With the 2017 trade deadline rapidly approaching there has been a ton of talk about whether the St. Louis Cardinals will be buyers, sellers, or somewhere in between. No matter which way they want to go, it seems like Lance Lynn is a player that fans want John Mozeliak to move in a trade since Lynn is a pending free agent. Wanting to capitalize on a player’s value before he leaves in free agency is smart, but I’m not so sure this applies to Lynn.
Lance has built a pretty solid resume since being called up in 2011. He’s got the reputation of being a workhorse while also delivering solid numbers. That’s an incredibly valuable pitcher in an era where managers seem to monitor pitch counts more than the score. Unfortunately, in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, he has not performed like the normal Lance Lynn.
For the season Lynn has a 3.84 ERA. Initially, that doesn’t look bad. You could certainly live with that ERA from a pitcher making his return from Tommy John. When you dive deeper though, there are a lot of concerning things. The first is his Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP. His FIP on the season is a whopping 5.54. That’s good for 68th out of 74 qualified starting pitchers.
Why is there such a big difference between his ERA and FIP? That was the first thing I looked into. FIP assumes league average batted ball luck. So things like strikeouts, walks and home runs are big factors in the stat. Lynn’s strikeout numbers this season are pretty much in line with his career norms. Where he’s gotten into trouble has been with walks and home runs. He’s walked 9.9% of batters faced compared to 8.8% for his career. Not a huge jump, but enough of one to matter.
The home runs are the crazy part. Coming into 2017 Lynn had never allowed more than 16 home runs in a season. This season he’s already allowed 18 before the end of June. That’s led to him giving up 1.93 home runs per 9 innings compared to 0.79 HR/9 for his career. He’s also had a home run per fly ball percentage of 20.5% this season vs. 9.2% for his career. Which is an insane difference between the two.
Now you could say that he’s had bad luck with home runs and that his HR/FB rate is likely to come back down towards his career mark. And I would agree with you. The issue is that while he’s had some bad luck with home runs, he’s actually had good luck on balls hit in play.
Batters have had a .219 batting average on balls in play against Lynn this season compared to .301 for his career. Pair that with an 81.9% strand rate and it’s fair to expect Lynn to have worse luck on balls in play going forward.
When you look at his season overall, he has been good for a -0.1 WAR. I realize that WAR isn’t everything, but that’s saying he’s a slightly below a replacement level player. There’s no good way to spin that.
What could they get for him?
At the beginning of the year I thought Lynn would be able to bring back some really nice prospects if he were to be traded at the deadline. But with the way he’s performing coming off of surgery, I just don’t think that’s the case.
In the past, the Cardinals would get a draft pick at the end of the first round if they offer Lynn a qualifying offer and he signs elsewhere in free agency. With the new CBA in place this offseason, that has changed. Now if he signs with another team after being offered a qualifying offer the Cardinals would receive a pick at the end of the second round.
With that being the case, if they were to trade him they would have to get back a player more valuable than a late second round draft pick. At this point, I’m just not sure they can get much more than that. I don’t see a contending team wanting a rental pitcher who has been replacement level and is coming off of surgery.
The rotation’s future
Lynn isn’t the only Cardinal’s starting pitcher that is struggling. There has been talk of moving Michael Wacha to the bullpen. Wacha has a 4.76 ERA so far and has been struggling to get through 5 innings. In fact, he’s only done it once in his last six starts.
There’s reason to believe that Wacha could succeed as a relief pitcher. Averaging 95.42 mph, he is throwing his fastball harder than he ever has. It is common for pitchers to add even more velocity as they transition to the bullpen. If that were the case with Wacha, he could stick in that role for a long time.
If Wacha were to succeed in a role out of the bullpen, it would leave an opening in the starting rotation going forward. Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake are under contract long term. Adam Wainwright is signed for next season but it doesn’t look like he’ll be around after that. This leaves room for Lynn.
Pitchers often struggle in their first season back from Tommy John surgery, I think it’s safe to say that’s what is happening to Lance Lynn this season. It could bring down his price in free agency considerably. Enough to where the Cardinals will be able to bring him back to fill a rotation spot.
If that were the case their rotation next season would have Martinez, Leake, Wainwright, Lynn, and someone like Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty. Alex Reyes will be making his return from Tommy John surgery and will almost surely be in the bullpen. It would set up well for Reyes to be a natural replacement for Wainwright.
What to look for before the deadline
Leading up to the trade deadline it will be important to watch what happens with both Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha. If either of them turn their season around then it probably makes sense to move Lynn. If Wacha starts pitching well, then there isn’t really a long term rotation spot for Lynn. And if Lynn starts pitching well, a contender is probably going to want him and will trade something better than a second round pick for him.
However, if both continue to trend poorly over the next month, I think it makes sense to hold onto Lynn. Worst case scenario, you get the second round pick when he leaves. But hopefully he could be signed to an extension, because we all know that the real Lance Lynn is better than what he has shown us this season.
Thanks for reading.