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A Cardinals-Lance Lynn Reunion Wasn’t Going To Happen, So Move On.

In the top baseball news of the weekend, two free-agent pitchers lined up employment, shelter and hot meals in the clubhouse.

Lance Lynn was adopted by the Minnesota Twins. Cost: one year, $12 million.

The Philadelphia Phillies gave a new home to Jake Arrieta. Cost: three years, $75 million.

Lynn, one of the more popular Cardinals of recent vintage  rejected the Cards’ $17.4 million qualifying offer last fall. Lynn obviously expected to score one of the largest pitching contracts in the winter free-agent market and had no reason to settle for the QO.

There was no way for Lynn to anticipate the market freeze. As Lynn waited for a team to hire him, the Cardinals never conveyed a desire to reopen negotiations with the burly Lynn who went 70-44 with a 3.37 ERA in 159 starts from 2012 through 2017.  The Cardinals will receive a compensatory draft choice (between the second and third round) as payment  for the loss of Lynn.

As the Cubs ace, Arrieta won the 2015 NL Cy Young award and followed with a strong 2016 campaign, reinventing his career at a critical time and becoming an essential part of the Cub first World Series championship since 1908.

The Cardinals had the opportunity to pursue both right handers but passed.

What does this mean?

Three things at the top:

1. After having MLB’s worst winning percentage (.427) since 2013 but progressing on their rebuild, the Phillies believe they can jump over the moon and compete for an NL wild card spot. The Phils do have more talent to work with. They’ll have a full-season blast of power from Rhys Hoskins. They signed free agent Carlos Santana to play first base and to give the lineup a rich OBP source. The touted prospect J.P. Crawford moves in at shortstop. There’s a potentially exciting young player, Scott Kingery, to sift into the mix as a super-utility guy who can hit homers. The fortified rotation features Arrieta, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta … with Ben Lively standing by as a candidate. The Phillies also have some terrific young arms making the migration from through their system to the big leagues. Finally: the Phillies signed free-agent relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to give the bullpen some veteran savvy.

Still, it seems like an awfully long leap from 96 losses in 2017 to the postseason in 2018. There’s also a new manager in Gabe Kapler, who is fluent in advanced metrics and unafraid to take the book of old-school baseball wisdom and metaphorically set it on fire. The Phillies are making a fascinating reentry into the living baseball world.

Can the Phillies compete in ’18?  There seems to be plenty of room for upward mobility. At FanGraphs the only four NL teams that currently are projected to win more than 82 games are the Cubs (94), Dodgers (94), Nationals (90), and Cardinals. The Phillies were projected for 76 wins before signing Arrieta and probably will move to 78 or 79 in the updated calculations. If accurate, that put thems in position to make that jump. So yeah, the Cardinals have some extra competition if they’re relegated to the wild card section.

2. A percentage of Cardinals fans will stew over management’s decision to stay the course instead of bidding to bring back Lynn or entice Arrieta. This will be portrayed as further proof of chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.’s apathy. You know the song, right? DeWitt only cares about counting dollars, he doesn’t want to win … despite his ream ranking third in the majors in regular-season wins and second in postseason wins since 1996, with 13 playoff trips, four NL pennants and two World Series titles.  Actually I think DeWitt cares about counting up the number of promising arms that will fit into the Cardinals’ rotation in 2018 and beyond. Carlos Martinez is 26, Michael Wacha is 26, Luke Weaver is 24, Alex Reyes is 23, Dakota Hudson is 23, Jack Flaherty is 22. On the MLB Pipeline list of the Cardinals’  top prospects 14 of the 30 are pitchers … including seven of the top 15.

3. As always, many will forget the increasingly important role that advanced metrics are playing in free-agent assessments. The Cardinals (and most organizations) invest substantial money to fund analytics departments. Over the offseason we saw MLB teams back away from giving aging players the big contracts. The Cardinals were hardly alone in declining to enter an auction for Lynn and Arrieta. I’ve written about this several times, but both pitchers have troubling peripherals that signal decline. Strikeout rates (down), walk rates (up). home-run rates (up) velocity (down) fielding independent ERA (way up).

Lynn, who turns 31 in May, had a 4.82 FIP last season and was the luckiest starter in baseball in batted-ball average against him. In his last three seasons of pithing his fWAR has gone from 3.7 to 3.4 to 1.4 last year. Additional concerns: a big drop in Lynn’s K-BB ratio and his extreme reliance on throwing fastballs. What happens if he loses velocity?

Arrietta, 32, has lost two miles per hour off his fastball. His FIP has gone up in each of the last three seasons, to 4.16 in 2017. His strikeout rate has declined three years in a row. His fWAR, which peaked at 7.3 in 2015, went down to 3.8 in 2016 and  fell to 2.4 last season.

Notice the obvious trends with Lynn and Arrieta?

Well, the teams sure do.

Gee, I wonder why one of the  smartest organizations in baseball, the Cubs, declined to engage Arrieta in any serious contract-extension talks and signed Yu Darvish to a $126 million deal instead?

The Cardinals aren’t exactly doofuses when it comes to making judgment calls on starting pitchers. No organization gets it right every time. But over the past six seasons Cardinals’ starting pitchers have MLB’s third-best ERA and rank second for most quality starts.

4. Other complainers are missing a key point. The Twins and Phillies limited their liability by signing Lynn and Arrieta to short-term deals. So why couldn’t the Cardinals do the same?

I think it’s a legit question. And just a reminder: I am among the worriers who believe the Cardinals should pad their rotation depth.  But at this stage in spring training the Cardinals’ rotation is taking shape. Miles Mikolas is smoothing out his early problems. Adam Wainwright’s arm is healthy and he’s snapping off pitches again.  Luke Weaver has been ridiculously good. Wacha’s stuff is crackling. Take a look at Flaherty’s new and improved strikeout punch. There’s nothing wrong with Martinez except for the fact that he has too many kooky critics. John Gant’s changeup is even better now.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch like their starting pitching.

We may disagree. And the front office could be proven terribly wrong. We’ll know in a few months. And a lot of this will have to do with the success or struggles of Lynn and/or Arrieta. If the Cards’ rotation cracks, and Lynn and Arrieta pitch well, then Mozeliak, Girsch and DeWitt will be in for some heavy criticism. That’s baseball.

But right now, these guys really like their starting pitching. And if they really like their starting pitching options — even if we think they’re being cuckoo — then why would we expect them to go in another direction? Again, if this rotation goes bust then the front office will have to own it. But I think it makes sense to see how this plays out before we automatically assume failure.

5. If the Cardinals offered Lynn $17 million + as a qualifying offer a few months ago, why wouldn’t they offer him $12 million now? Lynn and the Cardinals had a good thing going; that’s the assumption. And it isn’t correct.  Lynn made his feelings known last summer:  he was interested in discussing a contract extension. He wanted to stay with the Cardinals. The front-office reaction was pretty much crickets. Nothing. The Cardinals clearly were planning to move on; they made the QO just to collect the draft pick when Lynn signed elsewhere. The Cardinals reaffirmed their commitment to moving on by signing Mikolas to a two-year deal. They signed Bud Norris as insurance.

Here’s another thing I do not understand. Does anyone really believe that Lynn would crawl back to the Cardinals on a one-year deal when he had similar offers from other teams? Lynn doesn’t crawl, period. He’s an independent thinker, a bit of a rebel, and  a proud man with a defiant streak.

And after the Cardinals gave Lynn the bye-bye wave multiple times … see ya! … basically slamming the door on him … hey, don’t call us, big boy, we’ll call you … why in the world would Lynn drop to a knee in Mozeliak’s office and grovel for a job? Good grief … it’s LANCE LYNN, people. He doesn’t do the begging thing. He’s probably insulted. It would be embarrassing for him to return now. This notion of a happy one-year reunion is incredibly naive.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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