How to Salvage the Cardinals’ Offseason

CMART(Sept. 19, 2015 – Source: John Konstantaras/Getty Images North America)

The St. Louis Cardinals are in the midst of a very underwhelming offseason. This statement is not really controversial. The Cardinals reportedly entered this offseason with more financial might than they have had in any previous offseason, thanks to their new television contract. Despite their increased wealth, the Cardinals have failed to improve their roster for 2016. They have whiffed in their attempts to add star players David Price and Jason Heyward and have lost significant pieces from their 100-win ball club of 2015. Beyond losing Heyward, the Cardinals will compete in 2016 without John Lackey and Lance Lynn, two of their top starters a year ago. Even with these significant losses, the Cardinals’ acquisitions have been underwhelming, with Jedd Gyorko, Brayan Pena and Jonathon Broxton constituting all of the Major League talent the club has added this offseason. Their lack of impact acquisitions isn’t from a lack of trying, as their offer to David Price was the second richest he received and their offer to Heyward exceeded $200 Million. Regardless, they signed neither of these players and are now potentially heading into the 2016 season with a significantly less talented roster, so how can they salvage their offseason?

For many people, the next logical move after missing on the top free agents is to move to the next tier of the market and maybe spread the money around to multiple players. This especially appears like an ideal next step for the Cardinals because this year’s class of free agents is very deep. However, this Cardinals roster does not have many holes to fill, just right field or first base and a starting pitcher position remain open for upgrades. The top position player free agents remaining don’t fit these needs for a right fielder or first baseman. The remaining outfielders all profile as left fielders, which hinders the Cardinals ability to add them because Matt Holliday has that position locked down for at least one more season. Chris Davis certainly seems like an ideal match for the Cardinals because he can take over first base and bring 40-homer power to a lineup starving for home runs. However, Davis has already turned down a 7-year contract worth upwards of $150 Million. This commitment isn’t beyond the Cardinals’ means, but they are known for being very prudent with their money and as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs pointed out, Chris Davis is likely to be a very poor investment due to how his one-dimensional skill set typically ages.

The market for starting pitchers, on the other hand, may be a better match with what the Cardinals are seeking, but it lacks any real impact arms. While solid mid-rotation arms like Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen and Scott Kazmir are still available, the Cardinals may not feel compelled to spend around $15 million per year on an extended contract for a marginal upgrade over their current options for a 5th starter.

The Cardinals’ next option beyond the free agent market is to turn to the trade market. The Cardinals are reportedly discussing a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for a starting pitcher, likely Jake Odorizzi. They could also engage the Indians on a trade for one of their young hurlers: Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar or Trevor Bauer. However, the increased price of pitching on the free agent market has driven up the cost of talent necessary to acquire a cost-controlled starter, like the ones above. The Indians are willing to trade from their rotation, but only if the return includes young, MLB ready position players. With the Cardinals looking to augment their offense as well, this trade scenario doesn’t matchup too well. Likewise, a trade for a quality outfielder, such as one of the Rockies’ starters Carlos Gonzalez, Corey Dickerson or Charlie Blackmon, will likely cost a young, MLB ready pitcher. Even if the Cardinals could find a trade partner that was seeking prospects, their system lacks elite prospects, barring Alex Reyes, who is near untouchable in trades. The Redbirds’ system does have plenty of depth, which leaves the door open for a trade, just not a very impactful one.

The best way to salvage this offseason may not involve significant forays into the free agent market or even the trade market, instead the Cardinals could use their increased financial might to extend some of their budding young stars. Locking in a few of their top young players may not improve their 2016 roster, but they may be able to contend without significant upgrades, as they are coming off a 100-win campaign and still project as 5th best team in the NL. While Heyward pointed to the Cardinals’ aging core as a primary reason for leaving, the Cardinals still boast an impressive collection of talented young players, and as I mentioned earlier they have a deep farm system. If the Cardinals can lock up a few of their key youngsters, namely Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, they can give themselves some cost-certainty moving forward and potentially lower their future costs. This will free them up to be aggressive in free agency again in an offseason or two. Extensions carry plenty of risk, especially when they involve pitchers and pitchers that have injuries in their recent past. The benefits of these extensions can outweigh the potential costs, especially since salaries for pitchers on the open market are growing much faster than those of position players. By guaranteeing the money ahead of free agency, the club can limit the overall cost of signing the player and certainly lower the amount of money due to the player in the future by paying more money up front, which makes perfect sense for the Cardinals because they have plenty of money to spend now.

So, what might the extensions for Rosenthal, Wacha and Martinez look like?

Rosenthal: 4 years, $38 Million + 1 club option for $13 Million

Rosenthal’s best comp is Craig Kimbrel’s extension from 2014. Kimbrel’s deal awards him $42 Million over 4 years with a club option valued at $13 Million. Rosenthal may not be as dominant as Kimbrel was when he signed, but he has the same amount of service time and has racked up plenty of saves to get a major payday through the arbitration process. Shutdown relievers are en vogue right now, so the cost to acquire control of two of his free agent years will be costly. However, relievers are also known to be quite volatile, so Rosenthal should be interested in locking in a significant guarantee, while he is both healthy and effective.

Wacha: 5 years, $37.5 Million + 1 club option for $15 Million

Wacha has just over 2 years of service, which means he is still one year away from arbitration and 4 years from free agency. His best comps include Yovani Gallardo, Jon Lester and Ricky Romero. Each of these starters signed for right around $30 Million over 5 years. While each pitcher had similar, if not slightly better, track records than Wacha, their extensions are a bit outdated as the price for starting pitchers has skyrocketed recently, so Wacha’s extension will have to adjust for this. What will likely keep Wacha’s extension below $40 Million is his distance from free agency, previous injury to his throwing arm and the fact that arbitration is slow to correct itself. The last point means that while free agent pitchers are receiving more money, pitchers going to arbitration have not seen as substantial increases in salary. Wacha’s rare shoulder injury in 2014 will likely motivate him to sacrifice two years of free agency in exchange for guaranteed money. The Cardinals will certainly consider Wacha’s health when discussing an extension, but it is important they lock Wacha in before he reaches free agency and sees his salary climb even further.

Martinez: 5 years, $35 Million + 1 club option for $15

Martinez has the same service time as Wacha, but a different case in his extension negotiations because he has only one full season as a starter under his belt. He may lack the same experience in the rotation as Wacha, but his one season in the rotation bested any of Wacha’s single seasons. Martinez is also considered to have a higher ceiling compared to Wacha, so his extension will have to consider the likelihood that his performance continues to top that of Wacha. Similarly, to Wacha, Martinez recently had a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his season, which may motivate him to give up to free agent years in order to gain financial security now.

Extending these budding stars may not improve the 2016 club, but it will prepare them to further improve the roster in the coming years by providing them cost-certainty. The 2016 roster likely doesn’t need a major addition to begin with; adding Heyward or Price would have been beneficial, but not essential. As always, the Cardinals have someone within the organization ready to step up. They should still look to augment this roster, but with more modest additions. If they can convince Mark Buehrle to play one last year before retirement, they can add to their rotation and give themselves more pitching depth in case any of their starters go down with injuries. If they are willing to spend more money, Scott Kazmir seems like a good fit if they can get him on a 3-year deal with an Average Annual Value under $15 Million. On the offensive side, they can sign Steve Pearce to a cheap 2-year deal to platoon with Matt Adams at first base and maybe Pearce will rediscover the magic he had in 2014. The Cardinals may not be able to sign each of these players to an extension because not every player is interested in giving away free agent years and not every player is worthy of a risky extension. However, putting their extra money towards locking in their young core and putting less of it into the free agent market is a better move than spending significant money on players that are not great fits for their club. The Cardinals dealt with arguably the worst injuries of any club last year and were still able to reach the 100-win plateau, so I don’t think it’s accurate to assume they have to force additions on their roster in order to succeed in 2016. While Heyward feels the club’s core is nearing the end of its run, the Cardinals have anther core ready to establish itself, just as they always do. They should use this offseason to begin ensuring their core of tomorrow will stay together for a long time to come.

Anthony Cacchione

The Case Against Moving Wacha to the Bullpen

When Michael Wacha was first promoted to the MLB, I gave a scouting report in which I suggested Wacha would eventually develop into a #2 or #3 starter. However, at least for the near future, the Cardinals have shifted Wacha to the bullpen. There are a few factors that led the Cardinals to make this decision, but most of them seem very shortsighted. The Cardinals should not risk Wacha’s long-term health and long-term abilities in order to slightly improve the team’s bullpen for the remainder of the 2013 season.
The Cardinals clearly have their reasons for changing Wacha’s role, and since they see the move as temporary, most of their motives are related to this season. There is no doubt that Wacha is ready for the Majors, as he has succeed in 4 Big League starts with a 4.37 ERA, which is inflated by one tough outing against Arizona. Despite Wacha’s success, there is really no opening in the rotation. The Cardinals feel that by moving Wacha to the bullpen they can limit his workload on the season, while still allowing him to contribute at the Major League level. Clearly, the Cardinals have a need in the bullpen if they are willing to convert one of their most prized starting pitching prospects into a reliever, even if it is only temporary. The Cardinals certainly need better performances from its relievers, as the team ranks 20th in ERA at 3.79, which is actually lower because of how good their late-inning relievers have done, but the middle relievers have not been as reliable. And while it was in the lower levels of the Minors, Wacha has enjoyed success as a reliever, with a 0.86 ERA across three Minor League levels last season. It is not crazy to think that Wacha can immediately dominate as a reliever at the Big League level, especially because he will be able to work with a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball and devastating -, while being able to only throw his curve on occasion. The current plan is for Wacha to be used as a late-inning reliever for the Cardinals, in order for them to control the innings of their other late-inning relievers.
Other than limiting his innings, which could have been accomplished by another method, none of these reasons are designed to improve Wacha’s long-term development. Obviously, at some point, a team has to stop focusing on a prospect’s future and shift to how that player can help the team now, but Wacha was drafted just last season, and still has plenty he needs to improve, such as his curveball. While a shift to the bullpen will limit his innings, it will also allow Wacha to pitch without using his curveball very much, which is a pitch he drastically needs to improve in order to take his game to the next level, as a true three-pitch pitcher. The better option for Wacha’s development would be to keep him in Triple-A as a starter and allow him to develop all three of his pitches until he reaches his innings limit, at which point the Cardinals can shut him down. Many young starting pitchers have been converted to relievers for what was meant to be temporary, yet not many are able to return to being successful starters. That list includes:

  • Joba Chamberlain, who carried a 2.28 ERA through 22 starts at the Minor League level, but just a 3.80 ERA through 247 career games, just 43 starts. Chamberlain’s last Major League start came in 2009, which was his only full season as a starter due to a 4.75 ERA in 31 starts.
  • The 12th pick of the 2009 Amateur Draft, Aaron Crow, is another starter that was rushed to the Majors to work out of the bullpen. While Crow has been a reliable reliever, he was given the opportunity to develop a third, so he works almost exclusively with his fastball-slider combo, which is effective as a reliever, but insufficient as a starting pitcher. Three years into his Major League career, Crow has never made a start.
  • Neftali Feliz dominated to a 2.95 ERA during his Minor League career, which covered 86 appearances, 58 of which were starts. After pitching almost exclusively as a starter for three years, Feliz was promoted as a reliever at the age of 21. Feliz dominated as a reliever at the MLB level and was even successful for his 7 starts in 2012. Unfortunately, Feliz underwent Tommy John surgery during the 2012 season, which is the year he attempted a return to the rotation, after three seasons as a reliever.

The Cardinals have clear motives for moving Wacha to the bullpen, and although they are valid in the short-term, it is worth considering the possible long-term effects of the such a move. On Wednesday, Wacha made his first relief appearance at the Major League level, and pitched 2 perfect innings recording 4 strikeouts. After his strong relief appearance on Wednesday, I have no doubt Wacha can dominate as a reliever, but it does not seem worthwhile to risk Wacha’s potential future as a reliable starter in order to improve the Cardinals’ bullpen for the remainder of the season. It seems even more questionable, since the Cardinals seem bound for the playoffs, and with so little of the season left, Wacha’s impact will not be that significant.

Anthony Cacchione

Scouting Report, Michael Wacha

Despite their best efforts, the St. Louis Cardinals have promoted top pitching prospect Michael Wacha in order to make his MLB debut on Thursday. The Cardinals wanted to keep Wacha in Triple-A in order to control his workload and prevent him from reaching Super-Two status, which would allow him to reach arbitration four times, instead of the normal three. Wacha was the 19th overall pick in last season’s Amateur Draft out of Texas A&M. Wacha will be the fourth player drafted in the 2012 draft to reach the Major Leagues, following Kevin Gausman of the Orioles, Paco Rodriguez of the Dodgers and Michael Roth of the Angels. The 6’6” right-hander is still just 21 years old. Wacha dominated across three levels last season, allowing just 2 ER in 21 innings total at Rookie Ball, High Single-A and Double-A. This season, Wacha has impressed with a 2.05 ERA across 52 2/3 innings at Triple-A. However, his peripheral statistics are a little more concerning as his K/9 is just 5.81 and his opponents BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is just .197, which suggests he has been a little lucky and explains his 4.00 FIP. His K/9 is down from 17.1 in 2012. He works with three pitches: fastball, change-up, curveball. Wacha works his fastball from 90-94 and actually reached 97 as a reliever last year. When Wacha can keep his fastball down in the zone he has good sink to it, but it flattens out when he elevates the pitch. His change-up is easily his best off-speed pitch, which is usually in the mid-80’s and has great fade, which makes it incredibly difficult to square up down in the zone. Wacha’s curveball is the reason he fell to the 19th pick in the draft, at the time it had very inconsistent break and he had trouble commanding the pitch. However, since joining the Cardinals’ organization, Wacha has greatly improved the pitch by making the break more consistent and more sharp. It is still not a plus pitch, but if it continues to improve it can be an average Major League pitch and a nice complement to the fastball and change-up. Wacha has tremendous command and control for someone his age, with just a 2.3 BB/9 and .7 HR/9 in 73 2/3 professional innings. His tremendous size helps him get great downward plane on all his pitches, which helps get the great downward movement on his pitches when they are thrown down in the zone. Wacha has a very fluid delivery, in which he uses everything effectively to generate great velocity and deception. He slightly turns his back to the hitter, which creates good deception by hiding the ball from the hitter a little longer. He is able to get great extension towards home plate and uses every inch of his 6’6” height and by getting this extension he keeps the ball down in the zone. He also creates deception by cutting his arm action short, which gives the hitter less time to see the ball, but I also wrote about the concerns with this when I wrote about Dylan Bundy, who has not pitched this year due to elbow discomfort. This is especially concerning for Wacha because even by cutting his arm action off, Wacha is still not able to get his arm back up by foot strike. The only other concerning part of his delivery is that Wacha slightly pulls his head off-center when throwing the pitch, which raises his arm and forces him to lose direct route to home plate. By raising his arm, he puts more stress on the arm rather than the entire body. He has a enough big frame to hold up as a workhorse even with these flaws. Plus he generates quite a bit of power from his lower half, which alleviates some of that extra stress he puts on his arm. It remains to be seen how long Wacha will be in the Cardinals rotation, because it mainly depends on Westbrook’s recovery from elbow discomfort, but Wacha seems ready to step in like so many other rookie pitchers for the Cardinals. Down the road, it seems very likely that he can develop into a #2 or #3 starter.

Anthony Cacchione