Yesterday, I wrote a long post about all of the top ticket free agents available this off-season. I noted that Carlos Correa and Corey Seager are great players and will be a wonderful fit for somebody, but that since the St. Louis Cardinals do not have a pronounced weakness at shortstop, with both Paul DeJong and Edmundo Sosa showing competence at the position, neither is as significant of an improvement as they would be to teams with an actual hole at shortstop. I noted even more extreme examples in Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant, former National League MVPs whose primary positions are occupied by the two highest paid players in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals. And then I noted that Max Scherzer, one of the most consistently excellent baseball players of his generation, would fill a massive hole for the Cardinals, and that he would surely be my choice. There, I saved you a whole bunch of words to read.

Max Scherzer would be a great get for the St. Louis Cardinals, but this is true for any baseball team. And Scherzer is going to be highly, highly coveted. This should not scare the Cardinals off of pursuing him, but it does make devising other gameplans a necessary task.

And this is not even to say that a free agent signing class headlined by somebody other than Max Scherzer is worse than signing Scherzer alone would be–if the Cardinals are willing to sign Max Scherzer, who will almost certainly be the most expensive free agent pitcher on the market on a per-year basis, then it stands to logic that the Cardinals could sign, for example, a pitcher who costs $10 million less than Scherzer and then sign another pitcher who costs $10 million per year.

Using the estimates for player contracts offered by Ben Clemens of FanGraphs, somebody who is not an oracle on these matters but is far better at it than I am, on Monday, the Cardinals could sign the second-best pitcher on the free agent market–by his rankings and by his projected annual value, Robbie Ray of the Toronto Blue Jays, and still have $7 million left from their Scherzer allotment. I think it’s reasonable that the Cardinals, if they were willing to spend $35 million on one player (Scherzer), would be willing to spend $36 million on two (Robbie Ray and, by the projections, either Zack Greinke or Yusei Kikuchi). Let’s say that between those two, the Cardinals would go with Greinke–despite a somewhat shaky 2021, Greinke is the far more accomplished pitcher, and given that Kikuchi opted out of an eight-figure payday with the Seattle Mariners, he seems inclined to head back home and play in Japan. Would you rather have Max Scherzer or Robbie Ray and Zack Greinke?

Your answer may depend on what team you are envisioning when slotting these players into the starting rotations. If you are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the answer should absolutely be Max Scherzer, because even with Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw not listed on the roster, the team already has plenty of depth. Even if working under the assumption that Trevor Bauer will not return to the Dodgers, the presence of Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, David Price, and Dustin May, all of whom I can confidently say I would rather have than present-day Zack Greinke (even weighing for May’s early 2021 Tommy John surgery), and Tony Gonsolin, who is probably at least comparable to Greinke, they are a team clearly best advised to focus their budget on high-end talent, since the also-vital mid-tier depth is already in place. But for the St. Louis Cardinals, a team whose current fifth starter is Jake Woodford and whose third and fourth starters, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson in some order, have been ravaged by injuries, Zack Greinke would be a valuable addition to a team whose robust infield defense could fit his pitching style rather well.

Ultimately, I would still rather have Scherzer–Robbie Ray had a standout 2021 season, but has spent most of his career as a pretty good but decidedly non-elite pitcher. If given a choice between a 2022 rotation of Max Scherzer, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson or Jack Flaherty, Robbie Ray, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, and Miles Mikolas, even though the latter provides better alternatives, I would still rather pursue the legitimate ace. But that doesn’t mean I want to dismiss all creative alternatives to Max Scherzer. Here are a few.

The pick-saver: Two of Carlos Rodón, Steven Matz, and Jon Gray, plus get you a little something else nice

One of the weirdest stereotypes I hear every year of the St. Louis Cardinals front office is that they refuse to sign players with the qualifying offer attached to them because they want to hoard their picks. The Cardinals lost (later than normal, because hacking) draft picks in 2017 because they had signed Dexter Fowler. The Cardinals lost a draft pick in 2018 because they signed Greg Holland(!!!). Are you trying to tell me with a straight face that a team that gave up a draft pick for Greg Holland is hoarding draft picks?

But that said, all other things being equal, having more draft picks is better than not having them, and if the Cardinals decide they want to strengthen both their 2022 club and the depth in their farm system, there are several pretty good, pretty young pitchers available that would not cost them a single draft pick. Carlos Rodón, who will be 29 on Opening Day 2022, is coming off his best season ever–132 2/3 innings may not quite be workhorse level, but with a 2.37 ERA and 2.65 FIP, his production was certainly there, which made the decision of the Chicago White Sox to not offer him the qualifying offer that much more baffling. Steven Matz rebounded from an awful, albeit abbreviated-even-by-the-standards-of-the-season-as-a-whole 2020 and was a solid if non-ace starter for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021, with a 3.82 ERA and 3.79 FIP–Matz never quite lived up to his Mets prospect hype, but he has been a solid mid-rotation type starter throughout most of his career.

Jon Gray, who I constantly in my mind’s eye think is a lefty because I am certainly confusing him with Jon Jay, has been the subject of Cardinals trade rumors, well, probably since Jon Jay was a Cardinal. The Colorado Rockies pitcher, who is still just 30, is coming off a solid 2021, with a 4.59 ERA and 4.22 FIP while pitching at Coors Field; as somebody who constantly feels the need to park-adjust the offensive production of Trevor Story and previously Nolan Arenado, I get to do the same with Jon Gray, but in a more positive light. In each of Gray’s last five full MLB seasons, he was better than league average by park-adjusted FIP, and in four of the five seasons he was better-than-average by park-adjusted ERA. He isn’t an ace, but he is certainly a safer option than Jake Woodford. Also, why did the Rockies not trade him last July if they weren’t going to give him the qualifying offer? At least with Trevor Story, they’re going to get something for him. The Rockies are the dumbest team in baseball.

Personally, among these three, I would choose Rodón and Gray, and this duo joining Flaherty, Wainwright, and (probably) Mikolas means a rotation that is relatively safe. Perhaps Rodón and Wainwright can’t keep up their surprising 2021 campaigns and perhaps Flaherty never quite regains 2019 form, but Miles Mikolas as a fifth starter? Given his salary, probably not the wisest allocation of resources, but in terms of performance, he’s qualified for the role. And with Dakota Hudson in the bullpen waiting in case of injury, Jake Woodford available in Memphis as the de facto seventh starter, and Johan Oviedo, a pitcher I do not yet particularly trust but as the eighth starter until Matthew Liberatore is ready for the big leagues? It’s looking a lot better than the team that was convincing itself of Jon Lester and J.A. Happ down the stretch last year.

And based on the Ben Clemens projections, they still have $7 million available from the Max Scherzer allotment. You want Andrew McCutchen or Jorge Soler as backup outfielders and Juan Yepez fail-safes in the event of the designated hitter coming to the National League? Sure, why not? You wanna indulge in the dark arts of signing relief pitchers like Kirby Yates or Kendall Graveman? Keep it to a year on the contract and I’m fine with it. It’s your reward for a job well done, and for surviving the Andrew Miller contract. No more three-year deals, though. Just a taste of the junk food from now on.

The “we already have an ace, let’s build around him” package: Marcus Stroman and Anthony DeSclafani

While neither Marcus Stroman nor Anthony DeSclafani are exactly ancient–I will hold out on calling somebody born in the 1990s “old” under any circumstances for as long as I can–they have been around long enough that we reasonably know what they are and are not. And they are not staff aces.

Marcus Stroman is probably the safest long-term option in this free agent class among pitchers. Even Max Scherzer, though a better pitcher, can only reasonably relied upon for another couple years, given his advanced age–Stroman is just 30 and should garner a multi-year deal (Clemens estimates four years). And there is a quite recent Cardinals example of a comparable Cardinals pitcher–pre-injuries Carlos Martínez. Like Stroman, Martínez was on the shorter side (he is listed as 6’0″; having stood next to him as somebody who is also listed at 6’0″, at least one of us is lying, and I’m not sure why I would make myself shorter), though at 5’7″, Stroman is an even more extreme example. Like Martínez, there was always this expectation that Stroman would eventually emerge as a superstar, and it really never happened, but he eats up a reasonable number of innings, has FIPs in the mid-to-high threes, and would be a really high-end #3 starter and a respectable #2. And I’m relatively certain he will stay that way for several years.

Following a middling tenure with the Cincinnati Reds, Anthony DeSclafani was outright excellent as one of the 948 players who surpassed their preseason expectations in 2021 with the San Francisco Giants. It would be malpractice to assumine DeSclafani, at 31, simply figured everything out with just one season of evidence, but even if he becomes his non-2020 Reds self, that’s at the least a pitcher of the Miles Mikolas class. As a former Red turned Giant turned secondary or tertiary free agent target, it’s hard not to think of Mike Leake, but DeSclafani has had higher highs than Leake, will likely come cheaper and on a shorter term, and at least isn’t going to be sold to you because “hey, he’s a pretty good hitter for a pitcher!”

The John Fleming Gold Package: Clayton Kershaw, Carlos Rodón, and whatever cheap reliever y’all want, you’ve earned it

There is not a single thing that transpired in the qualifying offer stage of free agency which confounded me more than the Los Angeles Dodgers not offering Clayton Kershaw the qualifying offer. How is that even possible?

Clayton Kershaw is the greatest player in the 138-year history of the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise, dating all the way back to the 1884 Brooklyn Atlantics. He will be donning the iconic interlocking LA hat into Cooperstown. And it’s not as though Clayton Kershaw, who will be a past-his-prime but not exactly ancient 34 years old next season, is a complete shell of his former self–while his 2021 season did end prematurely as the result of an elbow injury, he had a 3.55 ERA and 3.00 FIP over 121 2/3 innings. Over the 180 regular season innings Kershaw pitched in 2020 and 2021, his ERA and FIP are a matching 3.10.

I keep assuming there must be something more wrong with Kershaw’s elbow than we in the public know, because otherwise this is inexplicable. Otherwise, are the Dodgers clearing Kershaw out of the way because they actually want Max Scherzer in the role of veteran ace? Fair enough–I don’t think anybody would dare argue Kershaw is superior to Scherzer at this point in their respective careers. But if the Dodgers could offer the qualifying offer to glorified utility player Chris Taylor, how could they not afford to give one to Clayton Kershaw and try to roll into 2022 with a jaw-dropping rotation of Scherzer, Buehler, Urías, and Kershaw?

I am putting faith in the Cardinals organization to properly evaluate whether Kershaw is currently injured. If he is, don’t sign him–fair enough. If he isn’t, sure, it’s possible he could get hurt again, but that is true of anybody, and one year of a future Hall of Famer who is still at the very least a very good pitcher? If Kershaw can be had for the $18 million that Ben Clemens suggests (and if the Dodgers weren’t willing to pay barely more than that, it’s not an unreasonable guess), sign me all the way up.

The next pitcher really comes down to personal preference from the trio I mentioned in suggestion number one–do you want Rodón, Matz, or Gray? And I want Rodón, the player of the three who has by far the most star potential but without sacrificing much floor, either.

With these two signings, the Cardinals would open 2021 with a starting rotation of (and feel free to nitpick the order) Jack Flaherty, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Rodón, and Miles Mikolas. It would nearly alternate between righties and lefties and, if AL Cy Young voters come through for us, it could consist of five guys who have received Cy Young votes, all but Wainwright at some point since 2018. Dakota Hudson, who I would still be inclined to treat somewhat conservatively given his recent injury history, could work his way back slowly in the MLB bullpen and be ready when a pitcher inevitably gets hurt. Jake Woodford and Matthew Liberatore can stay stretched out in Memphis, and the latter especially can be the heir apparently to Kershaw and/or Wainwright in 2023.

By the FanGraphs estimates, the Cardinals would have $2 million left from the Scherzer account after spending it instead on Kershaw and Rodón, and realistically it’s slightly more since the Cardinals would have one less guy, even if at league minimum, to pay since two slots are being taken up rather than one. Based on Monday’s precedent, a T.J. McFarland type can be had for that amount of money. It’s certainly less splashy than the starters, but signing a reliever in the “we can cut him if he’s bad” range isn’t the worst fate in the world.

All in all, the St. Louis Cardinals have a chance this winter to add an ace, and that excites me, but they also have a chance to spare themselves of another season where material starts are being made by Wade LeBlanc. I can see the argument for the high-ceiling signing in Max Scherzer or the floor-raising depth moves for a starting pitcher corps that could really use some bolstering, but in either case, there is a very obvious position which the Cardinals can and absolutely should improve this off-season.

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