So, you can’t have Stephen Strasburg.
That’s the reality to which many big-league GMs woke up Tuesday morning, now that Strasburg appears to have agreed to a seven-year deal worth $175 million (or more) with the Nationals. For those among that group who hadn’t gotten their free-agent pitching spending out of the way by now, this is very bad news. Billy Eppler, Brian Cashman, Dan Duquette, Dayton Moore, Neal Huntington, A.J. Preller, and Jerry Dipoto all would have liked the chance to bid on Strasburg this winter, even if most of them run teams unable to realistically meet the asking price he would have been able to set on the open market. Now, they face the unpleasant prospect of improving their pitching staffs for 2017 without having a single ace to chase. It’s perfectly possible that Rich Hill will get the biggest free-agent deal handed out to any starting pitcher in the coming winter.
That doesn’t mean there’s no path to improving run prevention for those executives, though. The obvious alternatives to Strasburg are the elite relievers due to hit free agency: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and (arguably) Mark Melancon. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of even them to go around, and because bullpens so easily accommodate additions, almost the entire league has to compete for the services of those few hurlers. Thus, I offer the names of two other players who can have a vast impact on the run prevention of whichever teams sign them this winter: Francisco Cervelli and Jason Castro.
Obviously, catchers’ ability to change games with their framing skills remains a fairly controversial topic. There are the pure deniers, who have seen the data but refuse to believe it; the cynics, who believe that either the rising tide of teams selecting catchers for that skill or the umpires’ awareness of the phenomenon will kill the value of framing very soon; and the purists, who admit that framing matters but still wish to register their objection to the concept. Whatever those who resist it say, I believe pretty firmly in the data, and the data continues to say that a catcher who can frame well is one of the game’s most valuable defensive assets. Castro is leading MLB in framing runs so far this year, at 6.8. Cervelli is at 1.1, not performing up to his standards so far, but still on pace to have a real impact there.
Obviously, acquiring a catcher to help you prevent runs does differ in a fundamental way from acquiring an ace starter. It doesn’t fill in the pitching staff. It takes up one spot in your offensive lineup, where you might otherwise look to plug in a valuable offensive threat. (On the other hand, Cervelli has actually been a terrific hitter for a catcher over the last year-plus. Castro represents a truer tradeoff.) Still, it’s a problem that Strasburg signing an extension is being viewed as such a market changer. It’s a symptom of the way too many people overestimate the value of pitching, believing you can’t prevent runs well enough to win without a killer pitching staff. It isn’t so. Good pitching helps, and team defense can’t overcome an abysmal pitching staff, but it’s okay to have a slightly below-average collection of arms. A team or two reaches the playoffs with such a unit every year. Run prevention is a team effort. Teams who overemphasize one part of that endeavor are no better off than those who overemphasize power at the expense of OBP, or who spend big to have two or three superstars in their lineup, instead of having a long string of guys who can keep rallies going.
Cervelli is a tricky case. He’s blossomed into a true superstar, if you buy framing numbers, with overt 8.0 WARP since the start of 2014—in barely over 200 games of playing time. He’s demonstrated a consistent offensive talent level in the range of a .280 TAv, which is tremendous for a catcher. He’s also 30, and will be 31 before Opening Day next season. He’s also unlikely to be traded this year (more than unlikely, really; it’s not going to happen), so unless the upcoming CBA negotiations lead to the eradication of the qualifying offer, he’s going to have that hanging around his neck. If Russell Martin can be paid as handsomely as he was in November 2014, Cervelli can fairly expect a hefty payday, too, but the age and cost might make certain suitors uneasy.
Castro is cleaner in those two regards, as he’ll be 29 when next season begins and the Astros look like sellers this summer. Unless he keeps up his insane early walk rate, however, he’s much less of a draw than Cervelli, because his offensive game has been in decline for a few years already. He’s not a perfect solution. Cervelli is not a perfect solution. All I’m saying is, teams ought to consider solutions like these (or like trade candidates Jonathan Lucroy or Miguel Montero) before lunging in whatever direction presents itself this winter. The Diamondbacks paid through the nose for Shelby Miller because they wanted to improve their pitching staff. In the process, they gave up a player who could have helped them better maintain their run prevention, in Ender Inciarte, to say nothing about their overpayment in prospect talent. Here’s hoping the execs who need their teams to allow fewer runs in 2017 have a little bit broader an idea of how to do it than Dave Stewart had last winter, even now that Strasburg is off the market.