Stroman, Imanaga contracts indicate Cardinals could have waited out the market

The reasonable contracts recently given out to Marcus Stroman and Shota Imanaga indicate the St. Louis Cardinals could have gotten better pitchers for just a little more money.
Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals - Game One
Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals - Game One / Joe Puetz/GettyImages

Marcus Stroman reached an agreement with the New York Yankees on a two-year, $37 million contract. There is a vesting third-year player option should Stroman pitch at least 140 innings in 2024. He declined the final option year in his contract with the Chicago Cubs that would have paid him $21 million in 2024.

Shota Imanaga also recently signed with a division rival in the Chicago Cubs. Imanaga, a left-handed pitcher from Japan, signed a four-year, $53 million deal that could become a five-year $80 million deal. There are a couple of opt-outs baked into his contract, but at its core, that is the value and length of Imanaga's deal in the Windy City.

A month ago, I discussed whether or not the Cardinals made the right decisions in signing Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson over players such as Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Kenta Maeda, and Tyler Mahle, among others. All of those players were dolled-out contracts similar to the ones the Cardinals gave Gibson and Lynn. I surmised that the Cardinals jump-starting the market was largely a good thing.

There were two primary reasons the Cardinals signed Gibson and Lynn: their history of pitching a workhorse's amount of innings and their charisma and leadership in the clubhouse. The non-tangible clubhouse culture qualities of the two are hard to find in players. The innings, on the other hand, are a quantifiable statistic that can be found in other players, but it is still rare to see two pitchers consistently pitch 170+ innings.

With Stroman's and Imanaga's contracts, it's easy to evaluate on a statistical basis whether or not the Cardinals should have signed either. Both Stroman and Imanaga project to have significantly better seasons in 2024 than Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn. Marcus Stroman was at one point a Cy Young candidate in the National League in 2023; he faced a rib injury in August that set him back. However, Stroman still has a 3.73 ERA and 3.67 FIP these past two seasons, adding up to 4.8 fWAR in just 275.1 innings.

Conversely, Kyle Gibson has 4.88 ERA and 4.20 FIP with 4.5 fWAR these past two seasons in 359.2 innings, and Lance Lynn has a 5.04 ERA and 4.85 FIP for just 2.4 fWAR in 305.1 innings. For just $5 million and $7 million more, the Cardinals could have gotten a pitcher with a much higher ceiling in Stroman, something they desperately need for next year. Stroman hasn't been able to pitch as many innings, and he may not have been able to bring the non-tangibles to the clubhouse, but he will likely be a much better pitcher during the length of his contract for the Yankees.

Shota Imanaga's contract is even closer in value to both Gibson's and Lynn's. Katie Woo of The Athletic was recently on a podcast, and she discussed this contract with other hosts from the news outlet. Eno Sarris stated that the Cardinals could have waited just a bit longer and gotten a younger pitcher with more upside in Imanaga. He has plenty of question marks coming over from Japan, particularly his tendency to allow home runs, which could be stifled by Busch Stadium, but he is an excellent strikeout pitcher, and he is much younger than Gibson and Lynn.

In Japan, Imanaga had a career 3.18 ERA with a 26.8% K rate, better than Yoshinobu Yamamoto's K rate in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. Imanaga is quite affordable, and he brings something to the table that the Cardinals needed desperately: strikeouts. His career K rate is better than both Lynn's and Gibson's by a decent amount. He has only pitched more than 148 innings once in his eight-year career, so he lacks that quality. It is also tough to calculate the effect he may have in the clubhouse next year.

Perhaps the Cardinals didn't want to commit to a pitcher for four years given the uncertainty surrounding the team's RSN situation. Maybe the Marcus Stroman's injury history and tendency to be outspoken gave John Mozeliak pause. It's also possible St. Louis doesn't see Imanaga's numbers translating well to MLB. These concerns should be considered but assuaged when evaluating the price and talent of these two free agent starters.

Marcus Stroman and Shota Imanaga signing for reasonable amounts shows that the Cardinals could have waited to sign starting pitchers. Both pitchers could have slotted in above Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz in next year's rotation, and both would have catapulted the Cardinals to the top of the National League contenders list for 2024.

While free agent prices appeared to be getting too high for comfort in December, the recent signings of starting pitchers indicate the Cardinals jumping the market for back-end starters may not have been wise.