The theme of free agency so far is returning to one’s origins. A day after Aaron Nola re-upped with the Phillies, Lance Lynn signed a one-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him in the first round in 2008. Lynn’s deal will pay him $10 million in 2024, with a 2025 club option for $11 million that comes with a $1 million buyout, and $3 million in incentives. That brings the total guarantee to $11 million and the total potential value of the contract to $24 million.
Lynn won a World Series with St. Louis as a rookie in 2011, made his first All-Star team in 2012, and in total pitched six years and nearly 1,000 innings with the club before leaving as a free agent after the 2017 season.
Much has happened since then.
Lynn had a run of about three and a half years with the Rangers and White Sox in which he was one of the best pitchers in the American League, finishing fifth in Cy Young voting in 2019, then sixth in 2020, and third in 2021. A knee injury cost Lynn the first two and a half months of the 2022 campaign and since then, it’s been a bit of a rough ride for the big right-hander.
In his final months in Chicago, Lynn posted a 6.47 ERA in 119 2/3 innings, prompting a trade to the Dodgers, whose pitching staff was riddled by injuries. Only four Dodgers threw 70 or more innings in 2023, and of those four, only Bobby Miller and Clayton Kershaw (barely) were healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs.
If there’s one thing Lynn can be counted on to do, it’s take his turn on the mound. Even as his name became a metonym for giving up home runs, Lynn was 23rd in the league in innings pitched in 2023. He’s 10th in innings pitched over the past five seasons, and ninth in innings pitched over the past 10 seasons, despite (in contradiction to my previous point, I’ll concede) losing all of 2016 to Tommy John surgery.
With the Dodgers, Lynn’s results were inconsistent. His 7-2 record with a 4.36 ERA in 11 starts looked good on the surface, but he also surrendered an appalling number of home runs. Sixteen dingers in just 64 innings for the Dodgers brought Lynn’s total on the year to 44, tied for the sixth-most ever in a single season. On a per-inning basis, Lynn in 2023 was the second-most homer-prone pitcher in major league history. (For a qualified starter in a full-length regular season.)
The only pitcher to allow more home runs per inning than Lynn was 2000 Jose Lima, who played his home games in what was then Enron Field at the height of the steroid era. That’s not the kind of offensive environment a pitcher wants to replicate.
Lynn knows that, which is why his brief tenure with the Dodgers was quite experimental. Lynn, who has deployed every kind of fastball under the sun at one point or another, went strictly four-seamer/curveball in his first start. Then in September he junked the curveball and went back to the four-seamer/cutter/sinker combination that worked so well for him in Texas.
When I wrote about Lynn’s first start, I referenced an interview I had with him in early 2021, in which he talked about how moving from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side had unlocked his lower body and transformed him as a pitcher. How weird did things get for Lynn in 2023? Well, after a three-stretch start in which he allowed eight home runs in 15 innings, he undid that change, sliding over toward first base for his final four starts of the regular season.
That seemed to work for a while, as Lynn pitched through five innings in each of those appearances, allowing just one home run per start, and completing six innings or more with two earned runs or fewer in three of those four outings. But it wasn’t all good news; Lynn, who had a walk rate of just 3.7% in 2022, walked 11 in 24 innings against just 19 strikeouts. On the whole, Lynn struck out just 47 batters in 64 innings as a Dodger, a concerning number for a pitcher who’s spent his entire career within spitting distance of a strikeout per inning.
And then he got the start in Game 3 of the NLDS against Arizona — nothing underscores the Dodgers’ pitching shortage more than trading for a guy with an ERA in the sixes, watching him give up two home runs a start, and sending him out there for the playoffs. Lynn didn’t walk anybody, but he allowed four solo home runs in one inning, and took the loss.
So why are the Cardinals giving Lynn an eight-figure guarantee?
Two reasons: First of all, one year and $10 million is the absolute entry-level, Kirkland Signature-brand price of major league starting pitching these days. Last winter, Kyle Gibson, who had nothing resembling Lynn’s professional track record, got that from the Orioles, who would rather dump a bag of cash into Baltimore Harbor than spend it on major league free agents.
If Lynn is cooked, and that’s a distinct possibility for a 36-year-old who’s coming off his lowest average fastball velocity in six seasons, the Cardinals are only out the minimum bet required to play at this table. If he’s not cooked, they have the option to keep him around for another season at a similar price.
And as jarring as this might be for those of us who are old enough to remember Dave Duncan turning random guys off the street into 15-game winners, the Cardinals need help in the rotation. Not just to win, but to keep the line moving.
At the trade deadline, St. Louis got rid of Jordan Montgomery, as well as Jack Flaherty, who has struggled against big league competition ever since he was abducted by the Monstars in 2022. Adam Wainwright retired. Dakota Hudson, who had almost exactly as many strikeouts as Lynn had home runs in 2023, got non-tendered.
That leaves a rotation fronted by Miles Mikolas. So far, so good. Mikolas is quite reliable. After that: Steven Matz, Zack Thompson, and Matthew Liberatore. Thompson and Liberatore have made 21 major league starts between them, ever; Lynn made 32 last year alone. And if you’re counting on Matz to throw 150 innings next year, I honestly don’t know what to tell you.
The Cardinals do have quite a bit of starting pitching depth in the upper minors, of which Liberatore is not too far removed from being a part himself. Connor Thomas will almost certainly feature in the big leagues next year, and Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy have the potential to be much more than rotation depth. (I’m rooting for McGreevy in particular, as the former UCSB star very nearly shares a name with fictional Minnesota Twins pitcher Mike McGrevey of Little Big League. If McGreevy has any kind of major league career, it will be very good for me personally, from a joke-writing perspective.)
So, yeah, there’s an extreme right-tail outcome where Matz stays healthy, the kids all come up and shove, and Lynn ends up being surplus to requirements. But it’s much more likely that the Cardinals will end up needing a lot of help to eat up the 1,200-odd innings they have left over once Mikolas is done. No matter what he throws, no matter how many home runs he gives up in the process, Lynn is well-suited to fill that need.