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Cardinals should wait on starting pitching in free agency

While the Cardinals lost out on David Price, the team does not need to rush to sign someone else.

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals rotation has question marks. Adam Wainwright is coming off a serious Achilles injury and is now 34 years old. Carlos Martinez pitched brilliantly in 2015, but he had his season cut short with shoulder problems. Michael Wacha completed his first full season in the big leagues after working to recover from a scapular stress reaction and appeared to struggle towards the end of the season. Jaime Garcia had his best season since 2011, but a career full of injuries leads to concerns about counting on him for the duration. After those four, who are all talented, proven and under control for multiple seasons, the Cardinals could go with Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, or Marco Gonzales. Given the current prices for free agent pitchers, the Cardinals would be wise to wait out the market.

The market for pitching has gone quickly, and while the team was in on David Price, Boston trumped the Cardinals offer and many of the better free agent starting pitchers are off the board. At the beginning of the offseason, Keith Law ranked his top 50 free agents. Of those players, twenty-two are starting pitchers. Twelve have already signed contracts with other teams. Of the remaining 10, three have received qualifying offers from their teams and would cost a draft pick to sign. Another is Johnny Cueto, who are already turned down six years and $120 million.

  • Zack Greinke QO
  • David Price
  • Johnny Cueto
  • Scott Kazmir
  • Mike Leake
  • John Lackey QO
  • Wei-Yin Chen QO
  • Jordan Zimmerman QO
  • Jeff Samardzija QO
  • Brett Anderson QO
  • Mat Latos
  • J.A. Happ
  • Ian Kennedy QO
  • Yovani Gallardo QO
  • Hisashi Iwakuma QO
  • Bartolo Colon
  • Mike Pelfrey
  • Rich Hill
  • Marco Estrada QO
  • Tim Lincecum
  • Trevor Cahill
  • Doug Fister
There are quality starting pitchers available. Red baron took a look at some potential fits among the players remaining. Joe examined the potential for Mike Leake, and also did the same for Mark Buehrle. Nick explored the possibility of bringing in Cliff Lee. There are options out there. The cost?

That does not seem like something the Cardinals would get involved in.

David Price was a "special case" according to John Mozeliak and a "unique opportunity" according to Bill Dewitt, Jr. in separate stories from Derrick Goold. None of the pitchers left on the the market present anywhere near that same opportunity. Here are the FanGraphs Depth Charts projections for the remaining starting pitchers worth even one win above replacement.

Johnny Cueto 207 7.7 2.3 3.53 3.77 3.1
Wei-Yin Chen 192 7.3 2 3.63 3.89 2.6
Scott Kazmir 169 8 2.6 3.77 3.8 2.5
Ian Kennedy 177 8.5 2.9 3.9 4.01 2.1
Mike Leake 206 5.9 2.3 4.13 4.22 2
Mat Latos 159 7.1 2.6 4.01 4.09 1.8
Yovani Gallardo 176 6.3 2.9 4.22 4.2 1.7
Bartolo Colon 177 5.8 1.4 4.09 4.21 1.7
Mark Buehrle 200 4.9 2 4.16 4.35 1.6
Doug Fister 154 5.6 2 4.24 4.29 1.4
Josh Johnson 82 7.6 2.6 3.87 3.85 1.1
Colby Lewis 163 6.7 2.2 4.28 4.46 1.1
Justin Masterson 117 6.9 3.8 4.28 4.24 1.1

We have gone over the current state of the Cardinals rotation, but here are the Cardinals Depth Chart projections again:

Adam Wainwright 213 7.2 1.9 3.51 3.48 3.7
Carlos Martinez 175 8.9 3.2 3.49 3.37 3.3
Michael Wacha 163 8 2.8 3.69 3.72 2.3
Marco Gonzales 136 6.9 3.1 4.04 4.21 1.1
Jaime Garcia 136 7.3 2.3 3.39 3.38 2.5
Tim Cooney 73 7 2.5 3.93 4.00 0.8
Tyler Lyons 56 8.6 2 3.21 3.31 1.1
Alex Reyes 18 9 5 4.27 4.13 0.2
Total 971 7.7 2.6 3.62 3.63 15

So the Cardinals could get someone to line up in their third slot for over $120 million. Every other pitcher on that list slots in as the fifth starter on a rate (ERA, FIP) basis. As noted in the intro, the starting staff has some question marks, but with the exception of Wainwright, those question marks appear to be baked into the projections. Martinez and Wacha come in with less than 180 innings and Garcia is pegged for under 140 innings. In this scenario the Cardinals' "fifth" starter pitches 283 innings and the Cardinals are still one of the top ten rotations in baseball.

Every team needs extra starters as no team makes it through with just five starters with most using eight or more. With the top targets gone, the Cardinals are shopping for depth at the starter position, and at the going rate, Mozeliak is right to express confidence in the in-house options and avoid multi-year contracts for the types of pitchers currently available, as he told Derrick Goold.

"We're not nervous going into the year with having Lyons, Cooney, or Marco Gonzales compete for that fifth spot," Mozeliak said Sunday night in the team's suite. "That's not to say we won't address it. We will assess where we are. I do think something shorter rather than longer makes more sense for us, if we do engage."

There are a lot of average to below-average players out there. Some of those players will remain unsigned for quite some time. Looking at the Cardinals roster right now, they do not have a single bad contract. They have avoided signing the types of deals that turn out poorly. Signing mid-range starters is an example of a deal that does not often end well. Pitching contracts in general do not often end well, especially when secured in free agency. The Cardinals have spent time and resources developing young pitching precisely so that they would not have to fill in the gaps on the free agent market. If the team has a need in-season, they address it.

For now, the team seems to be taking a smart approach.

If the team sees a pitcher in need of a home in January or February, then a one-year deal to provide depth makes sense. The market is not there yet. If the Cardinals believed David Price to be a special opportunity to go outside their comfort zone, then it is something they should have pursued just like they did. However, David Price's unique situation does not trickle downward. The Cardinals would be wise to stay out of the free agent market when it comes to pitching until the number of buyers looking for pitching flips with the number of pitchers looking for teams.