The Cardinals should bunt more often

I thought that might get your attention.

Image result for matt carpenter bunt

Ever since teams started shifting against left-handed hitters, crowds of eminently knowledgeable baseball fans have been screaming for those lefty hitters to bunt against the shift. As Mr. Baseball Genius Extraordinaire sees the second baseman pulled into shallow right field, the shortstop looking lost on the wrong side of the bag, and the third baseman pulled a furlong and a half away from the 3rd base line, I can hear him screaming at the TV, “Just bunt the damn ball right down the line! Even Matt Carpenter could run for days!” “He should bunt every time to beat the shift!” Eventually someone like Matt Adams would try to bunt to beat the shift and said baseball genius would scream out “Finally!” as the bunt trickles foul along the 3rd base line. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t always do that!”

Defensive shifts are changing the way in which the game is played and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for left-handed hitters because those shifts are taking away a lot of what used to be hits and turning then into routine ground outs. Even a hard hit ball to right field often ends up in nothing more than a 4-3 ground out as the 2nd baseman is positioned in short right field specifically to take away those base hits. This leaves the 3rd base line open but left-handed hitters don’t often hit the ball down the 3rd base line.

Below you’ll find a diagram of all of Carpenter’s batted balls for the 2017 season. The green dots are his ground balls. It’s pretty clear by looking at the diagram that his fly balls tend to go to left-center field and left field more than right but his line drives and ground balls are predominantly to the right side. Knowing that, how would you position your fielders if you were defending Carpenter?

chart

Carpenter is, therefore, a perfect candidate to lay down some bunts in order to reach base more often but there are 2 primary reasons why lefty batters don’t “do that every time!!!!” The first is that homers and doubles are much more valuable than bunt singles. It may surprise you to learn that bunts rarely, if ever, turn into home runs. It’s extremely rare. (I actually went looking on baseball-reference to find the number of bunt home runs in MLB history but there was no way to look for one in the play index. A google search came up with videos of Brian Dozier and Steven Souza hitting bunt homers but they’re both actually bunt singles with errors that turned them into “Little League Home Runs.”)

The 2nd reason players don’t bunt that often against the shift is that bunting major league pitching, especially when the hitter is trying to surprise the defense, is really freaking hard. Fans sit at home crushing a bag of Funyuns thinking that bunting against Aroldis Chapman is something anyone can do anytime they try but it just isn’t that easy. Nevertheless, neither is hitting against the shift.

Bunting against the shift is easier for a lefty hitter to pull off than a right-handed hitter because the 3rd base line is exploitable. First basemen don’t leave the 1st base line open against righties because they have to get to 1st base to catch the throws from whoever fields the ball. The Cardinals basically only have 3 left-handed hitters — Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Dexter Fowler (switch-hitter). I’m not going to worry about Greg Garcia for purposes of this discussion because, you know…Greg Garcia.

The table below shows the 3 hitters’ wOBA against the shift in 2017 and their wOBA on ground balls in 2017 (per fangraphs).

Player wOBA vs shift wOBA on grounders
Carpenter .298 .230
Fowler .291 .178
Wong .349 .254

 

So Wong actually performed better against the shift last season than he did overall but Carpenter and Fowler were dramatically worse and all 3 hitters were much worse on ground balls than they were overall (not a shocking result, to be sure).

So in order for us to suggest that they bunt more often, they would have to be able to do better when bunting the ball than they performed when they weren’t bunting. In 2017, both Wong and Carpenter performed very well when bunting for a hit. Wong had 4 hits in 9 attempts when bunting for a base hit and Carpenter had 4 hits in 7 attempts. Fowler, on the other hand, had no bunt hits in 2017 even though he is the fastest of the 3. Of course, even a guy like Carpenter who’s (ahem!) a bit challenged on the bases can get bunt hits because of where the 3rd baseman is positioned. Even though Fowler has no bunt hits last season, he was 2 for 5 in 2016, 3 for 8 in 2015, and 3 for 5 in 2014 so he clearly knows how to bunt.

Now, obviously, all these bunt hits are going to be singles so a batting average of, say, .400 is going to end up with a slugging percentage of .400 also an OPS of .800. Guys like Fowler and Carpenter who can hit the ball out of the park with some regularity should be judicious about how often they bunt but I think it’s fair to say they should be bunting more often than they are, especially considering how most hitters perform against the shift.

Still, these 3 guys have all had a high degree of success when bunting for base hits in the past. There’s no reason that can’t continue in 2018. If they could, between them, bunt for a .400 or higher average, then how many times should they attempt to bunt for a hit? The answer is, first of all, that they should clearly bunt for a hit more often against lefties than righties, at least for Wong and Carpenter. For Fowler, that’s more difficult to determine because, even though he was much better vs. righties last season, he’s been much better vs. lefties over the course of his career.

So against the shift, the 3 should bunt more often — possibly a lot more often — until teams change the way they set their defense. It’s a classic game theory situation, with the Cards’ hitters all being quite good bunters and the defense — to this point — allowing those 3 to bunt so as to better defend ground balls and line drives that are pulled to the right side. In my mind, it wouldn’t be too many if they each decided to bunt 15-20 times this season as long as teams allow them to do it and they can do so successfully.

Teams are sacrificing a lot less often as they’ve come to realize how valuable outs are and that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give them up for a small gain. But bunting for hits can and probably should be used more frequently because of the frequency with which teams are deploying defensive shifts. Fortunately, the Cardinals have 3 guys who can use their ability to bunt to take advantage of these shifts, thus putting more bodies on the bases and giving the team more scoring opportunities.

Thanks for reading.

The D.L could end up being the rotation’s best friend.

Of primary interest to Cards’ fans as the team approaches spring training is what the team plans to do with Alex Reyes. Clearly, the team plans to try to limit his innings, and rightly so, since he is just coming off Tommy John surgery. Add to that the fact that Reyes has never thrown more than 111.1 innings in a season and you don’t have to squint too hard to see that Reyes probably isn’t a strong candidate for a 200 inning season.

The team’s goals surely have to be to play as deep into October as possible which means that any starting pitcher who throws 180 innings in the regular season could be in for another 30-40 in the postseason. The team has indicated that Reyes probably won’t pitch in a game until May so that will limit his innings some but the question is how to get the most out of Reyes because he can be so dominant while still reasonably limiting his innings.

If Reyes is in the rotation it’s conceivable that he could be the team’s #2 starter in the postseason. I’d probably have more confidence in him than I would Michael Wacha in game 2 of a series (or game 1 if the Cards have to play in the Wild Card game). On the other hand, Reyes could be a dominant reliever or even closer who could really help the team shorten games in October. I tend to think that he’ll end up in the pen this year because that would give him a chance to dominate in high-leverage situations while still managing his innings. Leaving him in the pen, however, would only give the team maybe half the innings from Reyes that it would get from him in the rotation.

What if the team found a way to get Reyes in the rotation while still limiting his innings by using some kind of modified 6-man rotation? (Pause while I read Craig Edwards’ Fangraphs piece on the Angels and their 6-man rotation. Great minds and all…)

It’s become common knowledge ever since the Angels signed Shohei Ohtani that they were going to go to a 6 man rotation. The logic behind this is two-fold. First, Ohtani is accustomed to pitching in every 6th day in Japan and they want to make the transition as smooth as possible. Second, he’s also going to be DH-ing some and they’re going to want to probably give him the day off immediately before and after pitching so this would give him the days off as well as a couple days to hit in between his starts on the mound.

The Cards’ rotation faces some of the same issues the Angels’ rotation faces. First, not only will the team want to limit Reyes’s innings, but the team has to be concerned about the ability of Luke Weaver, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha to throw 220-230 innings between the regular season and the postseason. Weaver has never thrown more than 138 innings in a season. Mikolas is coming to the Cards from pitching every 6th day in Japan. Wacha’s innings maximum for a season is about 186 and that was in 2015 and every Cards’ fan is aware of the problems Wacha had in the 6th and 7th innings of games last season. Finally, I think every Cards’ fan would be damned-near ecstatic to get about 120 league-average innings from Wainwright. It seems reasonable to think that the team would be better off trying to get about 150 innings from these guys than trying to get 180 innings from any of them.

Carlos Martinez, of course, is pretty close to being an ace and the team is going to need him to go every 5th day but that doesn’t mean that the team can’t use the 10-day disabled list in much the same way as the Dodgers used it last year. In 2017, the Dodgers bounced 6 or 7 (or sometimes more than 7) starters between the 25 man roster and the disabled list in order to keep their rotation fresh for the postseason. So, assuming no major injuries, the team could call up Reyes in early May and put, say, Wainwright on the DL for a couple weeks in order to give him some rest and allow those aches to quit, you know, aching. When the team calls up Wainwright maybe then they give Weaver or Mikolas a rest. If Martinez needs a break at some point, they can disable him for a couple weeks and the team does the same thing over and over throughout the season. If something happens such that any starter needs a much longer stint on the D.L., surely Jack Flaherty will be ready to step in.

Last season the team got 919 innings from starting pitchers and Fangraphs has them projected for 948 in 2018. That includes 142 from Wainwright (which seems a bit high from me but I’ll certainly take it) and 94 from Reyes. If the team used the Dodgers’ DL strategy and got ~200 IP from Martinez, that would leave ~720 or so from everyone else. So maybe the team could get 180 from Wacha, 120 from Wainwright (hopefully), maybe 300-320 from Mikolas and Weaver, 100 or so from Reyes and then 40-50 from Flaherty and others. That adds up to about 750 so if the team only gets 40-50 from Wainwright then it can get maybe more from Flaherty or Reyes (and, perhaps, be better off for it).

This strategy would allow the starters to be (relatively) fresh for any postseason run and would still allow the team to limit Reyes’s innings in his first season since his TJ surgery. Now, how good would the rotation be? It’s clearly behind the Dodgers, Nationals, and Cubs in the NL but Fangraphs still has the Cards for 15.3 WAR from the rotation — 5th in the NL. It would actually be higher if the team got a few more innings from Weaver, Mikolas, Reyes, and even Flaherty and fewer innings from Wainwright.

The team would be using a 6-man rotation starting every 5th day by using the DL creatively the way the Dodgers did last season. This would enable the team to get the most from the young/new guys like Weaver, Mikolas, and Reyes while still keeping them relatively fresh for the postseason.

Thanks for reading.

 

I’m starting to like what I see

It’s not profound to declare that the Cardinals had some issues with their bullpen in 2017. In fact, the team made it clear that shoring up the end of the pen was one of its most important priorities this offseason. And yet, as fall turned to winter and we headed toward the day pitchers and catchers report, we all were forced to sit and watch as reliever after reliever was kicked off of free agent island and shipped to their new destinations. Relief pitcher is seemingly the only position where free agents have actually signed, and yet only the estimable Luke Gregerson was signed for the Cards’ roster.

And fans fretted…

The 2017 pen actually wasn’t as bad as it seemed to be. It was 7th in baseball in ERA and 8th in FIP. It was 12th in reliever WAR but the problems the team had with its closer position in particular made it seem like the pen was much worse than that. That’s probably because the team had the 4th most meltdowns in the game. According to Fangraphs, a meltdown “is when a reliever’s WPA is less than or equal to -0.06 in any individual game.” Cards’ relievers did this 90 times in 2017. Combine all this together and we see that, basically, the relievers pitched fairly well but when they didn’t they really blew up.

As we would expect given the team’s concerns about its closers, Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal had a bunch of those meltdowns (11 each) and Matt Bowman had 14. No Cardinal exemplified this meltdown problem better than Brett Cecil, however, who had the 2nd most meltdowns in baseball with 17. (As it turns out, Cecil’s given name is Brett Aarion Cecil, not Brett Fucking Cecil as Cards’ Twitter had led me to believe.)

Cecil actually had a pretty good year in 2017. His K:BB ratio was 4:1 and his FIP was 3.26. The problem was that he got A-bombed 3 times, giving up 4 runs against the Cubs in April, the Reds in June, and the Braves in August. Cecil also projects to be quite good in 2018 as ZIPS loves him.

Tyler Lyons really emerged in relief in 2017 with a FIP below 3.00 and a 31% K rate. He could be a poor man’s Andrew Miller, going more than 1 inning to set up the closer or possibly even becoming the closer, if needed. I think he would be more valuable, however, in that Andrew Miller role.

Last month the team traded for Dominic Leone from the Blue Jays. This guy was deadly in 2017 — another guy with a FIP under 3.00 and a K rate over 30%. He’s a hard fastball, cutter guy who just carved up opponents last season. While he was fantastic against righties, he also pitched extremely well (3.58 FIP) vs lefties leaving open the possibility that he could emerge as a closer.

Gregerson has always been a fastball-slider guy who’s been outstanding against righties but when Mozeliak proclaimed him the team’s closer as of now, I was taken aback. Unlike Leone, he’s never been all that good against lefties due to his arm slot and repertoire. He’s really closer to being a ROOGY than someone who you’d want in the closer role simply because he has a difficult time matching up against lefties. So despite my concerns about Gregerson in the 9th, I’ve always felt reasonably confident about his ability to get righties out in the 6th through 8th innings. Still, Zach Gifford raised some legitimate concerns about what’s happening with his slider but the bullpen’s depth should allow the team to avoid using him in high leverage situations if it turns out he can’t handle them.

Today the team added Bud Norris to the pen, an addition I think could help a lot. His stuff really plays up in relief as he’s added a 90 mph cutter to his mid-90’s fastball which got the K rate to nearly 28% in 2017. He did go through some knee inflammation last year that led to a pretty bad couple of months but he was dominant in the first half and in September for the Angels. Read Jeff Sullivan’s take on this signing to get a sense of high this could really be a coup for the team.

So right now, this pen’s top 5 looks like Lyons and Cecil from the left side and Gregerson, Leone, and Norris from the right side. These aren’t really well-known guys but they’re guys who could be really good.

To that 5 we add Bowman, the ground ball specialist (and Matheny man-crush) who, despite a relatively low K rate, does have a high GB% and had a 3.65 FIP in 2017. If he’s the pen’s 6th best guy, this pen is really good.

John Brebbia was great in 2017 and can definitely contribute if he continues with his 4.5:1 K:BB rate. Because he’s a fly ball pitcher, he’s prone to giving up homers but he showed that he has some promise as well.

Sam Tuivailala might have the best stuff of anyone in the bullpen but so far in the big leagues it really hasn’t translated into the strikeouts that we’ve hoped for. Still, we’re talking about a guy with a good, hard fastball (probably the hardest in the bullpen), a hard slider, and a good curveball. If he can put it together, he could have the kind of season for the Cards that Leone had for the Blue Jays last season. And he’s out of minor league options so he’s going to get every chance to make it.

There’s 8 guys who could pitch for damned near anyone. There may not be another team in the National League with 8 guys in their pen who are this good. There’s no Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel but there’s a lot of depth, some with the ability to emerge as elite bullpen guys.

Maybe the best part is that we still haven’t mentioned the 4 young guys who all have great stuff and could emerge as dominant guys. Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks have the ability to dial up triple digits and Dakota Hudson could be that 7th or 8th inning guy who comes in and destroys hitters with that wipeout slider. And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room, Alex Reyes. I don’t have any idea what the team plans to do with him when he starts game action in May — he could be a tremendous boost to the starting rotation — but if the team decides to utilize him in the pen to better control his innings coming off of Tommy John surgery, he could add one hell of an ICBM to the bullpen’s arsenal. Imagine Matheny being able to turn to Reyes in the 8th or even him emerging as a dominant closer in June or July.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about the team’s starting rotation. Indeed, I’ve been as vocal as anyone in begging Mozeliak to trade for Chris Archer to boost the rotation. But I can envision a scenario where the team only needs all the starters not named Martinez to get 15-18 outs and then turning the game over to the bullpen. If the team needs a starter, then they could trade for one in July.

The trend in baseball is clearly toward expecting less from starting rotations and expecting more from the relievers. It looks like Mozeliak is doing just that. Now, some Cards’ fans will rightly point out that this plan (if I’m correct in identifying it) is predicated on Matheny’s ability and commitment to getting the starters out early and selecting the right relievers to use later on. That’s a big if but that’s also part of why the team added Mike Maddux as its pitching coach.

All that considered, I see the makings of a really good bullpen, one that could help the team shorten the game both in the regular season and in the postseason. It’s short on big names, but long on ability and there’s a good chance that Cards’ fans will take notice of how good some of these guys really are in 2018.

Thanks for reading.

More on why I’m so bullish on the OTHER Martinez

I wanted to add something to my post from yesterday where I advocated for using Jose Martinez to be a major part of the team’s infield during 2018. In it, I essentially made the argument (without supporting it) that the ZIPS and Steamer projections for Martinez are selling him short. I felt that needed to be explained.

Back in September, Dave Cameron — then of Fangraphs; now of the San Diego Padres — came to this conclusion about Martinez. He said:

“But if I’m John Mozeliak, I’d probably just keep Martinez and make him my everyday first baseman next year.”

It was this article that really got me starting thinking about Martinez because he referenced a lot of the same sorts of things I mentioned in my post yesterday — that his exit velocity was among the highest in the league, that his xwOBA was 5th highest in baseball, and that — in contrast to what we normally think about these “fluke” type seasons — Martinez was probably actually unlucky in 2017.

About a week ago, Zach Gifford over at Birds on the Black, authored an article entitled, “Tempering Expectations about Marcel Ozuna.” The main idea of the article was that, if Cards’ fans were expecting Ozuna to have a season similar to 2017 or that his career might be on upward trajectory, they might be bitterly disappointed if he actually turns out to be worse. His xwOBA in 2017 was about 26 points lower than his actual wOBA and that he was only 70th in baseball in barrels, according to Baseball Savant. These numbers indicate that Ozuna was very lucky in 2017 and might not be able to repeat it in 2018. The difference, however, is that the ZIPS and Steamer projections both seem to account for that luck — though Steamer is much more bullish on Ozuna than ZIPS.

The projections for Martinez, on the other hand, don’t really appear to factor in Martinez’s unluckiness in their projections. Truthfully, it’s probably much more likely that Martinez has much less of a track record even than Ozuna and so projecting him is much more difficult than projecting Ozuna is. Still, Martinez was a .379 wOBA guy last year when unlucky and he’s projected for around .336 by Steamer and .331 by ZIPS. Xstats does have him projected for a .370 wOBA in 2018.

So, yeah, I think the projections are selling him short and, if so, he’s going to be a really good hitter for the team in 2018 and should be getting a lot more playing time. If he can put up the kind of batting line he did last year — which, to me, isn’t unreasonable considering the fact that he was so unlucky last season — and the team gives him around 500 PA’s by using Matt Carpenter or Jedd Gyorko as the super-sub, he could add another 1 to 1.5 wins to the team’s total. ZIPS has Martinez pegged for 1.1 WAR in 2018 in just 399 PA’s. Give him another 100 PA’s and another 30-40 points of wOBA and he’s now probably a 2.5 WAR player. The team — now projected for 88 wins by Fangraphs — then becomes an 89 or 90 win team and probably 1 player away from being a strong contender for the division title.

Ultimately, it wouldn’t surprise me 1 bit if:

  1. Martinez is the team’s leader in wOBA in 2018 AND
  2. Martinez has more WAR than any of the other Cardinal infielders

But to do those things, Matheny is going to have to write his name in the lineup card regularly.

I’m not a guy who routinely bad-mouths the projections. The people who put those together are much smarter than I am and those projections do a much better job projecting player performance than I ever could. I’m not going to quibble with the projections for Ozuna, Paul DeJong, or any other Cardinal player but I think they’re awfully light on Martinez.

Thanks for reading.

Maybe the impact bat the Cardinals need is already on the roster

A few days ago, I had this interaction with @GirschMo on Twitter:

It was a flippant, offhand remark I made without thinking but I still think I was right. Let’s see.

2017 BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+
Martinez 10.4 19.5 .210 .379 135
Moustakas 5.7 15.7 .249 .345 114

 

So, Moustakas had a lower K rate and a higher ISO in 2017 but Martinez was pretty clearly the better hitter with the caveat that it came in just 307 plate appearances. Still, Martinez had never done this before. Players have fluky seasons all the time. He won’t be able to repeat it. This was probably one of those Bo Hart sort of experiences that Cards’ players have every now and then, right? Maybe not.

Here’s some other data for Martinez in 2017, courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Player xwOBA xwOBA – wOBA Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle
Martinez .411 .025 90.6 10.8
Moustakas .339 -.016 87.3 18.3

 

So, as far as the predictive stats go, aside from Moustakas being more likely to hit homers (and popups) than Martinez, Martinez shows all the characteristics of being a better hitter than Moustakas going forward. He hits the ball harder and it was actually Moustakas who was relatively lucky in 2017. If anything, Martinez was relatively unlucky as shown by the fact that his actual wOBA was .025 lower than his xwOBA. In fact, only 4 hitters in the game had a higher xwOBA than Martinez in 2017 — Aaron Judge, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and J.D. Martinez. That’s pretty good company.

But it’s probably a fluke, right? I mean, he only had 307 PA’s last season and both ZIPS and Steamer take a relatively conservative approach when projecting Martinez for 2018. (ZIPS has him projected for a .331 wOBA and a 104 wRC+ and Steamer has him projected for a .336 wOBA and a 107 wRC+.) Actually, though it was in very few PA’s, his xwOBA in 2016 was .426. The point is that every available indicator tells us that this guy can really hit.

Of course, there are other things to consider. Moustakas can play 3B which would make Jedd Gyorko available for super-sub duty and would also add the left-handed hitter that the team seems to think is necessary. Martinez is limited to corner OF and 1B and isn’t very good at either. On the other hand, Fangraphs projected Moustakas would receive a 5 year, $95 million contract this offseason and MLB Trade Rumors projected him for 5 years and $85 million. Martinez has 5 more years of team control and will make the major league minimum this year. Now, considering the way the market has played out so far this offseason, the fact that the Cards might even be involved in any discussion for Moustakas means he’s going to get less than $85 million but I don’t really see the point even if we’re talking something like 3 years and $50 million.

I get that Moustakas makes the Cardinals somewhat more versatile this year and beyond by offering the lineup another left-handed hitter and allowing Gyorko to be the super-sub. I also get that Matt Carpenter isn’t a very good fielder and probably belongs at 1B, but I feel pretty confident saying that Martinez is a considerably better hitter than Moustakas. If the team wants to use Gyorko as the super-sub, they should just move Carpenter back to 3B and install Martinez at 1B. When they want to sit Martinez, Carp goes to 1B and Gyorko to 3B. The team would be better off spending that Moustakas money on the rotation where there is a more obvious hole.

Get rid of Martinez so that we can pay Moustakas $50+ million? No way, Jose.

The Cards may have just decreased their chances of trading for Josh Donaldson

This is going to be a short commentary on today’s trade with the Blue Jays. The Cards traded Randall Grichuk today for Jays’ reliever Dominc Leone and minor league pitcher Conner Greene. This obviously fills a need in the bullpen and also clears out some of the excess from the team’s outfield.

Leone had an outstanding year last year and Greene has some potential as a hard-throwing reliever. The Cards were able to get some quality in exchange for Grichuk because Grichuk himself has value. He’s projected as a 2 win outfielder who can play CF and potentially hit 30 bombs.

Meanwhile, the Jays are in a bit of a pickle regarding Donaldson. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and stands to be the recipient of a huge contract next off-season. He’s unlikely to re-sign with the Jays, who are caught in a sort of purgatory as a team that projects to be not quite good enough to contend and not quite bad enough to rebuild. As such, the Cards have been interested in trading for Donaldson, though the Jays have resisted all advances.

The Jays basically have 2 options this offseason if they’re not able to extend Donaldson — either trade him and rebuild or go all-in to try to win this season which might have the side benefit of convincing Donaldson that they can be a winner in the future. Going all-in means repairing all the holes they have, particularly in their starting lineup. Considering the fact that the Jays outfield AS A WHOLE accumulated just 2.8 WAR in 2017 and only Kevin Pillar projects to be worth more than 1.3 WAR in 2018, the team needs massive help in the outfield. Prior to the trade, the Jays projected to be an 83 win team so Grichuk puts them around 85. They can’t be done yet but it’s pretty clear that if they add a guy like Lorenzo Cain or trade for Christian Yelich then now they’re projected for 87 or 88 wins and are squarely in the playoff hunt. The trade for Grichuk gets them closer to that goal.

Needless to say, the Jays won’t be trading Donaldson if they’re in the playoff chase. Only if they fall out of the race by July will they even make him available as the trade deadline approaches so the Cardinals’ chances of trading for Donaldson went from slim to extremely unlikely.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying this was a bad trade. The Jays were probably not going to be trading Donaldson anyway and tomes have been written on the interwebs just over the last week or so about how desperate the Cardinals’ reliever situation was. The Cardinals needed Leone almost as badly as the Jays needed Grichuk and the team is better off having made the trade. But it’s clear that the Cards’ management had become convinced that Donaldson would not be traded until July at the earliest and, as a result, decided to add an excellent reliever even if it meant helping the Jays get a little bit closer to being an AL playoff team.

Thanks for reading.

What to expect from Waino

Once the Cards traded for Marcell Ozuna and we got the corner OF and middle of the order hitter we needed, the buzz was that the Cardinals were going to acquire their new closer. To be sure, the 9th inning was a huge problem for the team last season but I couldn’t get over the nagging feeling that the rotation was a little bit short. The goal certainly was to play deep into the postseason and, if the postseason began today, Michael Wacha would be the team’s starter in game 2. Now, I like Wacha just fine and, in fact, Joe Schwarz over at Birds on the Bat recently discussed how good he actually was last year (hint: nearly as good as Carlos Martinez) but he’s still, in my mind, just a 5-6 inning guy who shouldn’t be pitching to anyone a 3rd time through the order. Maybe he should be on the bump in game 3 but not game 2 against Strasburg, Rich Hill, or Lester or Quintana.

I like the addition of Miles Mikolas and Luke Weaver obviously demonstrated that he’s ready to take the next step and become a regular member of the rotation. Martinez is a borderline ace and there’s lots of depth in the upper minors. There’s a lot to like about the team’s rotation but it also seems that 1.) there may not be much margin for error or injury and 2.) the rotation looks a lot like the rest of the roster with a lot of average-ish guys but lacking the stars it needs to be a postseason contender.

Mo’s declaration a few days ago that Luke Gregerson would be the team’s closer if the season started today wasn’t his first pretty shocking declaration of the offseason. The first shocking declaration of the offseason was that Mo was confident in the team’s starting rotation at this point. There’s no uneasiness about the rotation at all? Maybe I’d get it if Alex Reyes would be part of the rotation when he joins the pitching staff in May but all indications are that the team will need every live arm it can find to bolster the pen.

Now, of course, Mo wasn’t as confident as he declared a month ago because it was revealed this week that he spent a lot of time doing legwork attempting to acquire Chris Archer from the Rays, something I’ve been wanting him to do all offseason. Still, those talks reached an impasse and the rotation still has Mikolas, Weaver, and Adam Wainwright following Martinez and Wacha. As curious as it seems, Wainwright is the biggest question mark.

Despite a horrible ERA, Wainwright’s fielding-independent pitching numbers last year weren’t all that bad. His ERA was a ghastly 5.11 but his FIP was just 4.29, giving him 1.5 fWAR in 123.1 innings. He was OK into July and then had a pretty good start results-wise against the Cubs in mid-July and then 3 pretty bad starts in early August when it was clear to anyone watching him that Wainwright wasn’t OK. Both the eye test and the numbers indicated that something was wrong when the P-D revealed that something was wrong with the soon-to-be 36 year-old’s elbow. Waino rested and when he returned his strikeouts and velocity were way down.

Wainwright had elbow surgery in the offseason and turns 37 in August. Still, Steamer projects Wainwright to reach 1.7 WAR in 142 innings and ZIPS projects him for 1.6 WAR in 127 innings. That’s a pretty good rate for a guy who struck out 1 batter in 13 innings in the last 2 months of the season in 2017. Not only is Mozeliak confident about Wainwright’s 2018, but ZIPS and Steamer are pretty confident as well. Where does that confidence come from?

In August and September, Wainwright faced 61 batters and gave up 18 hits and 10 walks…and struck out 1 batter. His K rate was 1.6% and his BB rate was 16.4%. According to Brooks Baseball, his average 4-seam fastball velocity was 90.44 in July, 2017 and 86.68 in August, 2017. He lost 4 mph on his fastball between July and August. It’s pretty clear that something was wrong and all indications are that it had something to do with his elbow.

So where does all the confidence come from? In order for Mo to be confident about the rotation, he’s got to be confident in Wainwright. ZIPS and Steamer seem to be reasonably confident in him so is that where it comes from? Surely the team’s internal projections must be giving Mo something similar to what ZIPS and Steamer are showing. But aren’t all of those projections based on a lot of historical data? Isn’t it possible (or even likely) that all those projections aren’t weighting the last 2 months of 2017 heavily enough?

If he can produce roughly 1.5 WAR in 120-130 innings, I think most Cards’ fans (and coaches, teammates, members of management) would be pretty happy. The team could supplement the other innings with Jack Flaherty and others from the farm and would have a solid 5th man for the rotation. But what if the Wainwright that shows up on Florida mounds in March is the same guy the team saw in August and September? Then, the team has no 5th starter going into the season?

Or maybe it’s worse if Wainwright is OK in March and suggests that it’s possible he might pitch well during the season and then the team runs him out there 8 or 10 times and he’s awful. The team loses 7 or 8 of those games and Wainwright has an ERA around 8.50 or something and now the team has to find a 5th starter.

It seems to me that the best case scenario is probably something around what the projections are projecting — 1.5 to 2 WAR for somewhere between 140 and 160 innings — but the worst case scenario is probably replacement level or even lower and the team loses a bunch of games while they’re figuring out what to do. That’s not what we normally expect from projections. The projections the public sees are usually something around the 50th-percentile projection meaning that a pitcher who projects for 1.5 WAR could have a best case scenario maybe around 3 WAR. But I just don’t see that as Wainwright’s 90th-percentile projection for 2018. Does anyone?

I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if Flaherty ended up getting Wainwright’s innings. In fact, ZIPS actually projects Flaherty to be better than Wainwright in 2018 and worth 2.0 WAR. But if he takes Wainwright’s spot, that still eats into the team’s depth and adds another average-ish piece to an average-ish rotation.

The bottom line is that the team still needs to be trying to trade for Chris Archer. Honestly, I feel somewhat better about the bullpen right now than I do the rotation. I realize most of Cardinal nation right now is up in arms (so to speak) about the pen, but a stronger rotation could help alleviate some of those concerns.

Thanks for reading.