We are 25% of the way into the season, and the Cardinals pitching staff is last in the National League in WAR and last in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). In other words, they have provided the least value to-date and, in the statistic most likely to predict future performance, they are the worst.
Not great, Bob.
Now, given that clearly poor performance and the fact that we are no longer just a couple weeks into the season, you would expect that the Cardinals have been making aggressive personnel moves to improve the team.
You would be wrong.
If we separate out the rotation and the bullpen, we see that both have been below average, but the bullpen rates a little better. Cardinal relievers are 13th (out of 15) in WAR, 11th in FIP. The Cardinals starting rotation is 2nd to last in both.
The team has made changes in the bullpen, though moves like promoting Gregerson and demoting Helsley boggle the mind. But bullpens are fungible and the Cardinals have a variety of good options, including the likely soon addition of Carlos Martinez. I’m not too worried about the bullpen.
But what the hell are they doing with the rotation?
First, let’s be clear about what we’re dealing with, because - between luck-influenced results, narratives and history - there’s a lot of confusion out there. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty are good. Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Dakota Hudson are all somewhere between 5th Starter and Sub-Replacement Level.
There’s a number of ways to look at this, but I like FiveThirtyEight’s rolling Game Score model. Game Score assigns a value to each start, based on how well the pitcher performs in areas they actually control, providing more value for going deeper into the game, etc. Here’s what the Cardinals rotation looks like as of today:
The average for the NL Central (and the whole league really) is about 52. The Cardinals have Wainwright at 48.8, Wacha at 48.5 and Hudson at 43.9.
Hudson’s rolling game score is the lowest by far of any qualified starter in the National League. No pitcher has been as bad or projects to continue to be as bad - and still has a rotation spot - as Dakota Hudson.
Wainwright and Wacha’s performances are less terrible and more just... below average. Most teams in the division carry one starter who is in that range. It’s hard to have EVERY pitcher in your rotation perform at an above average clip. But the Cardinals carry TWO starters in that 5th starter range, plus Hudson at Sub-Replacement Level.
A team that was looking to compete would carry at-most ONE from the group of Wainwright, Wacha and Hudson, yet here we are in the middle of May and the Cardinals keep rolling with all three. Why?
Hudson is the most perplexing, not only because he’s clearly been the worst of the three, but because he would be the easiest to replace. This is a player who just barely made the rotation in the waning days of Spring Training. He’s a young player with minor league options left. Did Hudson deserve the first shot at the rotation, given his strong spring training finish? Absolutely. But to keep rolling him out again-and-again, rather than make the frictionless move of swapping in an Austin Gomber or a Daniel Poncedeleon, is bizarre.
The only leg-up Hudson has is that, of the three, he’s the only one we could at least squint and see some upside to, given his youth and minor league track record. But there is a place for pitchers with untapped potential who aren’t ready to perform in the major leagues: The minor leagues.
Wainwright and Wacha can more or less be grouped together. Their performances have been very comparable. Both are distinguished veterans of the organization (though Waino obviously much more so). Both are past their prime, very unlikely to ever perform better than they are now. Neither can be sent to the minor leagues, so the only options are the bullpen - where neither is particularly well-suited - or outright release.
It’s at least understandable why the team is reluctant to move on from these guys. Many of us have no doubt worked with someone who has been at the organization for years, isn’t really pulling their weight anymore, but their ineptitude doesn’t quite rise to the level to be worth the bad feelings and HR headache of firing. The difference is that few of us work in places where we are also trying to reach the World Series.
The Milwaukee Brewers - a team that is trying to reach the World Series - got poor starts over the first month of the season from Corbin Burnes, Jacob Barnes and Adrian Houser. None of those players are in their rotation anymore. Freddy Peralta is their worst starter at the moment, with a rolling Game Score of 47.6. Everybody else is above 50.
The big move the Brewers made was to sign Gio Gonzalez. He’s no ace, but he adds a hell of a lot of value when he allows you to avoid giving the ball to a Sub-Replacement-Level pitcher every 5th day.
Dallas Keuchel is still available, and for just a one-year deal, by all reports. He’s probably a mid-rotation type pitcher at this point, but that’s still a clear upgrade over three of the five pitchers the Cardinals are currently rolling out.
Madison Bumgarner is available via trade, and his no trade list just cements the idea that the Cardinals are one of the teams he expects he could be traded to. He’s never been quite the Ace that his postseason heroics might suggest, but he’s been surprisingly good this year, and again... he’d be a clear upgrade over Wainwright, Wacha or Hudson.
But the Cardinals likely don’t even have to go outside the organization for an upgrade. I’d love nothing more than to see the Cardinals best starter of the last five years, Carlos Martinez, in the rotation. But all reports are that his injured shoulder is better suited to the bullpen, so I guess I’ll have to accept that.
Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon and Jake Woodford have all posted an ERA in AAA of 3.03 or below. Gomber and Ponce are both on the 40-man, have a track record of some success in the majors, and like Hudson have enough youth and promise that we could at least hope for some improvement.
Woodford is not on the 40-man, is only 22-years-old, and of the group, seems the most likely to one day be a top-half of the rotation type starter. In terms of his development track, the team would ideally like to give him more time in the minors. But if they want to make the major league playoffs, it may be time to accelerate that schedule.
Alex Reyes is still likely a week to ten days from being able to pitch in a game, and the club will almost certainly want to see more of him in the minors before a call-up. Ryan Helsley - while the club may ultimately project him as a reliever - has been a starter in the minors. He is currently working as a multi-inning reliever in Memphis. Given the state of their MLB rotation, it’s curious they aren’t at least giving him a shot.
I would expect that some combination of these moves are coming, though as I write this on Tuesday, none have been announced. The question is, will it be too late? Last season, the club let Mike Matheny continue to fail all the way until the All-Star break, losing so many games in the process they could not make their way back into the playoffs.
Here we are 25% into the 2019 season and the Cardinals have not even tried to improve the 2nd worst rotation in the National League. For a team that purports to be “all in,” that’s a pretty glaring hole.