As has been the case in the majority of the 153 starts in his Cardinals career, Lance Lynn took the ball and gave his team a chance to win the game Wednesday night. A faulty bullpen, stagnant offense, and irritating ump show caused the Cardinals to fade down the stretch in the 5-4 loss to the Red Sox. That the team didn’t take advantage of Lynn’s effort is no reflection of his performance–he did what he always does.
The Cardinals sure are going to miss him.
Lynn will be a free agent just a few months from now. His compensation through that process will likely reach nine figures. A bulldog on the bump, Lynn has already had his obligatory Tommy John surgery, and in his first season back from recovery, has hardly missed a beat.
Should we be surprised? If anyone could avoid the customary sluggish post-TJ season, it’s Lance Lynn. Leading the Cardinals rotation in ERA (3.05) certainly qualifies as such.
This is who Lynn has been for his entire career, yet for whatever reason, he has not been appropriately lauded for the remarkably consistent and valuable commodity he’s been since joining the St. Louis rotation in 2012. Outside of his absence in 2016, Lynn has missed only a handful of starts in his Cardinals career, going 71-45 with a 3.33 ERA.
His ERA this season ranks 9th among starters in all of baseball; his WHIP (1.17) ranks 15th in MLB. His price for carrying the Cardinals as one of the most productive arms in the game this season: just $7.5 million.
For as long as the Cardinals still have it, that kind of value should not be underestimated; it doesn’t always happen this way.
The Clayton Kershaws, David Prices and Zach Greinkes of the world are paid north of $30 million to take the mound 30+ times each season. But we’re talking about pitchers here; it’s inevitable that some of that money will be flushed right down the toilet. Kershaw and Price have both missed considerable time to injuries in recent seasons. After signing with Arizona before last season, Greinke was suddenly mediocre for a year. But the checks don’t quit clearing for an injured or underperforming pitcher–it comes with the territory.
It’s the inherent Catch-22 for MLB front offices. Great pitching wins championships, but to acquire it in the free agent market, you better brace for impact. The contract for the free agent superstar that turns you into a contender today or tomorrow is all but guaranteed to be painful in a few years. Many teams can’t afford to wade into that pool.
Whether the fans agree or not, the Cardinals view themselves as one of those teams.
Sure, they made a run at Price, but when Boston swooped in with an authoritative offer, St. Louis balked–they weren’t going to win a bidding war. When it came to local product Max Scherzer the year prior, there were no reports of the Cardinals throwing Scrooge McDuck piles of money at Mad Max like the Nationals did. It’s not their style.
Instead of even once outbidding heavyweights for coveted those assets, the Cardinals have gone above market for players a tier below, like Mike Leake and Dexter Fowler. Fine players, sure–but not franchise altering ones.
In fairness, let’s reiterate: many of those insane contracts will end up hurting those organizations down the road–the Cardinals aren’t the only team that can’t afford a $250 million contract to bust. Lynn won’t cost that, but the Cardinals may view this moment as the one when his value proposition runs out (although if the Cardinals hadn't panicked by giving Leake a five-year deal after missing on Price, they probably could afford to resign Lynn–the superior talent–without blinking. So Lynn's 2016 replacement becomes the Cardinals' de facto long-term replacement for him once he hits free agency–Whoops).
Comparing Lynn’s current production at a bargain price to the value of pitchers on the other side of their mega-deals isn’t apples to apples, of course (a better comparison for this season is Lynn's value vs. Jake Arrieta's, as the Redbird has out-pitched the Cub–both in a walk year–for half the price). It does, however, frame the view on why the Cardinals will be hesitant to dole out a hefty commitment to the veteran righty. Paying for past success is not a good formula unless you can reasonably expect that rate of success to be maintained over the life of the new deal.
Time will tell how Lynn’s next contract plays out. With the cavalry of young starting pitching on the horizon for St. Louis, it seems likely that it will be played out in another city. Even if that thought process is defensible, that doesn’t make it correct.
The Cardinals have several holes on their roster to fill before shaping it into a contender in 2018. The probable departure of Lynn adds another, and leaves the remaining rotation vulnerable if other cracks happen to arise before next season.
Will Alex Reyes be ready to resume his career as a starter by April? Can the hole be filled by Jack Flaherty or Luke Weaver? When it comes to prospects–even the most tantalizing ones–nothing is guaranteed.
Lance Lynn, on the other hand, is as close to a guarantee as you’ll find in baseball. The Cardinals sure are going to miss him.