Things have changed drastically since 2019, and we should acknowledge that
Spring training began last Sunday on March 13th and within a day, Alex Reyes was shut down from pitching activities from a frayed labrum. Soon after, the Cardinals shut down Jack Flaherty for shoulder inflammation. Though Alex Reyes doesn’t really affect the rotation plans – anyone who thought he was going to be a starter was living in a dream world – Flaherty definitely does.
But this post is not about the need for acquiring another starter. Maybe they’ll be able to come to agreement with the Oakland Athletics for one of their two available starters before the season starts. I think a trade with them is slightly harder than people assume. The Athletics certainly aren’t interested in Paul DeJong and it’s easy to imagine them not being interested in Edmundo Sosa, I don’t think Lars Nootbaar has anywhere near the trade value people think, and I suspect the As are really harping on getting Matthew Liberatore back, which won’t happen. But that’s all just a gut feeling.
No, what I want to talk about is that Flaherty’s injury has revealed a somewhat bizarre line of thinking from certain fans. I won’t link the tweet, but for example, someone speculated that any hope for resigning Flaherty left with this injury. Ben Frederickson said every year it gets harder to imagine resigning him. I actually think it’s gotten easier to imagine myself. The Flaherty with the insane 2nd half of 2019? Yeah that was peak “We aren’t re-signing him” and every season since has made his future free agent contract lower. The idea that an injury that will probably lower his future contract is lowering his odds of signing here is insane to me.
There’s also the fact that, as much as I like Flaherty when he’s pitching well, he’s on his third straight season of a downward trend. If he misses most or all of this season, and if his missed time bleeds into next year, his price will fall even farther on the free agent market. And if that’s the case, the contract he’ll get as a free agent (if he’s not given a qualified offer) would be unimaginable to us in 2019, when we probably just assumed he’d be looking at near $200 million.
And then I think people mistake Flaherty’s opinion toward’s baseball’s payment structure – how young players get a fraction of their worth and most enter the free agent market at their declining years – and conflating it with his opinion towards the Cardinals. People straight up believe he doesn’t like playing for the Cardinals. I don’t want to speak for him, but… I don’t think that’s true. His refusal to sign league minimum deals and not agreeing to a deal to avoid arbitration are things he’d do on any team. It’s a commentary on baseball’s structure, not on the Cards.
Basically, most complaints he’s had or voiced isn’t specific to the Cards at all, near as I can tell. He’d be encountering similar problems elsewhere and I believe he’s smart enough to know that. He wants to test free agency, not because he doesn’t want to be a Cardinal, but because he knows he’s been undervalued by baseball’s system and knows he’ll get his full worth in free agency. If the Cardinals offered the best available deal, I think he’d accept it. And he should take the best available deal. Who knows how long his career will last?
I’ll use a beloved Cardinal as a counterpart. Yadier Molina didn’t test free agency until after the 2020 season. But there’s a reason for that. His first ever extension, when he entered arbitration for the first time, was 4 years, $15.5 million. It took away one free agent year. But Molina’s career high wRC+ at that point was an 86 wRC+. He was asking for $2.75 million and the Cardinals offered $1.85 million in arbitration. He didn’t know his offense was going to explode and blow that contract out of the water if he bet on himself. He was a no hit defensive catcher who arbitration would never accurately value (he hadn’t won a Gold Glove yet).
I will say Molina probably could have done better than his 5 year, $75 million extension signed a year before he would have hit free agency, but the idea of the extension was definitely smart on his part. His bat fell dramatically from 2013 to 2014. He was just a year too early. There is no way any other team gives 35-year-old Molina $60 million over three years, and we know for a fact that no other team gives him $9 million for the 2021 season because he actually tested free agency for the first time. He somehow managed to get a raise for 2022 despite not having any better of a season.
I don’t mean to disparage Molina. The Cardinals are more willing to pay him more than other teams would because he’s a Cardinal legend. This doesn’t really apply to many players, which is why Flaherty won’t get an extension because they won’t overpay him for his free agent years early, which is probably what it’d take to get Flaherty to agree to an extension. Flaherty simply wants to get paid what he’s worth. It’s idiotic to call him greedy for that, since I doubt many fans would stay loyal to their current job if some other company came and offered a higher salary. And you will probably be able to do your current job when you turn 40 and turn 50 and so on. Your job doesn’t have a shelf life (well before retirement age anyway), baseball players’ do.
I also don’t think this narrative that Flaherty has been pitching injured and should have had his injury checked out has quite fit what has happened. The slight shoulder tear has been known and is something he’s reportedly pitched with for four seasons. You know, including during his insane 2019 2nd half run. It’s difficult to say whether his pitching has been affected. Because he’s thrown a grand total of 118 innings since 2019, and 40 of those innings is that weird 2020 season. And his problems have mostly stemmed from home runs, since his 3.76 xFIP in 2020-2021 is not far from his 3.64 xFIP in 2019. I don’t think him pitching with this tear is some miscarriage of justice and I don’t think Flaherty does either.
Just based on the reporting as all the facts have trickled out, Flaherty’s injury isn’t because of that slight shoulder tear. He’s because he changed his pitching mechanics when recovering from his oblique injury. Now, maybe because the dam has broke, he’ll have to end up fixing that shoulder tear, but he was able to pitch quite well with it for years and a non-arm related injury caused him to injure his arm in a different way.
And all the fans who think Flaherty wants to leave, that thinks we have no shot at re-signing him – and who knows they might be right – want to trade him as soon as possible. This, too, is confusing. I can’t think of another Cardinals player who Cards’ fans so desperately want to trade so they can get something for him before he hits free agency. And hell this opinion has been around for kind of a while at this point.
And post-2019 actually, these people may have had a point. It’s not really a point I agree with, but they certainly had an argument. His return package would have been great. But now? There is virtually no scenario where it makes sense to trade him unless the Cardinals are giving up on 2023, which say what you will about the Cardinals, they aren’t doing that.
Because Flaherty is already missing the beginning of the season, we have to look at the potential outcomes of how he gets traded. Best case scenario, Flaherty returns relatively early in the season, and returns close to his 2019 self. That’s a scenario where I think the 2022 season goes pretty well and the Cardinals are in a good position for the 2023 season and it doesn’t make sense to trade what could be the Cardinals best pitcher at the time when they are probably set to be a playoff team.
Scenario two is that he misses a more significant portion of 2022, and in this scenario I don’t think his trade value would really justify a trade. I’m not saying he’d return nothing, but I just can’t see the return justifying giving up on the potential for 2023 for Flaherty unless we’re writing off the 2023 season. The other scenario is he misses all of 2022, and that guy isn’t going to have much trade value.
There was once an argument for trading him, I just don’t think it’s a good one at this point. He both needs to prove he’s healthy and needs to pitch well to have any trade value and at that point, if the Cards aren’t throwing in the towel, that’s a guy you keep. If he doesn’t do both of those things, he won’t have trade value. There might be a perfect middle ground Flaherty might reach where it’ll make sense to trade him, but that’s a very thin line if it exists.
Flaherty’s injury has ratcheted up the narratives swirling around Flaherty that have existed for a few years that have always annoyed me that I just had to comment about it. Flaherty probably likes playing for the Cards, probably doesn’t like anything about the Cards that has to do with business much like he’d probably feel if he played for any other team, and Flaherty will probably sign elsewhere when he reaches free agency. But I don’t think it’s an indictment on Flaherty and depending on how Flaherty’s next two seasons go, it might not even be one on the Cardinals.
So let’s all chill out about Flaherty’s future free agency, wait to see if it makes sense to resign when he hits it, and then complain if he doesn’t sign here. But in the meantime, we don’t know that it will make sense, so there’s no need in worrying about it.