Since he’s one of our own, we’re going to do a little bit more analysis in the Jake Westbrook extension than we normally do when we discuss things like transactions and toenails. What Mozeliak and the Cardinals essentially did was less of a contract extension and more of a contract reworking. Before the deal was announced yesterday, ol’ Jakie Poo was set to earn $8.5 million next year — if both the team and the player agreed a return needed to happen. If Westbrook (who has a name suspiciously close to an apartment complex I used to live in, only that brook was in a different direction and had an ‘e’ in it) wanted to come back but the Cardinals didn’t reciprocate, they were set to pay the round-faced right-hander $1 million anyway.
With the new deal in place, the club basically assumed that mutual option in advance, threw in an extra $250,000, and tacked on a new mutual option worth $9.5 million (also with a $1 million buyout) for the 2014 campaign per MLB Trade Rumors. This is a pretty low-risk investment altogether, and one that’s much less significant than I first feared when I heard that the club opted to extend the soon-to-be 35-year-old starter. My first thoughts were that if the Cardinals were worried about insurance options for the future, they should have just picked up the option and reevaluated after next season instead of signing a mediocre starter to a six-year deal. Once I discovered the deal was not actually for six years, though, I was — and am — mostly fine with it.
That said, there are some ramifications behind this move, and it’s painfully clear in some ways. For instance, don’t count on Kyle Lohse returning next year at all. He’s effectively been elbowed out of the rotation for future seasons, and while his price was likely to do that by itself (he is a Boras client, after all), Mozeliak has made a preemptive strike that clarifies how he sees the rotation’s immediate future. To put it simply, Westbrook is in, and Lohse is out. The decision is likely to have been made strictly based on finances, as Lohse has quite clearly established himself as the better pitcher at this point, and is about exactly one full year younger as well. While I guess I’d go with Lohse over Westbrook in terms of pitching ability alone, I think Mozeliak made the right call here, if in fact he was determined to bring back one of the two for depth purposes. After all, the talent gap between a well-functioning Lohse and a well-functioning Westbrook is not substantial, nor is the age difference; it’s certainly not as wide of a gap as the salary could end up being, anyway. It would not be unlikely for Lohse to receive a multi-year deal worth eight figures annually from some team with money to spare and a thin starting rotation. Westbrook is simply a cheaper option for the team, and since his primary role will be veteran presence and innings consumption, it’s fine to sacrifice whatever is lost in the minimal talent difference.
So while it’s certainly reasonable to pick Westbrook over Lohse, what about the decision to pick either one of them? Assuming Chris Carpenter returns to the mound and can still contribute a full season for the Cardinal rotation with less ribs than ever before, we’re now looking at a rotation comprised of Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Carpenter, and Westbrook. This would suffice, as Joe Kelly really is better served pitching out of the bullpen, and more importantly, the bullpen is better served with him pitching out of it. The move to sign Westbrook allows the team to enter the off-season without worrying about grabbing a dependable starter to round out the rotation, and it doesn’t press them to promote any of their minor league talent (Shelby Miller, for example) if no one makes an obvious case for such a thing in spring training. Allowing both Lohse and Westbrook to leave after this season could have possibly worked out fine, but it really is better to keep one around for an additional season while future options finish developing.
Now, despite coming across as being an advocate of this extension so far, I will provide some obvious caveats. Firstly, there’s absolutely no guarantee we’ll see another 2012 from Westbrook ever again. We may instead be in store for another 2011, one in which he was far wilder and less effective in general. More likely, however, is the scenario that we see something in between. To be sure, there’s nothing unusual or fluky about Westbrook’s ground ball rate this season: it sits at 59.2% currently, a total that is right in line with his career number. He is, and will always be, a pitcher with extreme ground ball tendencies, one who is frequently among baseball’s leaders in that department. Unfortunately, the ability to get a ground ball is not in and of itself a guaranteed recipe for success. When looking at qualifying starters this season who have the highest ground ball rates, none among the top ten have a higher season WAR than Westbrook’s 2.5. You can, in fact, get the hell beaten out of you despite having a penchant for grounders; look no further than the season Derek Lowe is, uh, enjoying. Westbrook, like many ground ballers, is very hittable (9.6 H/9 for his career), and if he puts too many people on via walks, the chances of a big inning are always looming. This season has seen him lower his BB/9 total to an impressive 2.4, but it may find itself more in the neighborhood of the still solid 2.8 career figure next year. As I mentioned before, there’s always that possibility of the 3.6 he posted in 2011 as well.
Honestly, though, Westbrook is a pretty consistent pitcher who has shown very little to indicate he won’t earn his modest salary. Last season was the only time he’s ever made 30 or more starts and failed to acquire at least 2.3 WAR, and a nice bounce back effort this year largely puts to rest the probability that age-related decline would cause that to become his new norm. I think the Cardinals made a smart move here, and one that has a very small chance of hurting them even if Jake the Ground Ball Snake isn’t quite as effective next season — an admittedly likely scenario.