A short list of only 16 remaining (d'oh, took too long to write, 15 remaining) free agent pitchers were 10+ percentage points better than League Average by xwOBA* in the 2020-21 seasons combined and threw at least 200 pitches. Those players are as follows:
Trevor Rosenthal Jimmy Nelson
Collin McHugh Raisel Iglesias (QO)
Ryan Tepera Kenley Jansen
Carlos Rodon Evan Marshall
Clayton Kershaw Hector Neris
Andrew Chafin Jesse Hahn
Max Scherzer Corey Knebel
Darren O'Day Aaron Loup
*Note: for those of you unsure what my scrabble stat up there is, here’s a quick primer. wOBA is “ a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base -- instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. The value for each method of reaching base is determined by how much that event is worth in relation to projected runs scored.” The “x” in front of it, making it xwOBA, is simply due to Baseball Savant taking how hard balls are hit off of a pitcher and at what vertical angle they give up that contact and applying the expected rates of events (doubles, triples, etc.) to each individual outcome that pitcher produced.
When looking at which of those 16 players might be best to join the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff for the 2022 season or more, eliminating several of the 16 players on the list above is easy for me. Jesse Hahn, Kenley Jansen, Hector Neris, Jimmy Nelson, and Corey Knebel all had walk rates of 3.92 per 9 innings or higher (10.4% of all batters faced or higher) over the two season stretch. The Cardinals don’t need any pitchers they bring in walking a ton of guys. In 2021, we saw how when Cardinals pitchers could simply pitch to contact, they could benefit from the fantastic defense behind them and win games swiftly (well, swiftly may not be the case when Gio Gallegos or Dakota Hudson are pitching...but whatever).
It is also easy to eliminate Raisel Iglesias from that mix due to the qualifying offer (QO) being attached to his name. That QO means that signing him comes with the Cardinals needing to give up a draft pick AND the money it takes to get him. That won’t happen - nor should it for a reliever. That leaves us with 10 names to look at. Let’s break them up a bit to make it easier to look at.
In that grouping, there are only 3 starting pitchers to consider:
Max Scherzer is 2-3 years of $32M to $40M a year, depending on who you ask. That is a price bracket in which the Cardinals tend to steer clear.
Clayton Kershaw seems to be a Dodger for life type of player. The Dodgers have basically said that they’re going to bring him back if that’s what Kershaw and his wife decide is best for their family.
Carlos Rodon had an absolutely fantastic year in 2021. He averaged 5.5 innings per outing (not great, but for a guy who is as consistently hurt as he is it was good). He only threw in 24 games, however. He allowed a 2.37 ERA that was backed up fairly well by a 2.63 xERA and 2.65 FIP. He was worth nearly 5 fWAR in just 132 ⅔ innings. Depending on who you believe, Rodon is slated to receive contract offers of 1-3 years and $15M to $25M per season (although $15M and $20M per season for the 3 year deals I see and $25M for the 1 year deal I see listed). If you can get Rodon for 3/$45M total ($15M a year) then it would be worth the gamble, I think.
That means there are 7 relievers to look at. However, I want to break them down by handedness. There are 5 right-handed pitchers and 2 left-handed pitchers in that grouping. Let’s start with the righties because there are more right-handed hitters to get out in major league baseball. That’s the 75% portion of the platoon rather than the 25% portion. Also, with the new three batter minimum rule, lefties HAVE TO be able to get out righties or they’re not worth it. The five righties first:
Trevor Rosenthal is a name familiar to most or all of the people who will be reading this. He is the former Cardinals closer of the mid 2010s. Rosie has thrown just 381 pitches to 91 batters in the last two years combined. He’s gotten through 23 ⅔ innings (71 outs) in those 91 batters, however. Here’s the trouble with Rosenthal. All of those pitches came in 2020. He missed the 2021 season due to injury. The good-ish news is that it was not a throwing arm injury, it was a hip injury. The (more) bad news is that a hip injury is in a pitcher’s base - which they need badly. I steer clear of Rosie despite him basically having the best year of his career in 2020, when last he pitched.
Collin McHugh was a long-time Houston Astro and a Tampa Bay Ray last year. He will be 35 years old. I dunno if the Cardinals really want to pursue that or not. However, in the last two seasons, McHugh has an xwOBA of just .232 - well below league average. He threw 64 innings last year with a 1.55 ERA, 2.26 xERA, 2.12 FIP, and 3.06 xFIP. That’s good for a 1.8 fWAR - for a reliever! It may have been the best year of his career at 34. Is it repeatable at 35 years old? If I am the Cardinals, I might just bet on it for a year. Fangraphs is very torn on what he will get in FA. Ben Clemens had him at 2 years and $24M total. However, the crowdsource projection was 1.5 years at $5.5M a season. I’d take him at the later (1 year plus an option at $5.5M per season) in a heart beat. I would avoid paying him more per year than the starter you just signed to throw 150ish innings.
Ryan Tepera has pitched for both Chicago clubs in 2020-21. He has thrown over 1300 pitches in 82 innings over the last two seasons, all while striking out 32% of batters faced and walking less than 10% of batters faced. His ERA has been just over 3 with his FIP slightly better than that and his xERA much better than that. Tepera is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to get 2 years and $12M total ($6M per year). I could live with that.
Evan Marshall is a name that is new to me. He has been a Chicago White Sox pitcher for the last 3 seasons, the last two of which he has seemed to have had some bad luck as far as his ERA goes, at least if you believe in advanced metrics. He’s only been able to throw 50 innings between the two seasons - just over 800 pitches. He has a ground ball rate slightly above average and a walk rate below average with a strike out rate above average. That’s a guy the Cardinals can work with. I mean if they can work with Matz, they can work with that as well. I kick the tires on this one.
Darren O’Day is a pitcher that I have wanted for a long time for the Cardinals, but the dude will be 39 years old next year. He’s also only thrown 52 ⅓ innings total since the end of the 2017 season, in which he threw over 60 innings. Hard pass for me.
Lastly, let’s look at two left-handed relievers, both of which I really like. Editor’s Note: One of them has now been signed.
Andrew Chafin is a pitcher I would love for the Cardinals to consider. His xwOBA is .002 lower than Max Scherzer’s since the start of the 2020 season. In nearly 80 innings, Chafin has a 2.41 ERA with an xERA, FIP, and xFIP in the 3s. He doesn’t quite get the ground balls that the media has talked about wanting this offseason here in St. Louis (even though we have two gold glove outfielders as well and one more above average one in RF)...but he strikes out enough to get by and doesn’t walk a ton of batters either, besides that soft contact that advanced metrics believe should help him keep that low ERA a thing of the future. He is entering his age 32 season, so I wouldn’t go much more than you paid Brett Cecil or Andrew Miller and you should get better results than that.
Aaron Loup is a guy I wanted to write up prior to him being signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He’s been quite good the past few years and the Angels got him. According to Fangraphs, they might have slightly overpaid, but the Angels need pitching as badly as anyone.
These are guys that I think the Cardinals should check in with. The Cardinals seem to do their due diligence with nearly everyone, so I'm sure they are. Certain ones mentioned above are guys I would like to see them add to the 40-man in 2022.