A Jon Lester or J.A. Happ Return to St. Louis?
The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t waste much time this off-season when they brought back LHP T.J McFarland on a 1-year deal worth $2.5M and followed that up by acquiring LHP Steven Matz on a 4-year $44M contract.
McFarland returning, adds that second lefty option out of the bullpen with fellow reliever Genesis Cabrera as the other. T.J. has some incentives for this upcoming season as he can earn an additional $500,000 for games pitched: $100K each for 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60.
Matz also has some incentives as he can earn $1 million annually in performance bonuses for innings pitched: $200,000 each for 130, 140, 150, 160 and 170. He also can earn $50,000 for winning the Cy Young and $25,000 for finishing second through fifth in voting, $25,000 if he is voted NL Championship Series MVP and $50,000 for World Series MVP.
The question being thrown around is, despite having a projected starting rotation of Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Steven Matz, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas, are the Cardinals still looking to add starting pitching?
Rumors swirled prior to the MLB lockout and before his signing with the Cubs, that the Cardinals were interested in free agent SP Marcus Stroman. If there is any truth to this, it would make one think that maybe the team isn’t 100% sold on the current rotation. Either that, or they don’t want any question marks surrounding Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson’s injuries/recovery heading into 2022.
Steven Matz who is coming off of a career best 14-7 and an ERA of 3.82 last season for the Toronto Blue Jays is an attractive addition. But with Mikolas only starting 9 games for the Cardinals (2-3 with a 4.23 ERA) and Hudson appearing in only 2 games (8.2 IP) at the end of the season (1-0 with a 2.08 ERA), that puts a lot of “hope” in both of them returning to form.
The Cardinals relied on John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon for starts in 2021 with Hudson out the majority of the year and Mikolas, Kim, Martinez & Flaherty spending lengthy amounts of time rehabbing or on the IL.
Kwang-hyun Kim is a free agent, and all but certain not to return. He started 21 games for St. Louis last season going 7-7 with a 3.46 ERA.
Carlos Martinez is another free agent that will not be returning to the Cardinals. He started 16 games with a 4-9 record and 6.23 ERA before landing on the 60-day IL with a torn ligament in his right thumb.
Ponce de Leon who made 24 appearances with St. Louis in 2021, went 1-1 with a 6.21 ERA and only 24 strikeouts in 33 innings was designated for assignment in September, outrighted to Memphis and released the next day.
Gant started 14 games for the Cardinals before being put in the bullpen, going 4-6 with a 3.42 ERA. In 76 innings he had just as many walks as he did strikeouts (56) and was traded to the Minnesota Twins in July for veteran starter J.A. Happ.
That move was one of several that the Cardinals had to make during the 2021 season. They gave youngsters Jake Woodford & Johan Oviedo looks at the starter role before going out and getting veteran’s Wade LeBlanc, Jon Lester & Happ.
Of those three I think it’s possible the Cardinals could entertain bringing back either Lester or Happ if they would be open to a lesser role.
Lester (who turns 38 next month), went 4-1 for St. Louis with a 4.36 ERA over 12 starts (66 innings). He averaged just over 5 innings pitched per outing, and while not considered an innings-eater, he could provide the team a left-handed option from either the fifth spot or bullpen. Jon also hit a milestone of 200 career wins last season wearing the Birds on a Bat.
Granted he may want to land with a club who has a sure fire spot for a starter, but if he would have interest in returning, the Cardinals could likely get him on the cheap. Washington signed Lester last season on a 1-year $5M contract, and one would think he could be had for less this off-season.
At that cost, if Lester were open to both a starter or reliever role (both of which could have incentives), it would be low-risk move with versatility and with Andrew Miller’s $12M coming off the books with him a free agent, doesn’t hurt the pocketbook.
Looking at Happ (39), he went 5-2 last season for the Cardinals with a 4.00 ERA. This was better numbers than he put up for the Twins in the first half which was a 5-6 record and 6.77 ERA. His 49 strikeouts to 17 walks in 54 innings (11 starts) could provide much the same as what Lester would.
While Minnesota did spend a bit more than Washington did for Lester, on Happ (1-year, $8M) last season, the fact that J.A. is a year older and he too seemed to enjoy his time as a Cardinal, it’s not unlikely he could be had for much cheaper.
A veteran presence in the bullpen, whether it be Lester or Happ in addition to a possible reunion of say a Joe Kelly, could really solidify the team’s overall pitching.
It wouldn’t be the sexiest of moves, as not many Cardinal fans were ecstatic when Lester and Happ were first acquired last season. But those moves filled a need, and paid off in the long run. Those two’s ability to throw strikes and get through five innings, did a lot to help get St. Louis to a wild card in 2021.
What say you on the potential of bringing at least one of them back for the 2022 season?
Let us know in the comments, and as always thanks for reading. Go Cards!