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The Pitching Cliff

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The future of the Cardinals’ pitching is looking increasingly worrisome.

St Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

As I write this, Jack Flaherty is doing Jack Flaherty things against the Royals, meaning he is dominating with a mix of pitches that makes one think he just might go full Kluber one of these days, while still being about 15% less efficient than you would like. His strikeout to walk ratio on the night is now 7:1, yet his strike to ball ratio is not in that same dominant range. Still, he’s shutting out a bad Kansas City club, which is what badass dudes with badass repertoires should do to bad clubs.

At the same time, the Cardinal offense is doing Cardinal offense things against the Royals, meaning they’re making a deeply mediocre pitching staff look mighty good, while somehow simultaneously taking near-universally competitive, even praise-worthy at-bats. As is often the case, the non-contact portion of the equation has been quite good for the Redbirds tonight; they’ve struck out just thrice in about two dozen plate appearances. The bad news? They have just five hits out of 21 balls put in play, and at some point blaming the BABIP gods begins to ring hollow.

This confluence of great pitching — great starting pitching, no less — combined with yet another night of supremely uninspiring hitting, makes it a slightly curious thing to be writing about how concerned I am about the Cardinals’ pitching, but here we are. And for the record, I’m not concerned about the pitching the rest of this year. I mean, I am concerned about the pitching the rest of this year, but only in the sense that a collapse would almost certainly cost the club their postseason chances, which yes, is a big deal, but is also limited in scope. I’m worried the starters will not hold up, but the bullpen is still a huge strength, and so on balance I think the Cards will probably pitch just fine for the remainder of 2019.

No, my concern regarding the Cardinals’ pitching is on a longer time scale, and feels more existential in nature. You see, I think the Redbirds may be in for some truly desperate times in terms of their pitching in the short- to medium-term future, beginning as soon as this offseason, unless the front office takes some steps to try and shore up what looks like a possible catastrophe.

See, here’s the thing: we know that the Cardinal rotation this season has been quite bad. Not season-ruining bad, but close to it. At the very least, I think we can all agree that the rotation has been a weak point, a sore spot, a toothache. Michael Wacha has been in and out of the rotation multiple times. Carlos Martinez has lost his way in the forest of injuries. Miles Mikolas has been fine, occasionally better than that, but also occasionally worse. He’s in Kyle Lohse territory now, where he will be entirely acceptable as a solid pitcher living up to his contract, but is probably going to be seen as a huge problem by a chunk of the fanbase. Adam Wainwright cannot pitch on the road now apparently, and is also 38 years old. (Pardon: will be 38 in a couple weeks.) Dakota Hudson has great stuff and rolls up the grounders as well as any pitcher in baseball, but is still very limited by below-average command and a penchant for pitching himself into trouble. Jack Flaherty is continuing to develop and emerge as a future ace, but he’s only one guy.

So the situation with the rotation is that of the five starters we expected to see coming into the year, one has pitched only in relief, one has been yanked from the rotation multiple times, one is closing in on 38 years old and has bizarre home/road splits, one has regressed to roughly an average pitcher, and one struggled early but now seems to have pushed through and is dominating. I guess one complete success in five isn’t the worst hit ratio, but it’s not very good, either.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact the Cards’ vaunted pipeline of pitching talent, once their greatest source of depth, has at least temporarily run dry. Daniel Ponce de Leon has been up and down, and is nearing ‘enigmatic’ as a descriptor. Basically, he’s not efficient enough to start in the big leagues, but he’s too good for the minors. It sounds like a perfect recipe for a cutter-heavy reliever, but the Cards need rotation pieces so badly right now shunting him to the ‘pen is a more fraught decision than it might otherwise be. Austin Gomber has been hurt much of the season, and his future is very cloudy. Genesis Cabrera has followed his breakout 2018 with a breakdown 2019. Alex Reyes, once thought to be such a huge part of the franchise’s future, cannot stay healthy and is nearing might-have-been territory already. Ryan Helsley is mostly looking like a reliever at this point, and Junior Fernandez is absolutely only a reliever.

If we step down to that next layer of pitching depth, the not yet ready but getting there guys, we find a couple of names to be intrigued by, but nothing to count on. Austin Warner has had a really good season, but the stuff is pretty weak and Triple A hitters are knocking him around right now. Griffin Roberts has had a lost season, suspended for pot and then completely tanking. Johan Oviedo has made a lot of progress this season, but is still working on his command and needs more time. Jake Woodford just isn’t very good. This is where trading Zac Gallen, and Sandy Alcantara, and Luke Weaver really hurts you. Now, admittedly, a couple of those guys wouldn’t really be helping much at the moment anyway, but having them still as depth in the organisation would help to alleviate a potential looming crisis.

I have to assume that after this year Michael Wacha is gone. Adam Wainwright is more of a question, but I’d still lean toward him not being back in 2019. It’s anyone’s guess if Carlos Martinez will ever return to starting at this point. So realistically, the rotation heading into the 2019 season is Flaherty, Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson. Jack Flaherty is a heck of a place to start, and Mikolas will chew up innings with the best of them, but that’s one ace, one average pitcher, and one very problematic ground ball guy. In no world is that a competitive rotation. And given there is not one player in the system right now I would 100% count on to be ready to step in and at least compete for a rotation spot in spring training next February, I think we’re looking at a serious problem.

So why am I bringing this up now? Because just the other day, while watching Joe Musgrove pitch pretty well against the Cardinals, I got to thinking about mid-rotation guys, and how the Cards could really use one more to help really soak up the innings going forward. That led me to thinking about how frustrated I was the club didn’t get Marcus Stroman, and that led me to checking out the 2020 free agent class. Which is when I started to get really worried about the future of the Redbird rotation.

Here is the list of free agent starting pitchers this coming offseason. Look at it. Take it in. Roll it around in your mind a little bit. The guys in green have player options for 2020, and I expect every one of them to stay where they are. The guys in red are potentially under club option control, and they’re a bit more of a mixed bag.

Of the club option guys, I expect Julio Teheran to be back with the Braves. I assume the Mariners will keep Wade LeBlanc for another season, hoping to cash him in at next year’s trade deadline. Jason Vargas will be a free agent. Jose Quintana is so cheap, and still plenty good, that the Cubs will pick up his option. Corey Kluber is an interesting case, in that he is 33 years old and has been hurt for much of this season, but he’s also coming off a run of five consecutive years of at least 5.0 fWAR. Still, at $17.5 million in 2020 and potentially $18 million in ‘21, I could actually see the Indians deciding they need to move on from the Klubot due to their perpetual payroll concerns.

So with that in mind, here is the list of free agent pitchers for 2020 who are still in their twenties and have contributed anything at all to their current clubs in 2019:

  1. Gerrit Cole (29)
  2. Michael Wacha (29)
  3. Jordan Lyles (29)
  4. Alex Wood (29)

That’s it. That’s the whole list. You have a couple other guys like Shelby Miller and Drew Hutchison on there, but neither one has met that ‘contributing’ criteria I mentioned above.

Now, obviously, there’s nothing in the rules of baseball that states you can only sign players under 30 to contracts, but at the same time we’re all becoming more accustomed by the day to the reality that the aging curve is a very hostile beast, and investing large amounts of resources into players on the wrong side of that age line is a good way to build a very expensive, very unproductive, baseball club.

Then again, we also have recent examples of players, pitchers even, who continue to excel well beyond their 30th birthdays. Max Scherzer might very well win yet another Cy Young award at the age of 35 if he can get back on the field relatively soon. He’s been far and away the best pitcher in the National League this year, and if not for a balky back he would be running away with the award. Justin Verlander is 36 and having one of the best seasons of his career, striking out as many hitters as he ever has. Jon Lester has been a lesser pitcher the last couple years, but he was outstanding through age 32 and is actually having a bit of a renaissance this season at 35. Charlie Morton continues to have an all-time strange career and is actually better than ever at 35. Hell, Lance Lynn has turned himself into an ace at the age of 32. There aren’t a ton of guys in this class, though. Gerrit Cole seems like a decent bet to be one of those guys you want to have under contract even at 34, 35 years old, but there’s no guarantee. As for the others, you probably don’t want most of them now, much less in three years from now.

My point, ultimately, is this: I understand why the Cardinals tried so hard to focus on pitchers at the deadline who had control beyond just this season, because I think the organisation is very likely heading for a cliff as far as their pitching is concerned. Cole would obviously be a huge add and a coup for the franchise, giving them an immediate centerpiece for the rotation around which to build with Flaherty and the further-off youth, but Cole is also going to be hugely in demand this offseason, and we see what typically happens when the Cardinals get involved with a bidding war. Ask David Price how he’s enjoyed his time wearing the Birds on the Bat.

And beyond Cole, that list gets scary in a hurry. Hyun-Jin Ryu is awesome, but also 33 years old and dragging a medical chart behind him everywhere he goes. Rick Porcello will be 31 and is running a 5.67 ERA this year. Jack Odorizzi was looking mighty interesting the first three months of the season, but has since regressed, hard. Madison Bumgarner is still very good, and younger than you probably think, and might very well be exactly the kind of solid #3 starter you need. Then again, he’s quite likely going to get paid like much more than a solid #3, so how much do you really want to extend for an arm with that many miles on it? Zack Wheeler is obviously very talented, and often quite good, but comes with a bunch of red flags attached to his health as well.

So yes, having watched Jack Flaherty lead a shutout of the Royals while the offense meekly put up two runs and then just sort of slumped away to the corner, I am somehow more concerned about the pitching than the offense. There is talent in the pipeline on the hitting side. But at least for now, the flood of pitching talent has slowed to a trickle, and now to barely even that. There was consternation among some when the Cardinals seemingly drafted for need this year, taking a ton of arms to try and replenish the system. As bad an idea as drafting for need almost always is, I honestly have a hard time blaming them.

This organisation is heading for a cliff, and unless Mo and Co can pull a rabbit or two out of their collective hat this offseason, I’m afraid we’re going to see the rotation of 2020 go full Thelma and Louise. Only probably way less fun and sexy.