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If not Lance Lynn, who will St. Louis Cardinals count on to take the ball in 2018?

The St. Louis Cardinals have been cool to the overtures of pending free agent pitcher Lance Lynn who insisted through the season that he’d like to sign an extension with the Redbirds.

We hear an awful lot of speculation about how much it will cost to keep Lynn although the player and the team are in agreement that no one from the team has asked him in order to find out. But I wonder who the Birds think they could find to replace him at a better bargain.

All of the young pitchers are nice. But, giving the Cardinals the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t going to take failing to qualify for the playoffs two years in a row lying down, why would the team invest heavily in hitting and leave the rotation up in the air?

Luke Weaver had a nice second half of 2017 when pressed into service because of the injury of Adam Wainwright and the trade of Mike Leake. But Wainwright’s last season of his contract is up in the air — to say the least — because he’s been compromised since the all-star break with an elbow problem. When the former ace wasn’t on the disabled list, he was on the mound trying to get by with an 81 mph fastball and moxie. That leaves Michael Wacha, who managed to make it through all of 2017 without a trip to the disabled list but who remains an injury concern because of his history of shoulder trouble, and Carlos Martinez as the veteran holdovers. Beyond that, St. Louis will have to count on Weaver to prove he has staying power after major league hitters have had a look at him and either Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty or Dakota Hudson to fill the fifth spot in the rotation and Wainwright’s spot if he can’t go.

Reyes is expected to return early in 2018 from Tommy John surgery. But, best case scenario — he’s unlikely to be able to make it from wire-to-wire next year, logging 30 starts and 180-200 innings. Sure, Lynn did it. But Lynn’s arm blew out in the fall and he had several extra months to build up arm strength. Reyes blew out his elbow in the spring, so he’ll just be getting up to full speed in spring training. Plus, he’s never pitched that much before because the Redbirds handled him with kid gloves as he developed. Worst case scenario, Reyes could have a setback, need a cleanup procedure and miss much of next year, too.

Bottom line, it’s hard to believe the Cardinals won’t need at least one more reliable starter than what they already have on hand.

So why not Lynn? With the exception of his lost season recovering from his elbow repair, which the evidence now proves went exceedingly well, he’s managed an average of 32 starts a season every year he has been a starter. I know a lot of people don’t care about stats like wins and earned run average these days. But it’s impressive all the same that he’s won 60.5 percent of his games and has a sparkling 3.38 ERA for his career. If you’re into more fine-tuned metrics, may I point your attention to walks and hits per inning pitched (or WHIP) which indicates that in 2017 Lynn allowed 1.229 baserunners per inning, his best year as a starter. According to baseball-reference.com, the average major league pitcher allows 1.342 baserunners per inning. Lynn allowed 7.3 hits per nine innings pitched in 2017 while the average MLB pitcher allowed 8.8.

Those who don’t like the idea of re-signing Lynn point to a couple of numbers to make their case. First, they complain about his home runs allowed — 27 — and his fielding independent ERA.

In response, I would point out that home runs are up all across baseball. Lynn allowed 1.3 homers per nine games which is exactly the major league average this year. While some have argued that the rise from 13 homers allowed in 2015 to 2017 as a sign of the 31-year-old Lynn’s imminent demise, what about Martinez? The Cardinals ace allowed 15 homers last year and 27 this season. Are we to believe the 26-year-old Martinez is also over the hill? Or maybe the fact that MLB could have its first 60 home run hitter in years and that St. Louis shortstop Paul DeJong, who spend much of the season in Class AAA Memphis has 25 homers in the big leagues (to go with the 13 he hit in the minors.)

As far as Lynn’s 4.81 fielding independent ERA goes... All of Lynn’s other numbers were exceptional and this appears to be a product of luck. The Cardinals were a below average defensive team in 2017 and it’s impossible to believe that Lynn was a beneficiary of being bailed out of a quarter of the runs that he would have allowed on a weaker defensive squad.

Pitchers often take a year after Tommy John surgery to regain full arm strength and control. So, it’s more likely that Lynn will improve next season than it is that he will regress.

I respect what Lynn brings to the table. He’s not an ace. But he’s a guy who is an excellent third starter and he’s certainly worth every penny the Birds paid Mike Leake two winters ago, $85 million over five years.

If the Cardinals don’t re-sign Lynn, they need to find someone who is as good or better. Maybe they want to make a run at a top end starter like free agent Yu Darvish. But, short of that, I can’t understand why they don’t at least talk to Lynn.

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