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Shifting the focus to the rotation

The best way to improve the bullpen is to add a quality starter.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Happy New Year to all of you out there. I hope you had a restful—or, at least, not stressful—holiday season. Here’s to a 2019 with plenty to celebrate here at VEB.

One could safely argue the Cardinals have made the most impact of any team since the Red Sox hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the postseason.

The addition of Paul Goldschmidt instantly made the lineup much more fearsome and added some star power.

Andrew Miller is just one season removed from dominance, when he posted a 1.44 ERA and 1.99 FIP over 62.2 innings. He’s now a Cardinal, projected to share duties at the back of the pen with Jordan Hicks.

The front office sent Patrick Wisdom, a player who looked to have no chance of playing time with the current roster composition, to Texas for a lefty utility bat in Drew Robinson. (I’ll still keep silently hoping they add a certain prominent lefty bat, but I doubt it at this point.)

The changes, mixed with relative silence from Chicago and Milwaukee and major activity from Cincinnati, have changed FanGraphs’ 2019 projected standings in an interesting way.

With the competition level looking to be pretty high, the projected win totals are seemingly low and there’s a notable tie at the top:

FanGraphs’ 2019 Projected Standings

Chicago Cubs 87 75
St. Louis Cardinals 87 75
Pittsburgh Pirates 81 81
Cincinnati Reds 79 83
Milwaukee Brewers 78 84

Now, I find this interesting if not just for the fact that Milwaukee is somehow expected to majorly fall from their 2018 division-winning graces. Most notable, though, is that virtual tie between the Cubs and Cards.

On paper, the FO seems to have pulled this team to the top with the Cubs.

That’s still with several question marks on the pitching side.

RosterResource projects the rotation headed into Spring Training to look something like this:

  1. Carlos Martínez
  2. Miles Mikolas
  3. Jack Flaherty
  4. Adam Wainwright
  5. Michael Wacha

Order aside, I think that’s probably what we’ll see at first. Mike Shildt said at the Winter Meetings that Wainwright is headed into camp projected as a starter. It’d be great to see that work out.

Still, it’s hard to ignore Waino’s struggles over recent seasons. At this point, my eye pegs him more in a relief role, but I’d love to be wrong.

Both Martínez and Wacha have struggled with injuries. Wacha, Mikolas and Wainwright are all set to come off the books following 2019, barring any extensions.

There’s a lot of empty space looking past the upcoming season.

Beyond the rotation’s questions, a bullpen that was one of the worst in the Majors has added a player who could be a big boost. At worst, Miller would be an average arm, looking at his 2018 expected stats,

That’s really been the only change.

In addition to Miller and Hicks, Dakota Hudson looks to hold a spot. Still, there are question marks there, especially considering his near-6 BB/9 in 2018.

Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone were mainly filling the DL last season.

It’s been long enough now that it isn’t an overreaction to say Brett Cecil isn’t what he was supposed to be.

Chasen Shreve’s performance in a Cardinal uniform didn’t look worth bringing back, with a high walk rate, home run rate and FIP.

John Gant can hover around average, but Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon both looked rough out of the pen, carrying FIPs and xFIPs above 5.00.

Why spend so much time talking about the state of the bullpen in a piece supposedly focused on the rotation? Because adding a quality starter ensures that both the starting staff and the relievers improve at the same time.

There are solid options available. Dallas Keuchel is now the largest free agent name, and one who would fit the Cardinals well. Beyond that, players like Gio González are available and currently suffering from an extremely stagnant market.

Turning to the trade block, Cleveland has been reportedly willing to part with Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. The Blue JaysMarcus Stroman remains an interesting piece in recurring trade rumors. The price wouldn’t be low, but those names are major improvements.

Of course, it’s all speculative at this point. But worth a look. Why spend on the rotation?

Injuries will happen

A constant in baseball is that, over the course of 162 games, players will be injured.

We saw it last season frequently with the Cardinals. Alex Reyes’ devastating injury after a long recovery was tough to watch. Martínez returned to a relief role to shorten his recovery. Wacha didn’t return after a midseason injury in Philadelphia. Wainwright didn’t throw a pitch between June and August.

Due to those injuries, we saw 11 pitchers make starts for the 2018 Cardinals. Only five of those players accrued more than 1 fWAR; one (Luke Weaver) is now a Diamondback, the other (John Gant) isn’t in consideration for a starting role.

Adding another pitcher who could be relied on to deliver a season like the ones from Miles Mikolas or Jack Flaherty would be great insurance. It also shifts the current depth back one spot, which is never a bad thing. On that note...

No such thing as “too many good pitchers”

Even if you’re a firm believer in the young guns, there’s no harm in adding a quality starter and moving pitchers like Gomber and Ponce de Leon a step back on the depth chart.

Following the constant of injury, they’ll get their chance to make starts. Those players still have minor league options available and ensure that the second, third, fourth, etc. choice down the organizational depth chart is even better than it was before.

Starter-quality pitchers in the bullpen

On a related note, adding a prominent starter takes pitchers who the organization was clearly comfortable giving hundreds of innings into the relief roles that have often been volatile.

That’s not to say those roles won’t still be volatile, but it reduces the risk compared to traditional relievers. Looking at the deals given to Brett Cecil and Greg Holland, it’s less of a gamble to give the money to a proven starter and put organizational depth in relief roles than the reverse.

Beyond the possibility of Wainwright moving into the pen, Alex Reyes is mainly being discussed as a versatile relief option for the bulk of 2019. Adding another starter eases the potential pressure to shift Reyes back to the rotation if/when injuries occur or if struggles persist.

Security beyond 2019

I want to say first that this would really be a boost to the upcoming season more than anything, because there are several starters who represent clear upgrades over current options. I’m very much in the “maximize the 2019 window” camp.

A signing like this one would also offer security beyond this season, though.

I mentioned it briefly above, but three-fifths of the current projected rotation comes off the books following the season, barring any contract negotiations.

Even if the Cardinals were to resign Miles Mikolas (which they should), and Alex Reyes is plugged back in for 2020, there’s still an open spot in the rotation to be filled by internal depth or a future free agent.

Signing someone like Keuchel would pay off for several years. A trade for someone already under team control or signing a player like González to a short-term deal would provide a bit of security moving forward with little to no long-term risk.

The buzz this offseason with pitching has focused on relievers. There are quite a few household names from recent years on the market.

I like the Andrew Miller signing, because I feel he provides something between consistency and excellence.

Giving another contract like that to a reliever makes for a very expensive bullpen, leaving the organizational pitching depth to pull the weight in the rotation. With this organization so focused on cost efficiency, putting the dollars in the starting staff and filling the rest of the bullpen from within seems to have the best chance for success.