I’m going to break one of my rules by playing a little fantasy baseball today. No, I’m not joining a league for 2015. This is more about fantasizing. And wondering if Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is plotting to shock the baseball establishment by throwing down megadollars in the purchase of a free-agent starting pitcher.
This is Jim Bowden’s fault. He's the former Reds and Nationals GM who traffics in juicy rumors as host of a show on MLB satellite radio. Bowden tweeted that the Cardinals are among the teams pursuing free-agent lefthander Jon Lester.
I have no idea if it’s true; Mozeliak doesn’t call columnists to inform us of his secretive, upcoming maneuvers. Moreover, I’m usually annoyed by the haphazard flinging of rumors. But this time I’m allowing my imagination to overrun my pragmatism.
I believe the Cardinals need to land a starting pitcher.
Heck, if we’re going to play this free-agent fantasy game, then what about native St. Louisan Max Scherzer?
If the Cardinals are tempted by Lester, then they ought to be tantalized by Scherzer.
Mad Max is on the short list of the most dominant major-league starters over the past three seasons. He’s a strikeout machine, the 2013 American League Cy Young winner, and a pitcher with flawless mechanics that should keep him in peak form for quite a while.
According to the Boston Globe, Lester already has received a six-year offer in the range of $110 million to $120 million from the Red Sox. The Cubs and Braves also have serious interest in Lester.
The market hasn’t taken shape for Scherzer, who is represented by agent Scott Boras, who likes to slow-play the most bountiful contract negotiations. Before the 2014 season, Scherzer and Boras rejected a six-year, $144 million pitch to re-sign with the Tigers.
That gives you an idea of the starting point for a new Scherzer contract. And the team that signs Scherzer would have to relinquish a compensatory first-round draft choice. That isn't the case with Lester.
The Cardinals have never been wary of making deal with Boras. The agent and the team have done business on contracts for a number of prominent Cardinals including Matt Holliday, Kyle Lohse, J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel.
I’m well aware of the massive risk that comes with pitching contracts that exceed $100 million. In MLB history, 13 pitchers have cracked $100 million in a single contract. CC Sabathia did it twice. The others are Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander, Masahiro Tanaka, Johan Santana, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Cliff Lee, Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown.
The scorecard isn’t pretty. A few of the deals have yet to play out and so it’s too soon to pass judgment. And a couple of these monster deals worked out OK. But this $100 million pitching block is loaded with disappointments and injuries.
So why now? Why do I think there’s even a remote possibility of the Cardinals stalking Lester or Scherzer?
Here are several reasons:
• 1. Mozeliak has been feisty over the last year.
Last offseason Mozeliak stunned the industry by giving free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta a four-year, $53 million contract soon after Peralta served a 50-game suspension for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Mozeliak has parted with precious, cost-controlled young pitching — Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins — in deals for short-term gains. This week’s trade for Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward could qualify as a long-term gain if he has a great 2015 season, then signs with the Cardinals instead of opting for free agency. Mozeliak also surrendered an outfield prospect, James Ramsey, to acquire starting pitcher Justin Masterson last summer.
It’s clear that Mo — known for his patience — is getting itchy. And he’s dialed up the aggressiveness.
• 2. The Cardinals’ window isn’t closing, but it’s creaking.
Multiple core players are on the other side of age 30, including Adam Wainwright, Holliday, catcher Yadier Molina and starting pitcher John Lackey. And while the organization has a decent supply of prospects, the stock isn’t as deep as in recent seasons. As we've already pointed out, the Cardinals have traded some of their youth. This is a way to compensate for that.
• 3. The Cards’ rotation depth isn’t as robust as the team wants you to believe.
Wainwright will be 33 in 2015. He’s had two elbow operations to patch an overworked arm. How much longer can Waino serve as the bona fide ace?
Michael Wacha was limited to 19 starts last season, and there’s no telling if this shoulder-stress issue will flare up again.
Lackey — 36 and weathered — can become a free agent after next season.
Lance Lynn is under the team’s contractual control through 2017, and that’s good.
There’s Jaime Garcia. No additional comment is necessary.
Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales have considerable talent, and I’m a fan, but they aren’t established as big-league starters.
There’s excitement over prospects Alex Reyes and Rob Kaminsky, but they aren’t close to reaching the majors. There's also Tim Cooney who could emerge as a No. 5 starter type.
Projections are fun, but until young arms begin depositing wins in the big-league bank, there are no guarantees.
Plus, if you sign Lester or Scherzer there still will be plenty of room for the developing prospects. I wouldn’t want to see Martinez or Gonzales blocked, but injuries happen. Rotation attrition is inevitable; one way or another they’ll get their chance.
• 4. The 2014 Cardinals proved that starting pitching can take you a long way.
You can win a division and make a postseason run with a relatively quiet offense that doesn’t hit many homers. So why not reinforce a vital area by signing an elite starter? The formula works. But the Cards can do even better.
Speaking of that ... with Wainwright pitching in physical discomfort during the postseason, the Cardinals didn't have an overpowering starter going for them in October. This is a chance to build a more formidable rotation for the postseason mission.
• 5. Defend the higher ground in the NL Central.
The Pirates probably will lose starter Francisco Liriano to free agency this winter. They signed A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal, but that’s a stopgap move.
Three Reds starters — Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake — can become free agents after next season. The Reds may trade a starter this winter to upgrade their offense.
Lohse’s contract with the Brewers expires after 2015.
The Cubs are packed with young power bats but require a higher caliber of starting pitching. Sitting on a bank vault of revenue, the Cubs already are trying to buy pitching. And they'll keep trying to buy pitching. This isn't a one-time thing. Here’s a chance for Mozeliak to one-up Cubs baseball CEO Theo Epstein and play some defense by keeping the top of the STL rotation strong.
Mozeliak can sign an ace, protect against rotation fraying, and maintain the Cardinals’ divisional edge in starting pitching for the foreseeable future.
A final reason: The industry is overflowing with cash. The Cardinals’ revenue and payroll are in excellent shape. Relative to many other teams, they’re in position to take a gamble.
Will we see Lester or Scherzer pitching for the Cardinals? I doubt it. That’s why I called his my fantasy baseball column. If my mind is blown, then blame it on the increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Mozeliak, who may be up to something here.