This past week, Twitter user @KnuppelRodney relayed that St. Louis Cardinals GM Mike Girsch said the team would be losing Lance Lynn this offseason. Today*, Rick Hummel reported that Lance Lynn is not happy with the direction of the team, nor has not heard from the Cardinals front office about a possible extension. Those comments sparked the usual Lance Lynn debate – should the Cardinals let him walk, tender him qualifying offer, or attempt to sign him to a multi-year deal in free agency?
Each of those options has risk. If Lynn walks, the Cardinals must replace his production. If the front office decides to give Lynn a qualifying offer, there’s a “risk” that he takes it. There’s also a risk that we still lose him for nothing. If St. Louis attempts to sign Lynn to a multi-year free agent deal (say, five years), they run the risk that he experiences a dropoff in production during his age 33 to 35 seasons. Adam Wainwright has infamously experienced this sudden decline in performance and, as it turns out, so do most pitchers.
So, with the Cardinals fading out of the playoff race and the Lance Lynn decision looming, let’s explore whether St. Louis should commit to their second most valuable pitcher since 2012.
*The Cardinals traded Mike Leake before I published this article. I still feel the same way.
Extend Lance Lynn the qualifying offer.
My preferred option would be to extend Lance Lynn a qualifying offer and that he accepts it. I’ll admit that Lynn signing a one year deal seems unlikely at the surface. Consider, though, that under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are incentivized to offer free agents tagged with a qualifying offer less than $50 million in total contract value. Doing so ensures more favorable draft pick treatment for the team signing the tendered free agent and less compensation to the team from whom the tendered free agent leaves. I’m not the best to dive into the specifics of the agreement, but gone are the days of automatically receiving a compensation pick for losing a QO-tendered free agent or losing a pick for signing a QO-tendered free agent.
Additionally, this offseason’s free agent class is loaded with starting pitching. High end targets like Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish lead the class, but the surplus depth of mid-level starting pitching means that team’s will be able to go bargain hunting after the initial dominoes fall. In 2019, however, the starting pitcher free agent market is projected to be approximately cut in half. Lance Lynn would be more likely to find himself as a priority target in that smaller pool.
So to the point – there’s a reasonable chance that the best offer Lance Lynn receives is something around three years and $49 million. That’s a great payday, and $49 million is life-changing money. But it’s less than Lynn would command were he unrestricted, and it would require Lynn to again test the free agent waters prior to his age-34 season searching for another medium-sized deal.
If Lynn is not fond of that potential scenario, he may be inclined to take the one year qualifying offer. The qualifying offer is likely to be valued at about $18 million. With career earnings so far surpassing $20 million, Lynn would still be financially set for life should he never play another year beyond 2018.
Of course, Lance Lynn will likely want to continue pitching beyond 2018. He could then hit the free agent market unrestricted after his age-31 campaign and another year removed from Tommy John surgery. If he put together another typical Lance Lynn campaign, he might be looking at a payday nearing or exceeding $100 million. That would likely take him through his age-36 season; should he have more productivity in the tank, he could still command a decent salary over two or three years (like what John Lackey got from the Cubs).
Taking the qualifying offer would require Lance Lynn to make a big bet on himself. That seems like a very Lance Lynn thing to do. And really, he doesn’t have that much to lose should things not work out. Hence, Ken Rosenthal’s report that the Cardinals worry he would accept the qualifying offer.
For the St. Louis Cardinals, $18 million is unlikely to hinder the offseason plans. Any major moves will require some relatively complex roster reconstruction anyways. If necessary (and it probably wouldn’t be), the front office could clear some salary through trades (they just did!). At the current $/WAR level, St. Louis would only need Lynn to provide about 2 WAR of value to be worth $18 million, a total he surpassed easily every season from 2012 to 2015 and still has an outside shot at reaching this year.
Additionally, having Lance around for one more year would provide some insurance against Wainwright’s ineffectiveness, as well as Michael Wacha’s injury risk. It would also allow them to bring along Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty more carefully and would allow Alex Reyes to spend a year in the bullpen after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Let Lance Lynn walk.
So, what’s the sense in simply letting Lance Lynn walk?
First, there are some performance concerns. While he owns the low-3.00’s ERA we’ve come to expect, his peripherals have dropped off dramatically. His 20.3% strikeout rate is a career low, his 9.4% walk rate is a career high, and his 14.8% home run per fly ball rate is a career worst. Maybe we can attribute some of that to his return from surgery, but his K-BB% has actually gotten worse as the season’s progressed.
Further, a .236 BABIP allowed and 81.7% strand rate suggest he’s been extremely lucky. Sum it all together, and you get the biggest disparity between ERA and FIP among all starting pitchers with at least 70 IP. FIP is a better predictor of future ERA than present or historical ERA, so there’s plenty of concern regarding the sustainability of Lynn’s current performance.
The projection systems also foresee significant regression for Lynn. Currently, FanGraphs Depth Chart projections are predicting his rest-of-season ERA to come in at 4.34 and FIP at 4.41. Here’s how that compares to the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals staff, excluding Alex Reyes.
Using those projections, the Cardinals can replace Lynn’s expected production internally and cheaply. Weaver, Flaherty, and Reyes would get the chance to show their upside, and St. Louis might pay them a combined $1.5 million or less in 2018. Even if some things go wrong, the Cardinals have prospect depth to absorb the hit.
To consider a multi-year deal for Lynn, just extend this prognosis out further. Weaver, Flaherty, and Reyes will all be much cheaper throughout their team control years than Lance Lynn would be through a free agent contract. Sandy Alcantara may develop into a usable starting pitcher, as could Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, and others.
Now, I’m not betting that all these starting pitching prospects will turn into MLB contributors. I am betting that the Cardinals organizational starting pitching depth is enough to produce a valuable starter or two and still have enough depth to adequately replace pitchers as injuries or bouts of ineffectiveness pile up.
Using Lance Lynn’s current projections and a starting pitcher aging curve, we wouldn’t expect him to provide much more than average value over the next several seasons. In most of those years, we’d expect him to provide below average value. It’s much better to develop your average players internally than to pay for them via free agency or similar contract extensions, and the Cardinals have the prospect talent and depth to produce these types of players.
Lance Lynn’s time in St. Louis is nearing its end.
What should the St. Louis Cardinals do with Lance Lynn? Extend him a qualifying offer. If he accepts, you get insurance for the 2018 rotation. Then, if you find out you don’t need him, you can flip him for something via trade in June or July (not much, but not nothing). If he declines, maybe you get a compensation pick in return and instead find a short-term stop gap in the free agent surplus.
For better or worse, Lynn does not fit in the long-term picture for the St. Louis Cardinals. He does not project to have better value than his potential replacements. Whether he’s around for one more month or thirteen more months, his tenure in St. Louis is limited, and it should be.