The drawbacks of Tyson Ross, whom the St. Louis Cardinals claimed yesterday off waivers from the San Diego Padres, are apparent from a quick glance at his Baseball Reference page. In twenty-two starts this season, Ross has mediocre overall numbers–in 123 1/3 innings, he has a mediocre 4.45 ERA and a mediocre 4.55 FIP. In 2016 and 2017, Tyson Ross combined for just 54 1/3 Major League innings, battling various injuries along the way. Tyson Ross isn’t old, but at 31, he isn’t some unpolished prospect who is just looking to turn a corner.
But if Tyson Ross weren’t these things–if he were a low-to-mid-twenties hotshot prospect who threw in the high-nineties and showed flashes of Cy Young-caliber stuff–he wouldn’t be available for the Cardinals to claim off waivers on August 5. Said player would be productive MLB players or highly-touted prospects. But Tyson Ross comes at essentially no cost to the Cardinals. The floor on this move is so low that it barely warrants mentioning.
The worst case scenario for Tyson Ross, of course, is that he is very bad and hurts the Cardinals’ chances of winning baseball games. Barring, like, he infects the clubhouse with some kind of communicable disease, I guess, but realistically, the worst case scenario is that Tyson Ross craters the playoff odds of a team whose playoff odds when they picked him up stood at 12.1% (and 6.6% to make it to the NLDS). And while Ross may not be a superstar, it is not as though the current rotation is exactly loaded. With Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and to a lesser extent Alex Reyes and Adam Wainwright unavailable, the current rotation has two relatively reliable arms (Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty) and a host of inexperienced, up-and-down pitchers (Luke Weaver, John Gant, and while Austin Gomber hasn’t really had a bad start, it’s probably too early to declare him unequivocally dependable). More options are good to have.
While the totality of Tyson Ross’s 2018 statistics suggest he doesn’t really fix any rotation problems, but rather adds another mediocre option, it is not as though Tyson Ross has been a consistently mediocre pitcher. Early in the season, it appeared that Ross, who was a very effective pitcher for the San Diego Padres for his first three seasons in their rotation, had rediscovered the magic of his peak. On May 12, against the Cardinals at Petco Park, Ross threw six innings and allowed just one run, walking two and striking out seven. Through his first eight starts in 2018, Ross had a 3.40 ERA. Through the end of June, it was even lower, at 3.32. He overachieved on his peripherals a bit–his FIP was a more pedestrian 3.93–but he wasn’t a disaster even by that measure. For the first half of 2018, Tyson Ross was the kind of pitcher who would be perfectly acceptable in a MLB rotation, particularly a thinning one.
Of course, Ross is coming off a disastrous six-start stretch in which his ERA was 8.26 (his FIP, while lower, also rose to the uncomfortable heights of 6.62). While erring on the side of recency in this case does make some level of sense–after all, an immediate drop in performance is often a predictor of injury, and this is always a concern with Tyson Ross–it is also easy to see that Tyson Ross was recently serviceable and he was a pretty decent pitcher for a longer stretch in 2018 than he was a bad pitcher.
It is completely possible that Tyson Ross is suddenly bad, and it is even more possible that he is suddenly bad for the remainder of 2018, the remaining duration under which the Cardinals will have Tyson Ross. But while the Cardinals will inherit the language of Ross’s contract with the Padres, this ultimately doesn’t work out to significant expenses. Ross is effectively owed $500,000 in salary plus $200,000 per start. If Ross is good, this is a bargain. If Ross is bad, well, the Cardinals are under no obligation to keep him in the rotation, and worst case scenario he eats innings and saves the younger pitchers from a heavy workload as a mop-up relievers. This isn’t advocacy for manipulating his usage, but rather noting that the sunk cost of acquiring Tyson Ross isn’t as high as it may seem on the surface.
Tyson Ross was a 7.5 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement pitcher between 2014 and 2015. Only twenty pitchers were better. In a more just world, a good team would’ve jumped on the chance to make him their #2 starter, but instead, he got hurt and his career stagnated. And while I’m not expecting Tyson Ross to rekindle his mid-2010s magic, the possibility of it is high enough to justify the very low risk of this move. And in the more likely event that Tyson Ross is less bad than his July 2018 but still not exactly great, that’s fine too! It allows the Cardinals to give a reprieve for their more valued young pitchers.
The San Diego Padres, whether they want to admit it or not, let Tyson Ross (and Jordan Lyles) leave via waivers because they didn’t want to pay them. The Cardinals have a marginal chance at the postseason, but the Padres have essentially no chance. The cost of Tyson Ross isn’t going to break any team, but his presence provides virtually no value for a team like the Padres, who are extremely rebuilding. But for the Cardinals, Tyson Ross could be a valuable player for the remainder of the 2018 season. At the very least, it’s worth a shot.