Starting pitching is not a strength of the Cardinals right now, but given the high demand for starters, the Redbirds should consider trading them anyway.
As it stands right now, the Cardinals rotation is unimpressive. Carlos Martinez may be a front-end starter, but nobody else is better than a number three, if that. Sure, Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver have a lot of potential, the former having more of it, but they aren’t there yet. After the Cardinals picked up Jaime Garcia’s option today, their healthy starting pitchers are: Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Garcia, Reyes, Weaver, and possibly Michael Wacha. Many fans would probably like to see the team buy starting pitchers right now, but I recommend selling.
My recommendation to sell is less about who the Cardinals have, and more about what MLB teams want. Most teams looking to “buy” players tend to be in the top half of the majors. These teams either want to stay in the playoff race or put themselves in it. On the surface, the Cardinals would appear to be a part of that group. However, here are some reasons why they should resist the temptation to do so:
Many contenders need starting pitching, yesterday.
Boston, Texas, Baltimore, Toronto, and the LA Dodgers could all be in the market for starting pitchers. The first four have major holes in their rotation, while the Dodgers have many injury-prone hurlers. Oh, and those are just the playoff teams. The Yankees, Astros, Marlins, Pirates, and Rockies are all teams that want to compete next year. None of them should have the utmost confidence in their rotation.
While I don't get excited about another season of Jaime Garcia, the option pickup makes sense. Good trade chip. Handle carefully. #STLCards
— Dan Buffa (@buffa82) November 3, 2016
The other thing that is great about many of the team’s that I just mentioned is that they don’t need aces. The Cardinals don’t have an ace to give, and shouldn’t even think about dealing Martinez. That leaves those back-end starters to dangle in trades, and these teams that want to contend next year could use some of them. Boston needs pitchers behind David Price. Texas needs pitchers behind Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. The Dodgers need pitchers behind Kershaw. These teams will all want pitching, but few will want front-end starters. That lends itself well to what the Cardinals have to offer.
The free agent market for starting pitching stinks
There is a reason that many teams are linked to a 37-year-old pitcher with a wrecked injury history this offseason. Rich Hill is one of the best options that this free agent market has to offer for starting pitchers. Really, I challenge you to figure out the best free agent starting pitcher. Your debate will likely come down to a few names such as Henderson Alvarez, Ivan Nova, or Hill. Teams may be able to find a serviceable fifth starter in free agency, but nothing more. In other words, starting pitchers will be the talk of the trade market this Winter.
Ultimately, this comes down to supply and demand. It can’t really be known what the supply curve will be for starting pitching yet, but the demand will be sky high. Given that information, would you rather be buying or selling? Suddenly, selling seems like a very compelling option. Cardinals fans grew to hate Jaime Garcia by September, but, as Rohan Gupta pointed out, he would have been one of the best options on the free agent market had the Cardinals declined his option.
Given how inflated the trade market will be for starting pitchers, the Cardinals can fix a lot of holes by selling. Martinez, Wainwright, and Reyes aren’t going anywhere, but the others should be expendable. In any other offseason, it may seem ridiculous to suggest that Garcia could net an everyday player in return. In this market, it’s feasible. Same goes for Mike Leake and Michael Wacha. If the Cardinals really want to extract value from this market, though, they will consider trading Weaver.
Weaver check all the boxes that teams are looking for: starting pitcher, young, years of control. Including Weaver in a deal means that the Cardinals could get an All-Star caliber player. The other pitchers can return improvements for the Cardinals, but Weaver can return much more. In a straight up deal, Weaver probably gets a 3-4 WAR player. Trading Weaver for a player on the level of Martin Prado may be well worth the price, because …
The Cardinals have depth in the rotation … and holes elsewhere
You may not like all the pitchers in the Cardinals’ rotation, but they have a lot of back-end guys. Between Leake, Garcia, Wacha, and Weaver, the team has four guys who can fill the last two spots. Plus, Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, and Lance Lynn should be returning this year. The way I see it, the Cardinals should trade at least three of those seven pitchers. Whichever three return the most value above what they are worth should be the ones to go. Finding the best pair for the 4th and 5th rotation spots probably is not all that consequential (although I am partial to Mike Leake). Finding the best value in the trade market can alter a team’s outlook much more.
The other issue facing the Cardinals is that they have many more flaws than just pitching. According to WAR, Jhonny Peralta, Tommy Pham, Jeremy Hazelbaker, and Matt Holliday were all below average. That’s over 1100 plate appearances and 2100 innings in the field in which the Cardinals need more. This team could add an extra 5-6 wins from position players by trading three pitchers, and even more if one of those pitchers is Luke Weaver. They would not lose much of anything in the rotation because they have that aforementioned depth.
In a perfect world, the Cardinals would keep all of their pitchers and figure out which ones may be able to take a leap forward or bounce back. In this world, the Cardinals should take advantage of an inflated trade market. Jaime Garcia, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha would normally have little value in a trade. This offseason, they will have plenty of it. Given the Cardinals holes elsewhere, they can get more value by trading these pitchers than they can by holding onto them.
Photo Credit: Bill Streicher – USA TODAY Sports