You've probably heard of Lance Lynn. He is a large specimen of human who pitches with his right hand for the St. Louis Cardinals, and for all that he isn't, Lance Lynn is pretty good at his job. To describe him can be a little bland, in that the common euphemisms that get thrown around about excellent pitchers don't always apply to Lynn. He's not necessarily electric. His stuff isn't plus-plus. In fact, Lynn is kind of everything that the traditional baseball descriptions dislike: the sum is greater than the parts. He's no soft-tosser up there, but if you've ever seen him, he's easily forgotten.
Lynn has lived in Adam Wainwright's shadow since becoming a permanent fixture in The Show. Despite a flush of Cardinals pitching prospects, Lynn remains an integral part of a very effective rotation. He's basically won the Cardinals' version of Survivor by keeping his rotation slot while the likes of Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly got the buzz. As a prospect, he was typically described as a back-end starter in the making, but after adding some velocity in 2011, there was talk he could be a legitimate number four starter. He's been that and more since making the jump to the majors.
Part of what I, and I'm sure others, love about analytics is that we can still attribute value to a player like Lance Lynn, even though he's not a superstar. For the league minimum salary, he's produced seasons of 2.8, 3.0 and soon to be 3.0+ WAR again (2014 based ZiPS rest of season projections). By the time 2014 wraps up, he'll have contributed nearly nine wins above replacement for essentially $1.5 million. While the way Lynn compiles his results isn't always sexy, it's been effective, nevertheless. Take a look.
He's never been a strikeout monster, but he racks up enough to be effective. His walk rate is a bit higher than one would like and he doesn't generate a ton of grounders, but again, he keeps these peripherals at effective levels. He logged 200 innings in 2013 and looks poised to get right near that mark again in 2014. For any team, that's a great value when considering the financial compensation he's required. It results in a lot of surplus value for the Cardinals and underlies the massive importance of team-controlled assets.
Surplus value is the key to contention for a lot of teams. St. Louis has over $67 million wrapped up in Adam Wainwright ($19.5), Matt Holliday ($17), Jhonny Peralta ($15.5) and Yadier Molina ($15.2) for 2014. None of those contracts look especially bad, outside of Holliday's, but for a team with less money in payroll than the Arizona Diamondbacks, these players make up well over half of the team's payroll ($111 million). Without the value provided by guys like Lynn, they wouldn't be able to be perennial division and title contenders. It's on the backs of guys like Lynn that St. Louis remains near the top of the NL Central, as he essentially subsidizes the contracts of the higher priced Cardinals.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon of getting bargain bin rates for Lynn's production is about to end. He's arbitration eligible this winter and should see a sizable bump in pay. When trying to model his arbitration case from recent examples, a notable comparison can be made with Doug Fister. While the two have different profiles, they've both been effective mid-rotation arms. Let's look at how they've generated their value over their first three full big league seasons (keeping in mind that 2014 is still in progress):
At first glance, Fister appears more valuable, and perhaps rightfully so. On a per-inning basis, Fister has a clear edge over Lynn. But, look at the innings totals and note the injury history; Fister has been on the DL with relative frequency, while Lynn has avoided it altogether. Yes, Fister is the better pitcher, but he's not a guarantee to take the mound 30+ times a year. Lynn, on the other hand, is a near lock to make take his turn every fifth day. In an arbitration case, that's a strong consideration, and I'd only give Fister the slightest of edges here.
Other stats are heavily weighed, like strikeouts, where Lynn has the decisive advantage. Fister has never been a whiff machine and it's not like Lance Lynn lights the world on fire, either, but he's far ahead in this category. To Fister's credit, he rarely walks anyone and that's got to be a bonus for him. In the home run department, the two are pretty comparable. Fister generates more grounders, but he also had the luxury of pitching in Safeco Field for his first season and a half. Busch Stadium isn't necessarily an extreme hitter's park, but it is certainly tougher on hurlers than Seattle's pitcher's paradise.
Looking across the board, Doug Fister seems to have a slight edge, but only by a small margin. What he gives up in terms of reliability to Lynn, he makes up for in skill when he's on the mound. Using Fister's case to project Lynn, and making a slight reduction in salary to account for the case above, Lynn's salaries in the coming three years might go a little something like this: $3.8M in 2015 (arb1), $7M in 2016 (arb2) and $11.5M in 2017 (arb3).
When factoring his projected performance (via Oliver projections) and inflated major league salaries, his surplus value starts to evaporate. And while there is still some surplus value present, he's one injury or bout of ineffectiveness away from providing no surplus value as he progresses through arbitration.
This is so often the case with effective-but-not-great players. Teams have to get the surplus value while they can before the salaries start to escalate and the value declines. With the current arbitration set-up, this is simply the way it goes. The only real option the Cardinals have is to extend Lynn, perhaps buying out his arbitration seasons and a free agent year or two, but with pitcher injuries cropping up left and right, that may not be a gamble they're willing to take.
And this is where player development becomes such a handy tool. St. Louis may decide not to extend Lance Lynn, pay him until he either declines, or gets hurt, over the next three years, and just replace him with the next Lance Lynn. Remember, Lynn was never more than an "okay" prospect, and looking at the Cardinals' system, which has actually slipped some of late, they have plenty of "okay" or better prospects they can continue to mold. After all, when you develop talent like St. Louis does, it's not all that difficult to replace your less valuable pieces with new ones.
Lance Lynn is a workhorse and bargain, for now. How long he remains a bargain is yet to be seen, although we have a pretty good idea. We'll have to wait and see how the Cardinals decide to let it all play out.
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Jeff Wiser is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can find his work on craft beer at BeerGraphs and follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.