For the second year in a row, the Cardinals starting rotation is annoyingly muddled. It should seem simple. Four members of the 2019 rotation, which helped to contribute to the team’s 3.80 team ERA (5th in the MLB), are returning and the fifth probable member is a former 3 WAR starter who wants to move back into the rotation. If only it were that easy.
The Cardinals also theoretically have depth. On their 40 man, they have a man with a 3.31 ERA in 81.2 career innings, they have a respectable lefty who showed promise in his 11 career starts, they have a former top 10 prospect in all of baseball returning from injury, and...yeah no I can’t pretend Jake Woodford is considered rotation depth here. Again, this all sounds great on paper.
But there are too many question marks. I’m no scout, but Daniel Poncedeleon looks like someone pretty obviously better suited for the bullpen. He’s made 12 career starts and eight of them have gone 4 or less innings. It’s possible Austin Gomber has a future, but he wasn’t much of a prospect in the first place, has respectable but mediocre MLB stats, and lost his age 25 season to injury. I have hope for Genesis Cabrera in the rotation but the smart money is still bullpen. And Alex Reyes in the best case scenario is going to have his innings significantly limited because his professional career high is 111 IP, which will have happened four years ago when 2020 starts.
And moving on the actual MLB rotation, there’s two guys I personally can count on and three unknowns. Jack Flaherty of course is one of them. He broke out in the 2nd half and finished with 4.7 fWAR despite having a not all that great 1st half (due primarily to HRs). And Miles Mikolas, who arguably had a pretty underrated season last year. He too was bit by the HR bug, but ended up with a 2.5 fWAR season.
But then you get to the unknowns. I’ll get to the uncontroversial, obvious guys: Adam Wainwright, whose age is always going to make him a risky bet at this stage, and Carlos Martinez. Wainwright should not be expected to pitch anywhere near as good as 2019. Possibly from a run preventer perspective, absolutely not from an innings perspective. He threw 171 innings last year. He has averaged 112 innings in his past five seasons and he’s also 38-years-old! Like if the Cardinals get 112 good innings in 2020, that’s a good outcome!
Then there’s Carlos and I’m not going to speculate why or what happened, just that Carlos obviously was hurt to begin the year, and moved to the bullpen. And I don’t know if that’s gone away or is a lingering issue, but he was also kind of... underwhelming in the bullpen? It seems like he benefited a lot from some home run luck in a year where not many pitchers benefited from that, and I don’t know how real that was. But his HR/FB% was 5.7% and his career 10.2%. Yes, he probably gets a small reliever boost but also you’d expect his 2019 numbers to be higher than his career because the MLB saw a HR/FB% boost.
I don’t know, the injury issues, the move to the bullpen, and my sense that I would hope a 3 WAR starter has better stats as a reliever than Carlos did - I think you can hope he starts, but plan for contingencies. And the same can be said for Wainwright. He absolutely deserves a shot in the 2020 rotation, you just likely won’t get 30 starts from him.
And then there’s Dakota. Dakota is a confusing pitcher and that’s been chronicled here before. I’m not as worried about him not making 30 starts, I am worried about him making 30 good starts. He had a very misleading 3.35 ERA. Ignore the advanced stats, and it’s still misleading. He had a whopping 15 unearned runs. Add those runs in and it’s still a solid 4.12 ERA to be fair. But the advanced stats, they’re so bad.
The home run luck that went to Carlos certainly didn’t go to Hudson. After a season where he allowed one home run all year, he ran a 19.8 HR/FB% in 2019. The massive rise in home runs was predictable (although maybe not that much), but to be fair, it should go down in 2020. But he also ran a .274 BABIP, which yes was at least partially due to great infield defense and that’s not going to change in 2020. But that’s probably not real. He had a .300 BABIP in AAA and .296 one in AA. Also SIERA, which attempts to take into account quality of contact, has him with the worse than FIP or xFIP, with a 5.08 SIERA.
Now Hudson was just 24 and will be 25, so I do actually expect him to improve, but I expect his ERA to be more in line with his advanced stats, so it will look like he is getting worse. There are a lot of candidates for the Harrison Bader award - player overperforms to the point where fans expectations rise too high and then they overcorrect and think he’s worse than he is - but Hudson seems the most likely.
Do you know what a rotation like this could really use? Another starter. I’m not even going to make the argument for Gerrit Cole, which won’t happen, and I’ll be wasting my time and energy, but obviously he is the ideal candidate. No, there are actually a fair number of starting pitchers on the free agent market who would provide stability. The SP market is loaded right now and it may be a bit of a hard sell with no seemingly open rotation spots, there’s a fairly simple solution: Promise them one.
In terms of reliable bets to get innings, there’s Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark, and Kyle Gibson. None of those guys would cost all that much either (though in some cases, for a good reason). There’s Zach Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Madison Bumgarner, all of whom carry a bit more upside than the top four. There’s Cole Hamels and Alex Wood. Michael Piñeda should come pretty cheap since he’s missing the first 39 games and has a home run problem - which could be helped by playing at Busch.
There are elite options, medium tier starters, and lower tier ones who can be counted on to get innings. The latter don’t really need to be promised rotation spots, but even so you have six guys prepare to be a starter, and if nobody gets hurt, sorry Dakota. Wainwright has earned a spot. If Martinez survives the spring, he absolutely gets a spot. And we already went through the top 2 guys. Hudson’s advanced stats pretty easily justify him starting in the minors if necessary. And it probably won’t be necessary because the Cardinals always seem to have a rotation member get hurt in the spring. Seems to happen every year.
Over the coming offseason, I and my fellow writers will probably focus on the individual starters available and determine specifically who would be a good fit, but I want to get a head start and say: sign one of them!