The way the 2015 season ended has created all sorts of discussion in relation to what the Cardinals need to do this offseason. Most fans and media seem convinced that the Cardinals need to splurge on free agents, trade away prospects for more power and pitching, and essentially throw the baby out with the bath water.
This has largely come about due to the Cards final 3 games against the Cubs as they were eliminated from the 2015 postseason. It has been perceived that this ultimately represented a glimpse of the future – struggling Cardinals pitching against the dominant youthful bats of the Cubs. Most pundits have been happy to dismiss the 100 win season achieved only days prior and highlight the NLDS result as what could be expected in 2016 and beyond if the Cardinals don’t make radical changes to their roster.
The Cardinals took a big swing at David Price but fell short when the Red Sox came over the top with a knockout blow. But being second in the bid for this off season’s top pitching free agent (and one of MLB’s top pitchers) doesn’t help to improve the roster, instead it has lead to exacerbated fans continued calls for the Cardinals to stop the penny pinching and bolster their starting pitching by spending big on free agents or look to the trade table for reinforcements if the "holes" can’t be filled via free agency.
Putting to one side the offense and whether or not the Cardinals will secure Heyward long term (clearly a significant part of the equation this offseason), let’s step back and analyse what the Cardinals have if they do nothing in relation to their starting pitching:
After missing the bulk of 2015 with an Achilles injury, Wainwright returned in late Sept out of the bullpen and after the rust had been knocked off, he looked outstanding (except for one pitch at Wrigley!). At his age, with the workload he’s had in recent years (refer below for details), the forced rest for his arm will likely be the silver lining to last season’s injury. Clearly a lot of people aren’t confident about Wainwright’s return as a starter in 2016 – or at least, they have been quick to forget what he is capable of doing. In 2013, Wainwright started 34 games, won 19, pitched 241 innings (most in MLB) and compiled an ERA of 2.94. In 2014, Wainwright started 32 games, pitched 227 innings (5th most in MLB), winning 20 games with an ERA of 2.38. Those stats exclude the post-season, but over the ’13 and ’14 seasons, Wainwright pitched more innings than anyone in the majors and finished top 3 in Cy Young voting both years. Wainwright thrives on taking on the burden of being the team’s ace, and after resting his arm for most of 2015, he will be ready for a big 2016 as leader of this rotation.
2. Jaime Garcia
Garcia has the stuff to be one of the best lefties in the game and despite being a wonderful bonus for the Cardinals in 2015, there continues to be lingering question marks about his ongoing health, somewhat punctuated by the "stunt" he pulled ahead of his start in Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS. He’s made some questionable health related decisions in his time as a Cardinal and this has resulted in him alienating a lot of the Cardinal Nation. As mentioned previously, his ability is undeniable, but a lack of reliability and consistency results in a lack of trust. Having said all that, after Garcia’s first 15 starts of 2015 he had an ERA of 1.89 and he finished 2015 having made 20 regular season starts with a very respectable ERA of 2.43. So it’s not hard to see his upside and what he can bring to this rotation when he’s healthy.
After a disappointing Sept/Oct this year, it’s easy to forget that Wacha actually had a very good season in 2015. At the end of August, he looked every bit the staff ace with a record of 15-4 and an impressive ERA of 2.69. There is every reason to believe that Wacha’s development will continue in 2016 and the memory of his conclusion to 2015 will be quickly erased (at least until we roll around to Sept/Oct again). Shelby Miller may not be a perfect comparison, but in 2014 he threw 183 innings, then progressed in 2015 to 205 innings (his age 24 season). Wacha will embark on his age 24 season next year looking to hit 200 innings and win 20 games, ideally finishing with a sub-3.00 ERA. He should head into October 2016 stronger and ready to remind everyone why he was such an exciting prospect when he made his first post-season starts back in 2013.
Many think that Martinez has the highest ceiling of all the current Cardinals major league pitching staff. While finishing the 2015 season with a commendable record of 14-7 and an ERA of 3.01, last season also gave us a glimpse of how special he can potentially be. The way the 2015 season ended for Martinez has left question marks around his health and durability. However, much like Wacha, it’s not absurd to assume natural progression in terms of improvement and overall output. Martinez has the kind of stuff that most pitchers dream of having and most hitters have nightmares about - a fastball that taps out around 99-100mph, a fantastic changeup, a devastating slider and an effective sinker – Carlos favours the fourseamer marginally (around 35%), but is comfortable throwing all of his pitches in just about any count. Like Wacha, Martinez enters his age 24 season in 2016, expect Martinez to compete with Wacha in the coming years to take over from Wainwright at the helm of this rotation.
These 3 young left handed pitchers have all had a taste of the big leagues and shown they can perform adequately at that level. In the most recent Baseball America ranking of Cardinals prospects, Cooney was ranked no.2 and Gonzales ranked no.5. Lyons doesn’t qualify for inclusion in these rankings as he has now appeared too many times at major league level.
John Manuel from BA believes that Cooney will rank somewhere between 75-100 in terms of top overall prospects for 2016 (incidentally, Manuel rates Alex Reyes as a top 10 prospect in all of baseball) and believes that Cooney has out-pitched Gonzales in the majors so far. After a rocky start in the majors (2.1 IP, 7 hits, 3 ER), Cooney got comfortable and became convinced he belonged when he returned to the majors in July. He started 5 games, pitched 29 innings and had an ERA of 2.48. Yes, this is definitely a small sample size, but aside from the stats, even to the naked eye upon Cooney’s major league return he looked relaxed and confident his stuff was good enough to beat major league hitters (and 3 of these five starts were against PIT, CHC and NYM). Unfortunately Cooney’s 2015 campaign ended prematurely due to appendicitis.
Gonzales had a frustrating 2015 due to a combination of health issues and poor form (which was heavily linked to the health issues). To outsiders, his standing has taken a hit as a result due to concerns in relation to his shoulder, but the Cards continue to see him eventually stepping into the role of a no.3 or no.4 in the rotation.
Lyons has never really featured as a top prospect for the Cardinals (he ranked 19th for the 2013 season behind names like Taveras, Miller, Rosenthal, Wacha, Wong and Piscotty) but his progress has been solid and his performances have been adequate when called up to the majors. The Cards are out of options with regards to Lyons, so he is likely to either win the 5th starters job or land in the bullpen. In 2015, Lyons had mixed results; the highlight was his final start of the regular season in Pittsburgh where he went 7 scoreless innings, allowing 4 hits and no walks. Overall he threw 60 innings for an ERA of 3.75 (combining starts and bullpen appearances). Lyons’ ceiling is low, but he can fill the no.5 starter’s position and be dependable.
There is still a reasonable amount of time for Mo to add to the roster post the disappointment of missing out on Price, but he recently stated that they’re "not nervous going into the year having Lyons, Cooney, or Marco Gonzales compete for that fifth spot". It appears highly unlikely that the Cardinals will go overboard for a starting pitcher or commit to a long term deal for someone who likely profiles no better than the likes of Cooney, Gonzales or Lyons. It would be much more typical of the Cardinals to try and scoop up a perceived bargain (think Fister or Lohse) as a stop gap for innings to help patch any potential vulnerability due to health/youth.
The hysteria from Cardinals fans recently has been a great example of first world problems, things actually aren’t that bad if we roll with what we have in terms of our starting rotation...now let’s sign Heyward and start thinking about potential improvements to the offense for 2016!