Adding A Starter: To Rent or Not To Rent?

As the Cardinals approach the trade deadline, the team’s needs don’t require a lot of digging.

The team’s biggest downfall has been on offense, but is largely due to underperformance from Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong (since May 1st). The greatest remedy for the lineup comes from inside the organization, with the team’s best hitters — based on talent and track records — actually rising up and being the team’s best hitters.

Bullpen help is always something worth acquiring. Even the strongest bullpens can use reinforcement.

But the need I want to focus on today is in the starting rotation.

Thanks to the overdue reassignment of Michael Wacha to the bullpen, the Cardinals are currently rolling the best five available starters in the organization. That doesn’t mean they should stand pat.

I have advocated for Daniel Ponce de Leon to get an extended look — much of that due to the struggles of Wacha justifying that someone replace him — but I also do not think the team should rely on him to carry them through the 2nd half.

I believe that starting pitcher is the one piece that they have to acquire at the trade deadline.

So the question is not whether they should acquire a starter, but rather which starter they should acquire, and whether that starter should be or the rental variety or not.

Candidates

Popular names include Madison Bumgarner, Trevor Bauer, Zack Grienke, Mike Minor, and Lance Lynn.

I don’t know that Texas will trade either of Minor or Lynn, having signed both to 3 year contracts prior to this season. I don’t believe Arizona will find the high-value return that they are going to covet for Grienke in-season, and will likely hold on to him. The Giants have hit a hot streak — as has Bumgarner — and will either hold on to him with eyes on the wild card, or demand a price that is too high for a pitcher that is a rental and no longer at his peak.

I believe Trevor Bauer to be the best fit for the Cardinals, because he has an extra year of control remaining beyond 2019, he has the true #1 ability that the current rotation lacks, and his progressive approach to using technology to seek improvement would be an asset to the entire staff, this year and especially next year. But I just can’t see why Cleveland would actually trade him when they are still very much in the playoff race. It seems logical to keep him for the stretch run and trade him in the offseason.

And that’s why I’m not focusing on any of those guys.

I think the most realistic trade targets for the Cardinals are Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays and Zack Wheeler of the Mets.

And so with the “who” answered, that brings us to whether they should rent (Wheeler) or not rent (Stroman)?

To Rent

Jun 27, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) pitches during the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

First, Wheeler is currently on the IL with some shoulder fatigue that has been described as not being a big concern. However, it’s the Mets, so… Still, there is a possibility that he manages to return just before the deadline. If he looks healthy, then the Cardinals should certainly look at him.

At a glance, his 6-6 and 4.69 ERA are nothing to be excited about. However, he has a significantly better FIP at 3.66, and a K% (25.6) and BB% (6.7) that are both better than the figures he posted during his breakout season in 2018. His 2.6 fWAR ranks 19th among Major League starters.

His FIP is better than any Cardinals starter this year. His K% would rank behind only Jack Flaherty and Ponce de Leon (small sample alert). Only Mikolas sports a lower BB% on the Cardinals.

And his fWAR, it nearly doubles that of the Cardinals top starter, Mikolas, who sports a 1.4 fWAR.

He also averages 6.26 innings per start. Is that more than any Cardinal? You bet it does, as Mikolas lead the staff at 5.70.

Simply, Wheeler has been better than any Cardinals starter this year.

For the Mets, he has been a victim of an atrocious defensive team, which makes him appear less attractive.

In terms of FanGraphs’ Total Defense, the Mets rank last in the majors at -43.0. They rank 28th with a collective -58 Defensive Runs Saved and 27th with a -5.8 UZR/150. They have the 8th most errors in MLB.

They aren’t helping their pitchers at all.

Conversely, the Cardinals are tied for the fewest errors in baseball, rank 6th with +49 defensive runs saves, 8th with a 4.0 UZR/150, and 16th in Total Defense at 1.1.

Put a team behind him that actually makes plays and his ERA will drop precipitously.

With Wheeler the question is health — which is why I mentioned that at the open — and whether the Cardinals want to trade assets for a pending free agent.

Assuming he returns healthy in the next 10 days…

The Pros…

To renting Wheeler is that you are not tied to his substantial injury history/risk in 2020.

The team can keep a spot open for Alex Reyes or Carlos Martinez to start in 2020. Or for Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, or Jake Woodford to compete for in Spring Training. They aren’t blocking anyone in the organization by acquiring a rental.

Finally, the Mets cannot demand as much return for a 2 month pitcher, especially given the recent injury concern. Perhaps the cost would be very reasonable, while return a substantial upgrade to the Cardinals.

The Cons…

Are that you do have to give up someone(s) that you think highly of to get a pitcher that will only be here for 2 months.

There is no guarantee Alex Reyes or Carlos Martinez are viable options for the rotation next year. There is no guarantee Adam Wainwright continues his renaissance into 2020 (or for the rest of 2019, for that matter), and he is only under contract for this year. With a rental, you potentially have 2 rotation openings in 2020, with questions surrounding the upside arms, and a cast of mid-upside guys behind them. However, that risk exists currently, as well. So trading for Wheeler does not add to that future risk.

I think the urgency of 2019 justifies the rental.

Not To Rent

Jun 29, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman (6) delivers a pitch against Kansas City Royals in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

So Marcus Stroman is a solid pitcher. He is not a lights out Ace, but he is a well established, good pitcher.

This year he has a 2.3 fWAR, 3.25 ERA, 3.72 FIP, a 19.1% K%, 7.4% BB%, and averages 5.82 innings per start. Other than a superior ERA, his numbers are just a tick below Wheeler’s across the board. However, just as I described with Wheeler, his season is better overall than any current Cardinals starter.

He is an immediate upgrade.

One thing that stands out with Stroman is that he is a ground ball machine, having induced them at a 57.9% clip this season. For reference, Dakota Hudson has a 59.1% groundball rate.

Clearly, the Cardinals defense is capable of backing up a groundball reliant pitcher, as Hudson has achieved great results over the last 2+ months. Stroman is a more polished pitcher than Hudson and there is no question in my mind that he would step in and continue to have success with the Cardinals.

Stroman also has one arbitration eligible season remaining in 2020, meaning the Cardinals would be acquiring him not just for the stretch run, but also for next year.

The pros…

With acquiring the extra year of control are that the team reduces the risk that I described earlier. They lock in another rotation spot for 2020, giving themselves a major upgrade now and certainty later.

Obviously a major pro is that they are getting a pitcher that ranks 26th in baseball in fWAR. This is no slouch, he walks in as the #1.

The cons…

Are limited. They do lock in a rotation spot for next year, potentially blocking someone else. However, this is baseball and those things tend to work themselves out.

The cost is the biggest con as it will be significantly higher than Wheeler’s due to the extra year of control and Stroman’s more solid track record. Do the Blue Jays get hung-up on one of the “untouchables” like Gorman or Carlson? Outside of those two bats, I think the Cardinals are willing to take the pain to get the gain — or at least, I hope they are — in making an aggressive move this year. There are several nice players in the system, but very few that would truly, TRULY, be missed.

Bottom Line

I am in favor of acquiring either starting pitcher, as long as the Cardinals are acquiring A starting pitcher.

Adding to the bullpen will cause a crowd, adding to the offense will require rearrangement/benching.

Adding to the rotation is relatively uncomplicated. Ponce is essentially the 6th starter filling in. You replace him with the acquisition. It’s a simple swap for a major upgrade. That’s why there is no excuse for this team to not trade for a starter.

Neither adds a true “Ace” to the rotation, but both make the rotation stout. Either one gives the team a rotation that truly offers a chance to win every single game.

I like Wheeler for the pure upgrade and because I think it is a very doable trade. However, his health remains to be seen.

I like Stroman for both the upgrade and the bonus of not having to go through this again next year, though the potential cost gives me very slight pause.

However, I don’t think the cost for either should give the Cardinals pause, it’s time to go for it.

They told us 2019 mattered.

Here we are, within reach of both the Central Division and a Wild Card spot. This is the time to put some chips on the table. No trade for Stroman or Wheeler is going to cripple the franchise long-term.

So…

To rent or not to rent?

Doesn’t matter.

Just go get a starting a pitcher.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to FanGraphs for the stats. Featured Image Photo Credit: Bill Streicher (Wheeler) / Dan Hamilton (Stroman) — USA Today Sports

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals9171.562 -
Brewers8973.5492.0
Cubs8478.5197.0
Reds7587.46316.0
Pirates6993.42622.0

Last updated: 09/30/2019

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