The Cardinals went into 2016 with a little more risk than the average five man rotation. Adam Wainwright was returning from injury and may (and has) struggled to get back into form. Carlos Martinez's 2015 ended a little short thanks to his shoulder barking in September. Michael Wacha has an incredibly rare shoulder issue that will probably follow him the rest of his career. And Jaime Garcia is well, Jaime Garcia. Mike Leake was brought in, in part, to bring some stabilization to that high risk profile.
The Cardinals also attempted to mitigate risk by accruing rotation depth beyond the fifth starter. Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales are arms that would at least have some realistic shot at gaining a rotation spot in most organizations, but were stuck on the outside looking in St. Louis. Lyons, with no options remaining, started out the year in the bullpen with Cooney and Gonzales planned to be part of the rotation in Memphis. At the same time, the Cardinals planned to have more options as the season wore on, with Alex Reyes coming back from suspension and Luke Weaver set to start the year at Double-A.
The good news? No one in the Cards' Opening Day rotation has gotten injured yet. The bad news: The immediate depth options have mostly been exhausted, and before any longer term options have made their presence felt. Cooney hasn't thrown since Spring Training, where he couldn't throw without pain in his shoulder. According to this article, Cooney will be evaluated in two weeks (more like a week and a half at this point), though even if it's the best case scenario, it's still going to take him quite a bit of time to get up to speed for major league games. Worst case scenario, and not all that unrealistic, is that he doesn't even end up pitching in 2016. Gonzales, after a 2015 marred by injury and ineffectiveness already had Tommy John Surgery, ending any chance of him contributing in 2016.
Lyons remains an option, but over a short sample of ten innings he hasn't exactly pitched like he deserves a promotion, posting just a 5.40 K/9 and 3.60 BB/9 on way to a xFIP of 4.90, with three home runs given up leading to a 6.97 FIP. Despite the short sample, the three homers are a bit of a drag as Lyons also had a home run problem last year, with his FIP being more than a full run worse than his xFIP in 60 innings. I wouldn't say I expect him to have a homer problem at this point, but its definitely something to watch. Those ten innings aren't completely insignificant either, with Lyons' combined Steamer and Zips projection getting worse since the season began, from a preseason 3.53 projected FIP raising to 3.75 at the time of this writing. That's still above average though, so its in no way something to scoff at, especially when considering the org's sixth starter.
With Weaver, the hope was that, like previous Cardinals first round college pitchers Wacha and Gonzales, he would move pretty fast through the system. He hasn't thrown any innings at Double-A, but had a fine season at High-A followed by good results in the AFL last fall. The hope was that his progression would continue at the high minors, and possibly contribute if needed to the big league club late in the year. Unfortunately, Weaver has still yet to throw an inning for the Double-A squad, as he suffered a wrist injury to his non-throwing hand. The narrow window that Weaver sees the big leagues in 2016 may have closed.
Reyes of course is still serving his suspension, and while I'm sure he's been working a lot, he wouldn't be able to just shift right into the rotation. The top prospect struck out a hitter and a half an inning in 34 2/3 Double-A innings last year, but also walked nearly five per nine innings. It's fun to dream on Reyes' ceiling, and we may very well get a taste of that this season, but it's certainly not anything to count on at this point. For all we know he's showing the best command he's ever had right now...or maybe he's not even throwing because he's experiencing discomfort and the Cardinals just haven't had to report it yet. It's kind of annoying not knowing.
The options are bleak passed those five. 26 year old Thomas Lee has the best FIP among Memphis starters at 3.15, though that's mostly because he's yet to give up a homer in 21 innings. His 6.33 K/9 rate and 2.53 BB/9 at Memphis would be considerably worse against Major League hitting. The best by K-BB% is Arturo Reyes, who is currently striking out more than a hitter per inning while giving up a sustainable 3.24 BB/9. This A. Reyes didn't quite make VEB's Top Prospects, but he at least has a higher prospect status than the remaining Memphis starters.
With the injury risk inherit in the Cardinals' rotation, they are walking a bit of a fine line. Despite his struggles over the first ten innings of 2016, I'd pick Lyons to fill a rotation spot if someone were to go down at this current time. Luckily, while Memphis completely lacks any healthy and legitimate rotation options, they do have a few potential call-ups to the bullpen:
Sam Tuivailala is striking out close to two hitters per inning, but also walking over five per nine. Dean Kiekhefer appears to be a master of control, but has some very weak strikeout numbers. While those rate stats would be fine at the big league level, the K and BB numbers will trend closer to each other if either jumped up to the majors. Keikhefer is the only lefty so it would make some sense for him to replace Lyons, but Lyons isn't exactly being used as a lefty specialist at the moment. In fact, he's seen 2.5 RHH for every one LHH, which I'd argue is misuse of Lyons as a bullpen piece.
Miguel Socolovich however, looks pretty solid, striking out 1.2 hitters per inning while walking less than two per nine. Those numbers regressed would be pretty similar to the line he put up at the major league level last year, that of eight strikeouts per nine and three walks per nine. He seems very likely to get the call up if Lyons were to move to the rotation.
Disaster has yet to strike the Cardinals' rotation, but injury will almost inevitably happen to any rotation, let alone one with Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha each expected to take the mound every five days. The Cardinals planned ahead, but those plans have mostly been laid to waste. The Cardinals' rotation struggled in April, but it's easy still to imagine the current five righting the ship and performing more like we expected going into the year. What's a lot harder to predict is the health of the rotation. The first time someone goes down, the decision is easy: move Lyons to the rotation, call up a bullpen arm (my vote is for Soco at the moment, though that could change if Tui figures out how to get the walks down). The next is move, woof. I have no idea. The options are pretty bleak.
Worrying about what could happen in the event of two starters getting hurt might seem kind of...unneeded. I'd tend to agree. But the average starting pitcher has about a 40% chance of getting hurt in any given year. That's an average of two per rotation. The chances dropped a bit, since as far as we know the current five starters survived Spring Training and the first month of the season healthy. That's been great, but the depth options haven't panned out nearly as well. Going into the season with Lyons as the only legitimate replacement starter would have been justified concern, and we still got five more months (and hopefully, a sixth) to get through, so it seems like a justified concern right now. Hopefully, Reyes comes back healthy, and pulls a 2013 Wacha, and the rest of the country is again asking itself "How can they keep doing this?" in reference to the Cardinals' draft and development powerhouse. In fact hey, why not, that's my prediction for what happens.