The 2021-22 offseason has been an enormous disappointment for me in regards to moves made by my St. Louis Cardinals. I haven't really been this disappointed in an offseason since the Cardinals refusal to go after Bryce Harper after the 2018 season. I thought that Harper was just the right fit at the right time for the St. Louis Cardinals. I also thought that the (already hated by me prior to this) Marcell Ozuna trade left the Cardinals in a place where they felt there was no way they could go for the clearly superior player in Harper the following offseason, making that one doubly frustrating for me.
The common refrain I keep coming back to when I look at the moves the Cardinals have made this offseason is two-fold. 1) I don't know that any of the money that they have spent this offseason really moves the needle that far in the positive direction. 2) I feel like every move that they have made this offseason have been of the variety that if all turns out well, the players they've picked up should play very little if at all.
Their biggest pickup monetarily this offseason was Steven Matz. They gave Matz $11M a year for 4 years to come to St. Louis. I chronicled my displeasure with this move earlier this offseason. Essentially, this is an average pitcher making average money and if the rotation works out the way you want it to, then he's your #5 or #6 starter. Of course, injuries happen - as we've seen already this spring - and that could push Matz up to a #4 or #3 when there are injuries. However, as I said in that piece, he will likely just replace the LeBlanc, Happ, Lester combination that the Cardinals got last year and do only that. Again, here's that section about what the trio above gave us last year compared to what Matz has done in his career:
In addition to what I already wrote in the other article about Steven Matz, I'd like to double down my sentiments here. I really think this move was made for one thing and one thing only. Matz was cheap. Period. For all of their stated goals, minus the fact that Matz is left-handed, Marcus Stroman (amid a myriad others) made much more sense. The biggest thing that they say they've gotten with Matz is a guy who gets ground balls and uses his defense. Well, Stroman strikes out less, walks less, and gets over 20% more ground balls than Matz for his career. Stroman also pitches deeper into games - something I thought was a necessity for a team with so much injury risk and so little innings certainty in their rotation. In the past two seasons, Stroman has only played in one of them and Matz in both. Stroman has just 2 1/3 less innings pitched than Matz in that time. He has walked 10% less batters than Matz, and has produced grounders at a rate 17.5% better than Matz. Now, Stroman signed for the premium that he was worth - guaranteed $71M over 3 seasons with the Cubs if he doesn't opt out of the contract at any point. As I mentioned before, Stroman is not the only one. If you were truly a team looking for ground balls then other pitchers were and are out there that are better than Matz - although don't cost you as much.
A trade for Luis Castillo (which the Cardinals still could do) would have netted them a better ground ball pitcher.
Signing Alex Wood would get them a better one - when he pitches.
Signing Stroman would have gotten them a better one.
Signing Kershaw (who I'll admit wasn't coming here no matter what) would have gotten them a better one.
Signing Kikuchi (I was against this) would have given them a pitcher with a better ground ball rate.
Trading for Sonny Gray would have landed them a better one.
Bringing Kwang-Hyun Kim back would have landed them a better one - when he pitches.
Signing Jon Gray would have landed them a pitcher with a higher GB rate.
Trading for Manaea (still could do) would have gotten them a better one.
Steven Matz = "the ground ball pitcher they wanted" is simply an excuse for spending less money per year on a starter. Period.
With that being the Cardinals biggest signing this offseason and those being my thoughts about it, you can probably see why I am so disgruntled at the moment about the offseason. The next largest sum of money that the Cardinals have spent on someone for the 2022 season belongs to the $5M they spent to acquire DH/OF Corey Dickerson. Dickerson was brought in, I can only imagine, as a left-handed DH option and a 5th outfielder. While the Cardinals didn't have a great 5th outfield option on the roster, two things stand out about this to me.
The first is that Dickerson is making over 7 times the league minimum to do exactly what Lars Nootbaar does for this team - but less well in the speed and defense categories. While Dickerson has better past production than Nootbaar, and far more experience, he is a redundant piece on this roster. (Those sentiments are echoed over at a wonderful little blog that you should check out if you have the time.) Dickerson has been sub-par with the bat for the past two seasons and has been only slightly better than league-average against right-handed pitching for the last two seasons. It's been since 2019 that he was truly a hitter that mattered for more than a month or two.
The second is that I would prefer for Tommy Edman to be the 5th outfielder instead. I believe that 1) Edman is better suited as a utility guy than a starter anywhere on the diamond, 2) Edman's defense is much better than Nootbaar or Dickerson, and 3) that a combination of Nolan Gorman, Paul DeJong, Edmundo Sosa, and Brendan Donovan's bats will be better than Corey Dickerson's bat in 2022. The final thing I want to say about the Dickerson signing is that if it in any way takes plate appearances away from Juan Yepez, then this is an even worse development by the Cardinals than I originally thought.
Continuing on, I nearly always think that if the Cardinals are going to go out and get a reliever it's likely a bad idea. However, I definitely had a preference of who I wanted if the Cardinals were going to wade into those waters. There were 5 relievers that I thought the Cardinals would actually benefit greatly from getting on the free agent market and I did not believe any of them would command what you had to pay for guys like Andrew Miller (2 years, $25M) or Greg Holland (1 year, $14M) or Brett Cecil (4 years, $30M). Four of them have already signed for less than those three mistakes. One has signed for less than the Luke Gregerson (2 years, $11M) mistake.
Aaron Loup signed for 2 years, $17M with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Andrew Chafin signed for 2 years, $13M with the Detroit Tigers.
Ryan Tepera signed for 2 years, $14M with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Colin McHugh signed for 2 years, $10M with the Atlanta Braves.
Evan Marshall has yet to sign anywhere. He should be even less than those guys, though. I would not hesitate to give him 1 year at any price around those.
The third largest signing the Cardinals have made this offseason is Drew VerHagen, a pitcher you had never heard of who went to Japan to hone his craft after flaming out with the Detroit Tigers after being a 4th round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2012. I cannot find how much his arsenal has really changed overseas. The Cardinals signed him for 2 years at a total of $5.5M. It's not a large commitment at all. It's a very reasonable signing. I'm not mad about this one, but it's a guaranteed spot on the 26-man roster, which will become important later in this post.
With the help of Eric Longenhagen over at Fangraphs, we can glean a little bit of information about Drew VerHagen. When he was with the Detroit Tigers, VerHagen was throwing the sinker about 40% of the time at around 93-94 mph. His slider percentage had moved to the 30% range at around 85-86 mph. and his curve was thrown consistently around 16-17% of the time at around 79-80 mph. VerHagen also had a four-seam fastball and change up.
However, in that linked article above, Longenhagen said VerHagen's sinker was sitting 94 in Japan and up to 99. He had a low 80s slider as opposed to that mid-80s one. It mentioned VerHagen ditching the four-seam and rarely using the change up (~5%), leaving him with a 3-pitch mix for the most part with his "loopy curveball" (as the article described it). Longenhagen said that VerHagen has a slightly open, over-the-top delivery allegedly helping him miss bats with the sinker up in the zone (think Stephen Matz's sinker) and setting up his slow curve ball (Logenhagen's words there mostly). Longenhagen also mentions that VerHagen's slider has "two-plane action" and suggests that his split/change needs work and use.
I was unable to find out VerHagen's ground ball percentages over in Japan, but his career 8.8% BB rate in MLB dropped to just 7.2% while in Japan and his K rate, while just 18.3% in MLB jumped to 25.0% in Japan. If VerHagen changed his repertoire while in Japan and got these results there, even getting half of those gains here as a 6th/7th starter type would yield results of a 21.7% K rate with an 8% BB rate. That's a K:BB of 2.7. That's acceptable out of that slot. If he can do that while getting the 5 1/3 innings every outing that he got while in Japan, that's a potential for better than a 6th/7th starter type.
This signing is not terrible, but for a team that NEEDS innings, it's not the inspirational second starter signing that they needed. Matz was the second best starter they sign type of need this offseason, not the headliner. VerHagen was a third option type of signing. The trickle down effect here is real. The third best SP signing they made we'll discuss in a bit. He might be the signing I like best this offseason of all Caridnals' signings thus far. If price is included, he's definitely my favorite.
The only other player the Cardinals have given guaranteed money to is reliever Nick Wittgren. To be honest with you, I do not know why the Cardinals signed Wittgren. The commitment is only $1.2M for 2022 alone. It's not an albatross. It's also not a better signing than any of those that counted on bounce backs from those other pitchers they've signed that were over 30 years old who were also coming off of a down year or multiple down years. To add to that, Wittgren had less of a ceiling than those other pitchers and less of a track record at his own personal ceiling. Of course, this is why it only cost them $1.2M.
Not counting bringing players back (Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, TJ McFarland) the other signings that the Cardinals have made can't be complained about too much because they've all been minor league signings. Anderson Tejada, Kyle Ryan, Ljay Newsome, and Zach McAllister are guys that I'm not even working up in my projections really. I don't foresee them on the 2022 roster unless things go horribly awry or they impress greatly (or the Cardinals need to call someone up for 2 weeks that they believe they can pass back through waivers to get back off of the 40-man roster without losing anyone). The previously alluded to signing that might be their best of the offseason is Aaron Brooks. Brooks is a former Royal, Athletic, and Oriole who has played in the Korean Baseball Organization the past two seasons after having difficulty in MLB. He was signed to a minor league contract, yet my projections (coming soon) actually have him faring better than Steven Matz. Of course, whether he's able to 1) get that opportunity, or 2) perform like my projections believe he can are both yet to be determined.
Ben Howell broke down 3 KBO starts of Aaron Brooks' to give us a better idea of how he became a better pitcher while overseas.
The last year Brooks was sate-side was 2019. In that season here he threw:
92 mph sinkers ~28% of the time
92 mph 4sm ~26% of the time
86 mph sliders ~22% of the time
85 mph change ups ~21% of the time
79 mph curves ~3% of the time
It sounds like Aaron Brooks has done away with the 4sm, nearly doubled sinker usage, and gotten better velocity on his pitches as here is how those numbers were broken down by Ben Howell:
~93 mph sinker (~45% of time)
~87 mph slider (~15% of time)
~85 mph change (~40% of time)
~81 mph curve (<10% of time)
Not only did he change his arsenal a bit, but he produced ground balls nearly 75% of the time (on batted balls) in the KBO and walked less than 5% of batters. That'll play quite well, especially with our defense. Isn't this what Matz was signed to do? The Cardinals could have him on the majors league roster for 63 times less money than they guaranteed Steven Matz.
The Matz deal to me brought back memories of two deals in the past of which I was critical. Luckily, it is a slightly less bad version of both of those moves. The Marcell Ozuna deal was horrendous, buying high by giving up a hefty prospect package on an average guy for a perceived need while blocking Tyler O'Neill and Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia from getting the PA they needed at the MLB level to produce. The Mike Leake signing was made to eat innings, blocking other starters you had in the pipeline and relegating them to relief roles in the near future rather than allowing them to flourish at the MLB level in the role at which they were flourishing in the minors. Similar to the Ozuna deal, the Caridnals bought high on Steven Matz after his (arguably) best year of his career despite him being over 30 and according to many reports him maximizing his arsenal already, allowing less room for growth. Luckily, they didn't spend capital other than money to do this. Similar to the Leake deal (and honestly the Fowler deal now that I think about it), they overpaid in years on a pitcher that they likely don't want to be paying that long. Unlike the Fowler and Leake deals, they did not have to add a 5th year on to the contract - and it was at a lower price. Of course, it's at a lower price because he's a lower tier FA than either of those two.
The Corey Dickerson deal is also eerily reminiscent of two deals that we've seen in the past, to me. The Ty Wigginton deal was 2 years and $5M. The Dickerson deal is better because it's only 1 year, but it's worse because it's $5M for that one season. The Mark Ellis deal was 1 year at $5.25M. The Dickerson deal is better because it's slightly less cost and several years in the future (so with inflation, much less money owed in comparison) but it's worse because the Cardinals should have learned from that mistake and haven't.
As I said at the beginning, "I don't know that any of the money that they have spent this offseason really moves the needle that far in the positive direction." That goes along with my thoughts about Matz and Dickerson I've laid out above. The other deals that the Cardinals have made this offseason are all inconsequential financially and go with my other general theme I laid out at the beginning. "I feel like every move that they have made this offseason have been of the variety that if all turns out well, the players they've picked up should play very little if at all." Even Aaron Brooks, who I believe should be our 5th starter with Reyes and Flaherty out (but probably won't be), was signed to a minor league deal. That shows that if everything works out like they want it to, he won't even be rostered on the 40-man, much less in the rotation.
This is not my preferred offseason for the St. Louis Cardinals. Not in the slightest. Add in that the owners locked out the players for 99 days as well, giving us little hope in the process of getting a full season (although thankfully we'll get that)...and it's been a downright miserable few months as a Cardinal fan for yours truly.
I feel like a disclaimer should be made here that while I severely dislike the direction the team moved this offseason, I could see them finishing as good or better (record-wise) than last year because the Cubs aren't attempting to contend as of yet and the Pirates and Reds seem to be attempting to get the best odds for a #1 overall draft pick next offseason.
Thanks to Nick Childress for the cover art!