The Cardinals finally made official just a couple days ago what we had more or less known for at least a little while now, when they announced that Dakota Hudson will begin the season in the starting rotation. It was clear as spring training went on that Hudson was separating himself from the other options, but the organisation was, as usual, cagey and slow to make any sort of public announcement.
Now, though, we have at least the early-season version of the starting rotation mapped out, with Hudson taking the place of the rehabbing Carlos Martinez, while Alex Reyes and John Gant head to the ‘pen, Austin Gomber heads to Memphis following a disastrous spring, and Adam Wainwright just sits there in a rotation spot, frankly scaring the hell out of at least me for what he might do this season.
It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that Hudson is in this position, though admittedly it was a bit of a surprise (one might even say a spring surprise...), just how good he looked throughout training cap. Or, perhaps, how much better he looked than last season might be a more to the point assessment; watching Hudson work out of the bullpen last year, it was very clear he had the stuff to be a big league hurler of some stripe, but the command and control were so lacking that it was still an open question what quality of pitcher you were really getting. From basically the moment spring training began this year, though, it was clear we were looking at a significantly different, and significantly better, pitcher.
The reason it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Hudson here is, to put it simply, he was a pitcher selected early in the draft by the Cardinals. And pitchers selected early in the draft by the Cardinals make it to the big leagues, full stop.
Here is a list of the pitchers the Cardinals have drafted in the first two rounds since 2006:
- 2006 — Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez
- 2007 — Clayton Mortensen, David Kopp, Jess Todd
- 2008 — Lance Lynn
- 2009 — Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly (in rd. 3)
- 2010 — Seth Blair, Tyrell Jenkins, Jordan Swagerty
- 2011 — None
- 2012 — Michael Wacha
- 2013 — Marco Gonzales, Rob Kaminsky, Mike Mayers (rd. 3)
- 2014 — Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Ronnie Williams
- 2015 — Jake Woodford
- 2016 — Dakota Hudson, Connor Jones
- 2017 — None
- 2018 — Griffin Roberts
Now, obviously those aren’t all hits. Seth Blair just never did learn to throw strikes. Jess Todd hit his ceiling as about a quad-A hurler without enough swing and miss to succeed in the big leagues. And there’s certainly plenty of injury attrition on this list. David Kopp’s shoulder wore out. Rob Kaminsky’s poor arm is almost completely shot by this point, and he’s lost too much velocity and arm speed to even resemble the pitcher he was coming out of high school. Jordan Swagerty never came back from Tommy John, Ronnie Williams has fought arm issues the last two years, and even Shelby Miller, despite some great success early in his career, is now a marginal pitcher trying to reestablish himself following an elbow injury and TJ surgery. That 2007 group in particular feels like a tough road, but listen: basically nobody came out of the 2007 draft without getting at least a little mud on them. That year was basically a demolition derby in the first couple rounds.
Overall, though, that is a truly remarkable group of pitchers. Over the course of a dozen plus years, the Cardinals took 22 pitchers in the first two rounds. (Actually 20, but I wanted to roll Mayers and Joe Kelly in here. We’ll call it two-ish.) Of those 22, fourteen have made it to the big leagues. Jake Woodford, Connor Jones, and Griffin Roberts all look like good bets to make it at some point in the relatively near future, though Roberts’s timetable is a little complicated at the moment by his love for the herb. Even so, it’s possible we’ll be talking about something like sixteen or even seventeen of twenty-two pitchers on this list making it to the big leagues by, say, the end of 2020. Some have obviously been marginal contributors at best, but there are also some very good pitchers on that list. Adam Ottavino took some time to find himself, but he’s currently one of the best setup relievers in baseball. Chris Perez had a couple years of solid setup/closing work for the Indians before his arm started to degrade. Lance Lynn we know about, and was a huge part of the Cards’ run of success from 2011-’15. Michael Wacha has been at least a mid-rotation starter and sometimes better than that, and would probably feel like a bigger success story if not for that comet-like debut he made back in 2013. Marco Gonzales just had a very nice number two and a half starter type season for Seattle last year, and Joe Kelly just got $25 million from the Dodgers to throw really hard and strike out very few batters.
The point is this: the Cardinals have built a fairly amazing pipeline that generates pitching talent for the big league club. Sometimes that talent is on the modest side, and all you’re doing is filling a seventh-inning relief role with an internal option rather than going into the market to find one. Other times, though, you end up with 2013 Shelby Miller, or Michael Wacha, or Jack Flaherty, who looks like a legit future Cy Young contender already. Bottom line, any time you can take a sample from the MLB draft, a notoriously difficult barrel in which to shoot fish, and find a ~70% success rate of getting players from draft day to the big leagues, something pretty extraordinary is going on. I could add Jordan Hicks, supplemental B pick in 2015, to make the numbers look even better, but I really don’t need to.
So it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, surprising to see Dakota Hudson develop and make it to the big leagues. If you are a pitcher, and the Cardinals call your name in the first two rounds, congratulations. You just won the career lottery.
It is interesting, though, to look at this latest example of the Cards’ pitching-development machine’s success, and consider what it means going forward. The Redbirds obviously have Miles Mikolas locked up for the mid-term future now, and are counting on him to anchor the rotation with a bulk of solid-quality innings. Carlos is under contract for a long time too, and it’s only his recent spate of arm issues that casts a pall over what was up until last season a very solid career as a Gerrit Cole-ish near-ace. Jack Flaherty should be a Cardinal for quite a while, and looks like he could be something remarkable. So that’s three rotation spots likely spoken for, although obviously the health of Martinez is a question mark.
But if we believe that Carlos is not permanently broken — and for the purposes of this column let’s pretend we all believe that, okay? — then you should be looking at a relatively stable trio of pitchers sitting atop the rotation for the foreseeable future. And at that point, you’re really only looking at cycling in a couple pitchers over these next couple years in order to keep the machine running effectively.
Essentially, Dakota Hudson is the reason the Cardinals can probably let Michael Wacha walk after this season, rather than doubling down on a very talented but somewhat injury prone starting pitcher. Lots of clubs would love to be able to sign up for the Pac-Man Experience, chronic shoulder worries and oblique strains and all, but the Cards can afford to play out the string of his club control and then, in all likelihood, thank him for his service and advise him to watch that door on the way out, it’s an ass-hitter if you aren’t careful.
And in a lot of ways, that’s a very good place to be. Dakota Hudson is also the reason the Cardinals didn’t feel pressure this offseason to go and invest a big contract in Dallas Keuchel. Yes, Keuchel would certainly be more of a sure thing in terms of what we should probably expect, but are we really certain at this point that Keuchel is actually better than Dakota Hudson? He might still very well be, but Keuchel also has some real red flags in his profile. I know Bernie Miklasz has made a habit this offseason of setting up endless straw men about Keuchel’s age, and how clubs apparently believe 31 is nearly ready for Delmar Gardens, but the fact is it’s not the age with Keuchel that has clubs concerned; it’s that there are aspects of his pitching profile which appear to be headed in a dangerous direction. He still gets weak contact, but his chase rate and swinging strike percentage both cratered last season, and investing in a pitcher over 30 who looks to be increasingly living on the edge is a scary proposition. I’ll bet the most likely outcome for Keuchel in 2019 is within spitting distance of the most likely outcome for Dakota Hudson, and Hudson’s stuff gives him a far higher ceiling at this moment.
It wasn’t Dakota Hudson specifically, but rather the idea of him, that allowed the Cardinals to move on from Lance Lynn rather than lock the big man into a new contract before the 2018 season. We can argue whether that’s a good thing or not; depending on which version of WAR you prefer, Lance Lynn either had a very, very good 2019 season, albeit with a lower IP total, or he had an ERA near 5.00 and really struggled to find his former pinpoint fastball command. Both can be true, I suppose, but the fact is Lance Lynn allowed five runs a game in 2019 and the Cardinals were not forced to let him do it in red because they had no other good options.
Of course, that reliance on, and belief in, the system can work against a club at times in ways you might not expect. That pipeline, and specifically both having Lance Lynn under contract and Carlos Martinez needing an opportunity in the rotation, is the biggest reason why the Cardinals took a pass on Max Scherzer back in the 2014 offseason, and that has been a disastrous decision. A more pitching-poor organisation might very well look at the phenom who grew up half an hour from your home stadium and say, oh yeah, maybe signing that guy would be all right. When you’ve got four of five rotation spots locked down and El Gallo ready to step in to the fifth, though, it’s easy to talk yourself out of a $200 million investment, and stick with the plan, and not have the kid from Chesterfield go into the Hall of Fame wearing a Cardinal cap. Instead, Scherzer will enter Cooperstown with a ‘W’ on his hat, and it’s going to suck. But at least you didn’t have to make any hard decisions to open up a spot with a trade back in 2014, right?
It seems to be a running thing with me this offseason that basically none of my columns have any definitive answers, or one single point of view I can stick with. I feel like it’s a reflection of my overall ambivalence toward certain things about this organisation in general that has been growing since right around the time of that Scherzer non-signing, when the golden boy from St. Louis asked to come home and was told nah, we’ve got plenty of pitchers. For every brilliant positive the organisation has going for it, I can find a flipside, a paralysing fear of commitment or failure, a stubborn refusal to extend, a frustrating something I can find that bubbles up in my mind and my writing, leaving me with columns I cannot comfortably finish up with a hard stance either positive or negative. Actually, I can say the recent Paul Goldschmidt happenings are unequivocal positives, and that’s all I have to say about that. Even if we might want to debate the merits of Goldy versus a Bryce Harper, the fact is the Cardinals made a decision, and then made it happen, in pretty dramatic fashion. I have to applaud them for that, and no doubts or megrims will be allowed.
But as for Dakota Hudson, and what he represents, and what it means for the organisation, I can only say that it is definitely a positive to have players like him coming through the pipeline, continually replenishing the talent base of the team, giving them options and flexibility to move on and more forward. I might have concerns that it would perhaps be better if the organisation occasionally found itself in more desperate straits, and was thus forced to push harder, push further, and take bigger risks for bigger payoffs, but at the same time bigger risks can also just mean bigger losses, bigger failures, and that’s tough to swallow as a fan of a team that never allows disasters, and never gives us a September without drama and meaningful baseball to watch.
It’s not even a sure thing Hudson will be with the big league club all that long; it’s possible Carlos is back and ready to go in May, and Waino is holding his own, and Hudson ends up one of baseball’s best sixth starters. But I tend to think we’ll see Dakota most of the season in one fashion or another, seeing as how there are some real question marks in the rotation he could help to replace with periods, or even exclamation points. And then next March, we’ll probably be talking about Alex Reyes finally stepping into the rotation. Or maybe a Ryan Helsley or Genesis Cabrera or Jake Woodford are ready for a spotlight, and ready to fill a need.
It’s worth noting, in any case, how remarkable it is that the Cardinals need a Dakota Hudson right now, and just happen to have one ready to go. And that is a huge, huge part of why the Cardinals are so very special an organisation, albeit one that occasionally frustrates its fans by pulling a Dakota Hudson out of the bag when they need one, rather than going out and buying a Dallas Keuchel, or deciding a Lance Lynn or Michael Wacha should really be kept around, maybe with a fresh coat of paint or something. After all, it’s only a couple dings and dents, and you don’t have replace them.
But it’s nice to always have a Dakota Hudson ready to go all the same.