Last Friday I used The Red Baron's Top 21(ish) Cardinals prospects list to categorize the Cardinals' prospects in terms of what level of the minor leagues they were likely to start the year at in 2016. Today, I will utilize that same list, but it will be in the name of projecting what the Cardinals' rotation could look like in the years ahead.
Now before we get started, a caveat: Pitchers are volatile. Prospects are volatile. Pitching prospects are doubly volatile, or possibly volatile squared. The Cardinals certainly can't count on these pitchers to just step in X years. However, we can at least give ourselves an idea of what the Cardinals' options will be down the road, with the understanding that the specifics will likely end up considerably different. It's February, and roster-bation is all we have.
With that said, here's two charts. One shows the big league pitchers the Cardinals have set to start the year in 2016 (plus Lance Lynn) and how long they will be under contract for and for how much. The next chart shows what new prospects project to be available as either depth options or to fill in a rotation spot. I tried to be conservative with that projection. Here goes:
The Cardinals have a steady stream of pitchers leaving. Lynn and Jaime Garcia are both only controllable for this year and 2017, Adam Wainwright is controllable only a year after that, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez are set to depart following 2019, with Mike Leake's last guaranteed year coming after that season (plus a rarely exercised mutual option following 2020).
But, the Cardinals could easily have a steady stream of pitchers arriving to the major leagues as well. Considering the Cardinals already have five starting pitchers with guaranteed salaries in 2016 and 2017, Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales represent depth rather than permanent rotation replacements in the near term. The 2017 rotation doesn't only have it's Top 5 covered, but several depth options as well. Even if they decline Jaime's option and move Marco to the bullpen, the Cardinals could roll into 2017 with 8 starting pitchers they're happy with giving starts to.
As soon as 2018 the Cardinals will have a permanent rotation spot open. Cooney, Gonzales, Alex Reyes, and Luke Weaver could all be competing for that job. Corey Littrell could also compete for a starting rotation job, but I think its more likely he's an extra depth starter or a bullpen piece. Injuries are inevitable, so if Littrell does his part of the job he will not be blocked.
2019 is a long way away, and it seems silly to project out that far, but I will anyways. Cooney and Marco seem likely to be in the bullpen by then (or in another org), but Reyes, Weaver, Littrell, Jack Flaherty, and Austin Gomber could all be consideration for one of the two rotation spots open. Following 2018 is Waino's departure and an all-time great free agent market , so if the Cardinals' current pitching prospects bunch failed to progress well overall, then that offseason could be the time to add another free agent starter. Otherwise, Junior Fernandez and Sandy Alcantara could be in the picture by then, followed by Ronnie Williams and Jake Woodford.
Never trust a pitching prospect, or even a rather large group of them, but looking at the long-term, there's definitely a chance the Cardinals don't need to invest in free agent starting pitching for the next several years. Since I tried to project conservatively, each pitcher also has a chance to arrive quicker than expected. Some will arrive quicker than expected, some won't arrive at all, some stays will be brief, some may become rotation stalwarts for years to come. Someone not even mentioned as a top prospect right now could come out of nowhere. The Cardinals could also extend Martinez or Wacha and make it even less likely for them to need any outside hires.
Of course, the Cardinals have money to make moves down the road. If these prospects fail, they can sign someone else. But since pitching is the Cardinals' current strength in the minors, it would be nice to have that money available for position players.
How do you think the Cardinals' rotation will play out? Who will stick in the rotation and who will bust? Will the team sign a free agent pitcher over the next few years? Will they re-sign anyone?