of walks and not that many innings pitched just doesn’t seem desirable to me. What we have here is a guy who is pitching to his career levels in FIP, xFIP, worse by SIERA, and I think about career level by xERA, and yet his ERA is out of whack. This is a career year and he’ll get paid like it’s his norm. No thank you.

Eduardo Rodriguez

Makes sense to sign? Sure

We have some actual precedent on Rodriguez. He signed a reasonable 5 year, $71 million deal with the Tigers just two years ago. Now granted, I don’t believe the starting pitcher market was as crazy then as it was last year, so it’s not a perfect comparison. But he has since followed it up with a disappointing 2022, and a 2023 that came with the weird trade refusal.

I just don’t think his market will be too crazy. He’s like a bargain bin Blake Snell. He too has an innings concern. In the sense that you are not signing him to pitch a bunch of innings. But he’ll be way cheaper (for a reason, but still). He also doesn’t have a walk problem (career 8.1%, 7.6% this year)

(There is a possibility he doesn’t opt out)

I’ll address a few potential free agents that I don’t think I need to write up. Clayton Kershaw is obviously staying with the Dodgers, Julio Urias has an enormous off-the field problem, and I think both that the Dodgers are a reasonable bet to pick up Lance Lynn’s club option and that Lynn doesn’t seem have interest in returning even if they don’t. I think the Atlanta Braves pick up Charlie Morton’s option. I also think the Cubs will be picking up Kyle Hendrick’s option.

Martin Perez

Makes sense to sign? No

He’s not good.

Aaron Nola

Makes sense to sign? Yes

With the full disclosure that I don’t know what his ultimate salary will be, but Nola is the perfect pitcher for the Cardinals to target. I’ve heard him compared to Mikolas but he’s not Mikolas at all. To the extent that he’s Mikolas, it’s just that he throws innings. He strikes out way more guys than Mikolas has ever been capable of. His down year this year, which might still approach 4 fWAR is better than all but Mikolas first year as a Cardinal and he’s had four seasons better than Mikolas’s best year.

He’s the perfect opposite to Snell actually. Snell plays at an extreme pitcher’s park and in front of a pretty solid defense. Nola plays at a hitter’s park and in front of an absolutely atrocious defense. I have data to back me up. The 5-year park factor on Fangraphs says Petco Park is the best place to pitch. Literally. You don’t get a better pitcher’s park than that. CBP is not that extreme, and in fact overall rates as a slightly worse than average place to pitch, but it’s top 6 in the HR section.

More importantly, the defense. The Phillies have the third worst defense in baseball. The Padres are above average (they are dragged down by Juan Soto actually, most of the defense is better than their overall numbers). Also worth pointing out that the rumor mill says that Nola had trouble adjusting to the pitch clock, which at least is partially borne out by the monthly splits: 4.56 xFIP, 4.06, 3.49, 3.14, 3.27, and finally 3.18.

Teams are all aware of this. But I do kind of get the feeling his price will be reasonable. Cardinals should be all over that. (For those worried about the QO, fair enough, but it didn’t stop them from signing Willson Contreras)

Sonny Gray

Makes sense to sign? No

Paying for the career year of a 33-year-old is generally not a good idea. Gray has a career ERA of 3.48, career FIP of 3.58, and a career xFIP of 3.68. This season? His ERA is 2.84, his FIP is 2.85, and his xFIP is 3.73. His xERA is 3.72. His SIERA is 4.02. He’s getting some home run luck, that’s all. Despite a career HR/FB% of 11.5%, his 2023 is 4.8%. Not sustainable. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Michael Wacha

Makes sense to sign? No

First off, I am not sure that Wacha isn’t going to stick with the Padres. He has a mutual option. But let’s assume he does opt out. I don’t think he makes sense to sign. His xFIP is his worst since 2019. And I know some of you don’t like xFIP, but his xFIP, FIP, and ERA are all pretty similar for his career. He has a .271 BABIP against (.296 for career), a 78.7 LOB% (career: 74%), and 9.6 HR/FB% (career 12.7%)

Basically, you won’t be paying for Wacha is. You’ll be paying more than that. Most likely.

Mike Clevinger

Makes sense to sign? Not at all

Ignoring the off-the-field stuff, which you shouldn’t do, but in this case, I can ignore it, because you shouldn’t sign him based purely on baseball either. Which is maybe a weird thing to claim for a guy with a 3.42 ERA and 2.5 fWAR. But he doesn’t seem to be the same guy with a career 25% K rate. His K rate this year is just 21.1% and he’s combining that with about the same walk rate as his past few seasons (7.4%), and a career low groundball rate (30.3%).

He’s also... not young. I didn’t realize he debuted so late, and he’s already going to be 33 next year. Again, even ignoring the obvious reason to not sign him, I don’t think a 33-year-old who doesn’t strike many people out, isn’t especially good at limiting walks, and doesn’t get groundballs is a desirable target. He has a pretty big difference in his career between ERA and advanced stats, but I just have this feeling if he’s given the chance, we’ll see the two get closer together in the future. (He probably won’t be given the chance, as soon as his ERA is bad, teams will drop him quickly)

And that’s all for part one. I wasn’t intending to make this a two-parter, but I realize I had too many starting pitchers left to cover to make it one part. I even had to shift some names to part two, just because I acknowledge every starting pitcher isn’t discussion-worthy and if I put all the interesting names on part one, there’s not much reason to read part two. You’ll notice a couple former Cardinals missing on this list. They’ll be on part two.