On the surface, one has to question why the St. Louis Cardinals would be looking to add another front-line starting pitcher. After all, the club has eight pitchers coming to camp with starting pitching experience in the Majors.
All along, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has said he will remain “opportunistic” in terms of possibilities to improve his team. As a result, it should not be surprising that FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi report the club has explored signing free agent Max Scherzer and trading for Detroit’s David Price and Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels.
It should be remembered that the two reporters made it very clear that no deals are imminent and that the Cardinals very well could stand pat. One should also take note that the big Cardinals “rumor” from all of two days ago, free agent James Shields, was not even mentioned.
Having said that, against the tide of overreaction, here are my eight reasons why the Cardinals could at least be considering a starting pitching upgrade.
1. Current pitching uncertainty
To summarize, here is where six of the eight potential starters stand currently. This includes three of the five projected rotation members. If you are reading this, you almost certainly already know the back stories for each pitcher.
Injury questions: Wainwright, Wacha, Garcia
Inexperience: Martinez, Gonzales, Lyons
Only Lynn and Lackey stand above the concerns, but the latter is 36 years old and has just one season remaining on his current contract.
2. More competitive Central Division
The Cubs are coming. Everyone has seen the increased spending and push to win from the Windy City. Milwaukee led the Central Division for five months last season and Pittsburgh has reached the post-season in each of the last two years.
3. Aging star core
The three top run-producers in the Cardinals lineup, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta, along with the team’s pitching ace, Wainwright, are all on the wrong side of 30. The club is running out of chances with this formidable core group to win another World Series.
4. Revenue increases coming
One has seen across baseball the tremendous impact of larger local television contracts being translated into higher player payrolls. The Cardinals are still a few years away from this benefit kicking in, but other revenues are up, too.
As such, the club can likely take on another big contract and still handle a considerable number of in-house increases on the horizon for younger players.
5. Trade chips available
Right now, the Cardinals are blessed with a quantity of good players already at or very close to the Majors. If they can leverage two or three of them into one true star, they have enough depth to not be damaged overall.
For example, Rosenthal and Morosi suggest it might take Martinez/Gonzales and Stephen Piscotty/Randal Grichuk to land Hamels. If the Cardinals wanted to make such a deal, it could immediately improve the club overall and not carry too much downstream risk. That would especially be the case, in my opinion, if Gonzales rather than Martinez was the one to go.
Of course, there could literally be dozens of other player possibilities, each with their own pros and cons. The big point is that the Cardinals have options.
6. Challenges in adding more offense
Many people standing from afar might think the Cardinals should make an offensive upgrade a greater priority than adding pitching. Even with the rotation concerns highlighted above, I might place myself among them.
However, realities make the addition of a big bat much more difficult than it may first appear.
The hitting market has dried up and the hurdles to acquire a top pitcher look to be lower right now. In addition, the Cardinals really do not have a lineup opening for another position player starter, unless they trade away one of their current starting eight to upgrade a position. Even then, there does not seem many options – centerfield, perhaps.
7. A replacement rotation lefty
To present a more balanced attack, Major League clubs like to have at least one left-hander in their rotation. Before his injuries, Garcia was that man for the Cardinals. As of now, however, the projected 2015 rotation consists of five right-handers.
Two other lefties are among the final contenders in Gonzales and Lyons, but acquiring a proven left-hander in Hamels or Price could bear immediate benefit.
8. Leverage in negotiations
One might think the Cardinals would be upset about these rumors hitting the general public. I think it is just the opposite. If I was Mozeliak, I would want the agents/other clubs to know I have various viable options to consider.
Agent Scott Boras is likely going to work his magic with free agent Scherzer, whether with the Cardinals or some other club. Some reports suggest the Tigers could not afford both Scherzer and Price. If that is true, the Tigers could come out with both prospects/inexpensive youngsters from trading Price plus a re-signed Scherzer. You can bet Boras is pitching that very scenario hard to Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski.
My quick take on the three options
The reason Scherzer would be third on my priority list for the Cardinals is not only that his cost in money and years will be highest, but the Cardinals would also lose their first-round draft pick and associated pool money for 2015. On the positive side, they would not give up depth.
Given the Cardinals already have acquired one major impending free agent question in Jason Heyward, adding another in Price would be a risky proposition. I get all the feel-good reasons why Price could sign an extension once with St. Louis, but he also might turn into a very expensive one-year rental.
The Phillies do not have to trade Hamels and with four years remaining on his contract (and fifth year or a buyout), Hamels would be the best choice for the Cardinals, in my opinion. Of course, the Phils may know that too and could be asking for the moon from St. Louis.
In closing, I want to be clear that my money is on nothing happening with any of these three (or four if you include Shields), but I certainly understand why the Cardinals are continuing to look for an “opportunity.”
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