Following their third straight season without a playoff appearance, the Cardinals’ offseason was going to be different this time. Due to the available players on the free agent market, the incumbent starters, and long-term commitments to certain players, the Cardinals’ potential upgrades was limited to three positions and the bullpen. Paul Goldschmidt moved Matt Carpenter to 3B and Andrew Miller helped improve the bullpen. The Cardinals are gambling that the combination of Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, and Tyler O’Neill will improve RF.
Two of the improvements were the best move available at a reasonable cost and the third is easy to justify. Aside from an aversion to spending significant money on relievers, I don’t think many took issue with Andrew Miller the player as an upgrade. And Goldschmidt was the best way to improve a corner infield position without spending $300 million. The trio competing for RF should fairly easily be a massive improvement from last year, even if part of that is because the bar is so incredibly low.
That leaves starting pitcher. Before any news of Spring Training hit, starting pitcher was already a semi-need. Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright was a strong top 5 going into the season. Nobody believed Alex Reyes would be ready to be a starter on Opening Day. Thus, the Cardinals pitching depth was filled with pitchers who you’d really rather be thrust in the rotation when multiple things go wrong, not only one thing.
Well, one thing went wrong. Carlos Martinez is not going to be on the Opening Day roster and there’s talk that he will moving to the bullpen. Alex Reyes may start the season on the Opening Day roster, but he will be in the bullpen as well. It’s all too easy to envision Reyes pitching too good to go back to the rotation, which yeah that doesn’t make any sense, but you know exactly what I mean. At the very least, counting on Reyes to eventually start seems foolish.
If the Cardinals had four starters who you can be reasonably sure can provide close to 30 starts, well that’d be one thing. But Wacha and Wainwright are projected to combine for 40 starts this year. If you gave Mikolas and Flaherty 32 starts each, the starting four is projected for only 104 starts. That leaves a whopping 58 starts, which are apparently going to some combination of John Gant, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon, Martinez, and Reyes. There are reasons to be skeptical the latter two will ever touch the rotation this year and the first four are all below average pitchers, at least right now.
Now, you may reasonably think this sextet of pitchers is not that bad. That one of the young pitchers is going to break through or one of Carlos/Reyes is going to be healthy enough to jump in the rotation. I agree. I think those are good odds. One of those situations seems very likely to happen. But right now, we’re counting on two of them. 58 starts. The Cardinals could sure use another reliable innings-eater, not just an innings-eater though - a guy who will pitch good in those innings too. I wonder where we can find one of those?
Dallas Keuchel’s demands are unreasonable? Fine. Sign Gio Gonzalez. He’s been a 2.0+ fWAR pitcher for NINE straight seasons and is still only 33. Gonzalez doesn’t have the greatest projections, but they are still easily better than Hudson, Ponce De Leon, Gomber, and Gant. He has pitched in 30+ games for four straight years. It’s not like signing either of these guys will prevent Gant or Gomber or Hudson from starting either. In all likelihood, they will be needed, because that’s how modern MLB rotations work.
To really summarize the absurdity of being content with this MLB rotation, here’s what the Cardinals are banking on happening:
- Wainwright still has something left in the tank AND can healthy for at least 18 starts
- Wacha can stay healthy
- Carlos Martinez is at some point healthy enough to pitch and return to the rotation
- Reyes eventually being transitioned into the rotation after proving he’s healthy and effective, after throwing 26 innings in the last two years combined in the majors or minors
- Hudson, after a very shaky debut in the bullpen where he both struck out nobody and walked everyone, can now transition into the rotation and significantly improve to the point where he is at least an average starter immediately at the beginning of the season
- Gant, who was solid but below average by advanced stats, can take a step forward and become an average starter or more at 26.
- That Gomber or Ponce De Leon can surprise and exceed what their minor league careers would suggest
The Cardinals having a good MLB rotation is completely reliant on at least three of these things happening. Three rotation spots with question marks in some capacity, three pitchers who need to emerge without injury or performance issues once the 2019 season comes to a close.
Are the Cardinals overconfident in their own guys? Do their internal metrics suggest their minor league starters should perform better than the projections? Did they just kind of hope that nobody would get injured until Reyes was ready for the rotation or one of Hudson and company would emerge as a good rotation option? Did we not sign Wainwright to a creative deal exactly so we could get another starter? Well, whatever their plan, things have changed.
Cardinals, seriously, you need another starter.