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A Tale of Two Starts — And the Future

We just saw two rookie starters make historically great starts back to back. What does that mean for the future of the Cardinals?

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

You know what I really like? Motels. Not hotels, though admittedly I do also like the very oldest hotel buildings in downtown areas, but the modern hotel just leaves me cold. But a motel? I love those. I don’t really know why, but I do. Maybe it’s just part of my overall fascination with the past, and the way things were before they were so efficient and homogenised. But anytime I’m on the road, if I can find a proper midcentury-era motel at which to stay, I will do so. Even if whoever I’m on the road with sees no appeal in such an odd distinction, which I admit has caused friction in the past at times.

I don’t have a point. I’m just typing the first thing that comes to mind, as I so often do in the introductory sections of my articles. It’s just sort of a thing. But a point, or a reason? Not so much. I just don’t always feel like jumping right in to the point I’m planning on making off the bat. Rather, it’s like while I’m sitting here thinking about whatever I want to write about, I’ll also toss up whatever other thought I have as a way to begin. It’s probably an irritating habit, but I’m kind of stuck with it at this point, it seems. And you’re pretty much stuck with me, at least a couple days a week.

Two nights in a row we’ve seen Cardinal rookie pitchers make their first major league starts, and two nights in a row we’ve seen said starters take no-hit bids into the seventh inning. Obviously, it’s been an encouraging little run of pitching, even if the club as a whole still seems bizarrely, maddeningly stuck in neutral.

Of course, we’re obviously dealing with the very smallest of samples, just a single start apiece from both Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber, and reading too much into a single start is to court disaster. Still, I would ask of anyone who watched the last two starts a fairly simple question: do you doubt that either of those pitchers are major league quality? Even Poncedeleon’s start, which was the less impressive in terms of actual pitching (he missed fewer bats, and gave up more loud contact, than Gomber), should have shown anyone watching that this is a major league caliber arm. The stuff plays at the big-league level, and the player himself obviously has the mental toughness to hold up.

So we now have two more arms to throw on the long-term pile of pitching assets the Cardinals possess. Now, I’m not claiming either Poncedeleon or Gomber are future aces, by any means; I still find Poncedeleon most intriguing as a future relief piece with a boiled-down and distilled repertoire, and while Gomber strikes me as more effective in a starting role, where his full arsenal can play off the variety of pitches he possesses, I still see him more as a fourth or fifth starter. In other words, these are two very useful, very solid pieces, but neither one is going to alter the course of the franchise single-handedly.

But then again, a player doesn’t have to be a franchise-altering sort of talent to make a difference in future plans, and the existence of these two arms does change the calculus of the Cards’ outlook some. Even if you only believe Gomber to be a back of the rotation starter, and Poncedeleon to perhaps fit best as a reliever, that’s two more young, controllable arms who can be factored in. When we consider there are still a couple more arms yet untapped in the upper levels, as well, between Dakota Hudson’s contact management and Ryan Helsley’s power arsenal, it is true that the current crop of on-the-cusp pitching prospects of the Cardinals lacks the potential star power of some previous iterations, but that doesn’t mean the talent isn’t still flowing.

It will be important to keep that in mind as we watch and follow what the Cards do in the next week until the trade deadline, and even into the offseason, as they attempt to retool a club that is still trying to get over the hump, it seems. More specifically, if we consider that it appears the organisation has a very reasonable candidate for a 4/5 spot in the rotation and at least a bullpen arm sitting on the shelf in Triple A right now, and will hopefully come up with at least one more solid arm from the group of Hudson and Helsley, it not only offers internal solutions to needs, it specifically opens up the possibility of putting either that group of arms on the market, or putting one or more of the club’s already-established major league pitchers potentially in the mix.

Of the pitchers already in the major league rotation, Carlos Martinez and Jack Flaherty are, if not untouchable, then basically reserved as those, “only if a team blows us away with an offer,” kind of assets. Sure, there are deals we could find where it would actually make sense to deal either Carlos or Flaherty, such as multiple top-50 prospects or a package centered around a centerpiece young positional talent, a la Gleyber Torres or Xander Bogaerts or the like, but the return would have to be truly outrageous to be worth it, and thus we should put those two pitchers in a category unto themselves for the moment.

However, beyond Martinez and Flaherty, we find some assets which would be more palatable to move. Miles Mikolas is perhaps the most intriguing, with one more year left on the two-season contract he signed and a sub-3.00 ERA that would make him extremely enticing to a club looking to bolster its rotation for the playoff run this season and a contending cycle next year. He’s cheap, he’s very good, and the short-term nature of his deal makes it so that he’s a bit of a strange fit for a club that may or may not be able to retool enough on the fly to take a shot at 2019 contention.

My personal preference would actually be to try and extend Mikolas for a few more years, as I believe his approach and delivery make him an ideal anchor point for a rotation, capable of chewing up mass quantities of innings at a number two starter’s level, but if that’s not in the cards then he has to be an asset in play for a trade. The Cards made two major two-year investments this past offseason. One has worked out brilliantly (Mikolas), while one has fallen completely on his face (Ozuna). The fact the offense in general has underachieved so badly this season, combined with general bullpen shenanigans, has essentially eaten one-half of that two-year window with nothing to show for the investments. If the second year is going to look like the first, then there’s really no good reason not to try and recoup some of the investment cost. As I said, my preference would be to try and convert Mikolas’s short-term value into a longer-term relationship, but I recognise it’s a two-way street, and you can’t simply force a player to sign an extension.

Moving on, we have another pitcher under club control for one more season in Michael Wacha, albeit one who has to be seen as at least somewhat of a risky investment throughout baseball. Before suffering an oblique injury in late June which is expected to keep him out for a few more weeks, Wacha was having a very interesting season. He was posting the best ERA he had since 2015, and for the most part the eye test supported his run-suppression efforts this year. However, the underlying peripherals were less rosy, as his walk rate this season is higher than in the past, and he was probably due for some regression off his excellent runs-allowed numbers. For my part, I saw a pitcher better this season at keeping hitters off-balance and unsure of themselves, with a wider repertoire than he had possessed before, if not necessarily pinpoint command of everything he throws.

Wacha is under control for 2019, at arbitration prices, which makes him very valuable, but also has to be considered a health risk, with the chronic shoulder condition he’s dealt with on and off the biggest question mark. Still, the shoulder thing seems to mostly be under control these days, and if you’re looking for a good bet to produce 150-160 innings at a #3 starter’s pace, Michael Wacha is probably an excellent place to start.

And finally, we have Luke Weaver, who is the most unusual trade candidate of this bunch, simply because teams are usually loathe to give up assets with as much control still remaining as Weaver. Still, the 2018 season has been an up and down affair for Weaver, as he’s seen both his strikeout and walk numbers go the wrong direction this season compared to 2017, and his ERA currently sits in the high fours, which is really no one’s idea of a dynamite trade chip. The secondary pitches seems to have stalled a bit for Weaver, and while he still possesses that dynamic one-two punch of plus fastball and plus-plus changeup, it’s clear he’s searching for a way to round out his repertoire and take that next step forward.

With Weaver, there’s at least a thought in the back of my mind that he might ultimately fit better as a relief piece himself, capable of simplifying his arsenal to two plus offerings and hopefully ratcheting up the strikeouts as a result, but for now we have to consider him as a starter, I believe. And as a starter, Weaver is locked in for at least another season at league-minimum rates, and then has three full seasons of arbitration beyond that. The service time suggests to me Weaver will actually still be under control for five more years after this, but I won’t swear that’s correct, and it could only be four.

Of the three rotation pieces we’re talking about here, Weaver represents an entirely different sort of piece than the other two. Both Mikolas and Wacha represent relative certainty in terms of performance, with one full season of guaranteed control beyond this one. Mikolas is the top performer, and that’s why he’s valuable. Wacha is younger, still very solid, and has shown growth in his overall game the last calendar year, and that’s why he’s valuable. Weaver, though, is still just 24 years old, almost two full years younger than Carlos Martinez, and will turn 25 in a little under a month. He hasn’t been as consistent a performer as the other two, but his age alone makes him a remarkably valuable asset, particularly is a club believes they could help him polish up the rough edges, and his breaking stuff.

Now, I’m not saying the Cardinals should immediately put all three of these players on the market, or even necessarily one of them. But ask yourself this question: if the 2019 Cardinals were to replace one of Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, or Luke Weaver with whichever pitcher from the group of Gomber/Poncedeleon/Hudson/Helsley appears to most warrant the opportunity, would the rotation be worse? Yes, probably. It would. But much worse? Well, that’s a tougher question. And would that downgrade be greater than the return in talent you could extract for dealing away a rotation asset with at least one, or perhaps multiple, years of control left?

In the grand scheme of things, Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon taking no-no’s into the seventh inning back to back days is not a hugely impactful thing for the 2018 Cardinals. It was two games, the Redbirds still managed to go just 1-1 in the course of those two near-masterpieces, and the needle moved basically not at all. But those games were the equivalent of a proof of concept on both pitchers, showcasing their stuff and composure at the big league level, and serving as notice that the Cards’ pitching depth does not end at the county line, even with Alex Reyes’s disastrous run of health and the dwindling twilight of Adam Wainwright’s career upon us.

I think we all understand that this Cardinal team, as frustrating and occasionally depressing as they have been, does not fall cleanly and easily into either the buyer or seller bucket, either at the deadline or come the offseason. Rather, this is a club that needs reshaping and upgrading, not a multi-year teardown. Perhaps 2019 will need to be sacrificed, perhaps not. But it’s worth remembering that the pipeline of talent on the pitching side has not yet dried up, and there’s an opportunity here for the Cardinals to play a very valuable chip on the trade table if they’re willing to take the risk.

How likely is it they’ll take that risk? Well, we’ll all just have to wait and see, I suppose.