With Lance Lynn out for the entire 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals seem likely to sign a free agent starting pitcher, which is something they have generally shied away from doing under John Mozeliak. The good news for the Cardinals is this year's crop of free agent starting pitchers is one of the deepest in recent memory. The Cardinals could fill Lance Lynn's spot in a number of different ways, as their options range from ace-level pitchers (David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann) to one-year stopgaps (Mark Buehrle, Doug Fister).
Given the Cardinals' current situation, which of these options makes the most sense?
A strong case can be made that the Cardinals should focus on high-end starting pitchers in the wake of Lance Lynn's injury. They certainly have the money to sign a David Price or a Zack Greinke, and a pitcher of this caliber would represent the biggest upgrade over the Cardinals' in-house options of Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales. For example, David Price, who is coming off two straight 6 fWAR seasons, would probably be at least a four win improvement in 2016 over the Cardinals' trio of lefties.
Signing a high-end starting pitcher would also help the Cardinals make the most of their current competitive window. The Cardinals have a strong but aging core that includes players like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, and Jhonny Peralta. Adding an elite pitcher would ensure that the Cardinals remain competitive at least for the next year or two, which may be the last years that these aging players are still productive.
The Cardinals have also had major injury issues with the other members of their rotation in recent years. Adam Wainwright (elbow), Michael Wacha (shoulder), Carlos Martinez (shoulder), and Jaime Garcia (everything) have each had some form of arm injury at some point in the last two seasons. While they may be healthy and ready to go for Spring Training, they likely cannot be counted on to stay healthy for all of 2016. The biggest predictor of future injuries is past injuries, and this is especially true with pitcher arm injuries. Even though the Cardinals currently have a strong starting four and three more than capable options for the fifth starter spot, they will likely need more starters in order to make it through the season.
One other factor that should be taken into consideration is that next year's free agent class appears to be pretty weak. The Cardinals have made it clear over the last few years that they have money to spend, but as I pointed out last week, they haven't really needed to spend a whole lot of money to remain competitive. This probably won't be the case going forward, though, especially with the emergence of the Cubs and the Pirates. If the Cardinals feel that they need to spend money in order to stay competitive, this offseason may be their best chance to do so.
With all of that being said, there are valid reasons for the Cardinals to consider filling Lynn's spot with a one-year stopgap instead of an expensive high-end starter. This would certainly be the most simple solution, as it would not significantly alter the Cardinals' long-term strategy. The success rate of Tommy John surgery is high, and Lynn will have ample time to recover in time for the start of the 2017 season. It is likely that this injury will only hurt the team in 2016, so in theory, doing anything that goes beyond addressing this 2016 need (such as signing a high-end starting pitcher) might be an overreaction.
The Cardinals also have strong pitching depth throughout their organization, which lessens the need to sign a high-end starting pitcher to a long-term deal. Adam Wainwright is under contract through 2018, and Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez are under team control until 2019. Lynn will presumably be back in 2017, and Jaime Garcia also has another affordable option for 2017. Those five pitchers alone would make up a starting rotation for 2017, and that doesn't even include top prospect Alex Reyes, who despite being suspended for 50 games next season may still reach the majors before the end of the year. Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales will also still be around, and it isn't out of the question to see one of them taking a step forward and becoming a regular member of the rotation.
I would argue that the Cardinals' biggest priority long-term should be position players, given the organization's lack of high-end position player prospects. As Joe pointed out the other day, signing Jason Heyward should still be the Cardinals' number one priority, and it is possible that doing this would prevent the Cardinals from landing a high-end starting pitcher. The Cardinals may also have to replace Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Jhonny Peralta in the coming years, as each could potentially become a free agent after the 2017 season. Perhaps the best way for the Cardinals to achieve sustained success would be to sign Jason Heyward, get by with a stopgap fifth starter in 2016, and save money to invest in future position player needs.
With that being said, the Cardinals need to make sure that they don't throw money away on a stopgap who doesn't actually improve their team. Here are the 2016 Steamer projections for the Cardinals' three replacement options and Mark Buehrle, one of the commonly mentioned free agent stopgap options.
(Side note: Lyons' projection includes 45 relief appearances, which may explain his optimistically low ERA and FIP.)
Buehrle, who turns 37 in March, projects to have a worse ERA and FIP than all three of the Cardinals' replacement options. Buehrle's strikeout rate has always been low, but in 2015 it was the lowest of his career, at 11.0 percent. He still eats innings, as he has done consistently throughout his career, but the quality of the run prevention in those innings is mediocre at best. If Buehrle is going to cost somewhere in the range of $10 million on a one year deal, the Cardinals might simply consider going with their in-house options.
Ultimately, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cardinals make a serious bid for a high-end starting pitcher this offseason. The Cardinals now have a very obvious hole in their rotation for 2016, and they have the resources to dramatically upgrade over their existing options. Even if they do not succeed in landing a high-end starting pitcher, they can at least push the price up for competitors like the Cubs, who are already seen as the favorites to sign David Price.
The Cardinals can also be opportunistic and wait until late in the offseason to sign one of the lower-tier starting pitchers remaining on the market. In recent years, we have seen patient teams sign players at bargain rates in January and February, and with the number of free agent starters available this offseason, I imagine that we will see more of these deals late in the offseason. If the Cardinals fail to sign one of the high-end starters, I would not be surprised to see them hold out until late in the offseason to sign a free agent starting pitcher.