On October 11, 2018 the Cardinals announced that they had agreed to terms with starting pitcher Adam Wainwright on a one-year incentive laden deal. This move, made weeks before free agency opened, signified the Cardinals faith in their in-house starters for the 2019 season. The Cardinals entered the offseason already projecting a rotation of Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, and Jack Flaherty, with Luke Weaver battling Adam Wainwright for the final spot. They were so confident in their own arms that they would move Weaver, a once priced prospect coming off a disappointing season, in the deal that brought Paul Goldschmidt.
However, if there’s one thing that Cards fans can count on, it’s a spring injury to the starting rotation. In January, reports began to circulate that Carlos Martinez’s shoulder rehab was not going well. His status in the rotation appeared to be in question as persistent weakness kept him out all of spring training and threatened his ability to throw multiple innings at any point during the season.
Cardinal fans flipped out, calling for the front office to pursue former AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, who seemed increasingly willing to accept a short-term deal. Frustrated with missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons (the longest gap since the 1990’s), Cards fans believed adding Keuchel was a necessity to save the season.
While the club reportedly kicked the tires on Keuchel, their interest was tepid at best. Mozeliak and his crew were quietly confident that a young starter the club had drafted and developed could match the former Cy Young winner. If the club has learned to count on a rotation injury every season, that reality has also taught them that they can trust their own farm system to develop the exact arm they need at the exact time they need it. Enter Dakota Hudson.
Carlos Martinez would not make a start for the Cardinals in 2019. He would only manage 48 innings out of the pen. Dakota Hudson pitched 172 innings over 32 starts for the Cards and produced a more-than-solid 3.35 era.
Hudson was there right when he was needed. This is not an accident. The club planned for this.
The Cardinals have an amazing ability to not only develop starting pitcher prospects but to time the readiness of those prospects with potential rotation openings. The club has not just had “an arm” hiding in AAA to use in case of injury, but have produced fully developed impact prospects at just the right time. This phenomenon can be traced through the entire decade:
2019: Dakota Hudson (34th pick) – 32 starts, 3.35 era
2018: Jack Flaherty (34th pick) – 28 starts, 3.34 era
2017: Luke Weaver (27th pick) – 10 starts, 3.88 era
2016: Alex Reyes (intl signing) – 5 starts, 1.57 era
2015: Marco Gonzales (19th pick) – 1 start, 13.50 era (injured)
2014: Carlos Martinez (intl signing) – 7 starts, 4.03 era
2013: Michael Wacha (19th pick), Shelby Miller (19th pick) – 9 starts, 2.78; 31 starts, 3.06
2012: Joe Kelly (3rd round) – 16 starts, 3.53 era
2011: Lance Lynn (39th pick) – 34 innings, 3.12 era
2010: Jaime Garcia (22nd round) – 28 starts, 2.70 era
Before we dig too deeply into those names and consider who might be next in line, let’s take a moment to fully appreciate how incredible that list is. For ten consecutive seasons the Cardinals have produced a significant starting pitcher prospect who was ready to go in response to injury or rotation opening. Every name on that list was highly regarded by scouts and prospect analysts. Seven of the names were first (or supplemental) round picks. Reyes and Martinez were high profile international signings. Jamie Garcia was a late round pick but he quickly emerged as one of the better starting pitcher prospects in the game as he progressed through the minors.
Below these more prominent names are a host of other starters who might not have warranted the same attention as prospects, but whose timely development and performance in the minors earned them significant MLB playing time. From Daniel Ponce de Leon to Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney to Austin Gomber, the Cards system has done its job again and again.
Sure, several names on the list above haven’t become what the Cardinals hoped. Joe Kelly has been up and down as a reliever, but never the Lamborghini starter Mike Matheny saw. Shelby Miller had his moments but landed far below his potential. Alex Reyes might never be healthy. Marco Gonzales couldn’t stay healthy until he left the organization.
The point of this analysis is not that all of those arms became and remained what the club hoped. The success rate of good prospects, even after they reach the majors, is still startlingly low. The point is that the Cardinals did not lose these prospects along the way. The developmental wing of the organization took what the draft and scouting directors had given them and successfully created MLB-ready starters who were poised to provide quality production at a fraction of the cost of veteran players.
The Cards have become known as a starting pitcher factory. They draft and develop starters as well as or better than anyone else in the league.
This success in the development of starting pitchers has had a dramatic impact on the way the club operates. Since 2011, the Cardinals have looked outside the organization for a starter only four times:
2018: Miles Mikolas – 2/$15.5M
2016: Mike Leake – 5/$80M
2014: John Lackey – in-season acquisition for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.
2014: Justin Masterson – in-season acquisition for James Ramsey.
Miles Mikolas is the most recent non-organizational starter the Cardinals have acquired. In some ways, Mikolas fits the mold presented above. Mikolas had only 10 forgettable MLB starts before heading overseas, but it was the Cardinals scouting contingent in Japan and pitching coach Mike Maddux’s familiarity with the one-time Ranger that made the deal work. In Mikolas, scouts again delivered the Cardinals a high-quality prospective starter, this time a free agent who was available to the club at a hugely discounted cost.
The largest contract the Cardinals have offered a free agent starting pitcher belongs to Mike Leake. Leake was acquired in 2016 in what seems like a panic move after the Red Sox outbid the Cardinals for David Price. Looking back, it was perhaps the injury to Marco Gonzales that caused the Leake debacle. With Gonzales unavailable, the Cardinals had a gaping hole in the rotation and the next round of prospects – Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes – were at least a season away. So, the Cardinals gave $80M to Leake believing they could turn his unremarkable consistency into something more. It didn’t work, and when Weaver and Jack Flaherty looked ready for expanded roles in 2017, the Cards paid the Mariners to take Leake. They’re still paying part of his contract.
John Lackey and Justin Masterson were both acquired as in-season trades in 2014 when injuries to Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha forced the division-leading Cardinals into a frantic search for impact pitching depth. While Lackey pitched very well, Masterson’s time with the club is best forgotten. The Cardinals’ system was tested to its limits and still the Cardinals managed to scrape together enough quality starts from Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales, Joe Kelly, and Tyler Lyons to secure the division and reach the NLCS.
Heading into 2020, the Cardinals have already added another free agent starter, but he is not coming from outside the organization. At the GM meetings in Arizona, the Cardinals re-upped with starter Adam Wainwright on a one-year incentive-laden deal. The 38-year-old seems poised to be a Cardinal for life.
The Cardinals can already project a five-man rotation: Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, and Carlos Martinez. While concerns about Martinez’s shoulder linger, both the player and the club anticipate that he will be ready for a starter’s workload come spring. Regardless, nothing about the Cardinals recent history indicates they are likely to pursue outside rotation help, even with current concerns. Fans are already clamoring for the club to sign a starter. The Cardinals’ eyes are on their own system.
Do the Cardinals have a well-regarded prospect developed and poised to take starts when needed in 2020? Of course they do! Ryan Helsley threw 36 intriguing innings for the Cardinals in 2019. The fireballing right-hander entered the season just a few spots below Dakota Hudson on many prospect rankings. While the club would probably prefer that he remain in the bullpen and potentially compete for the closer position while Jordan Hicks recovers, Helsley is there if needed and the club can be reasonably assured that he will perform well if called upon to cover a rotation spot.
Beyond Helsley there are a slew of names the Cardinals will consider. As John LaRue recently wrote, Daniel Ponce de Leon probably deserves more of a look. Genesis Cabrera is a little more than the long list of other unheralded arms that have received starts over the last decade. There are a few other intriguing names just below the MLB-ready radar for 2021.
Needless to say, the Cardinals starting pitcher factory is still churning out results. Count on the Cardinals to keep turning to their own ranks to fill the rotation in 2020 and beyond.