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The shallow end: When the pitching depth runs dry

Injuries, trades and role changes have made the Cardinals’ long-touted strength into a weakness

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline came and went. Site manager emeritus Craig Edwards wrote about the Cardinals’ failure to make a move, and how it was rooted in choices made over the past few years, over at FanGraphs Tuesday.

There’s not much else to say on that front that hasn’t been said. But there is a feature of the organization that has been lauded as a strength for quite some time, by both the front office and the media: pitching depth.

The Cardinals were swimming in it. The Cardinal Devil Magic™ seen in position player call-ups wasn’t needed for an organization that developed such talent as Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, (2013-2017) Michael Wacha and others.

More recently, quite a few Cardinal pitchers have graduated from prospects lists and are looking like budding stars. Jack Flaherty comes to mind, fresh off a scoreless start against the Dodgers in which he struck out 10 batters over 7 innings.

There have been some decent acquisitions, as well. As much as Miles Mikolas struggled in the first half, with his slider failing to deliver the necessary results, with a 2.18 ERA in the second half compared to the 4.53 mark he posted before the All-Star Break.

Still, there are problems. The bullpen has been better than previous seasons, even with the loss of Jordan Hicks. But in February, we were talking about how the Cardinals had too many pitchers. Now, the rotation is a worry in two out of every five games.

What happened? And why isn’t the depth fixing it?

Failure to meet expectations, injuries and trades have taken the Cardinal pitching staff from the deep end to the shallows.

The rotation

As mentioned, Flaherty and Mikolas have both been solid starters. Solid meaning easily capable of filling somewhere between the #2 to #4 spots in a rotation. Mikolas has been worth 2.1 fWAR over 132.1 innings. Flaherty has been worth 2.3 over 128.1.

In Flaherty’s case, that’s pretty great. At 23 years old in his first full season in the majors, a three-win pace is worth celebrating.

Wanting more from Mikolas is warranted. The right-hander came off a 4.3-fWAR season in which he received Cy Young votes and inked a 4-year, $68 million extension in the spring. He was expected to be an anchor for the rotation, but he was more like a buoy in the first half. Mikolas went five or fewer innings in nine of his 18 starts and gave up three or more runs in 11 of 18.

Adam Wainwright has been serviceable, much more so than previous years, but his 4.50 ERA and 4.33 FIP aren’t exactly what one would expect from a third starter on a team with a top-10 pitching staff in 2017 and 2018.

Dakota Hudson barely has a sub-4.00 ERA, but that’s come with some scary peripherals, led by a 6.8% K-BB and a HR/FB rate of 25%. As a sinker-baller, Hudson is getting less than 60% of balls in play on the ground. He’s bound for regression, and we’ve seen some of it over his past two starts.

Then there’s the fifth spot. To this point, it’s been filled by a combination of a negative-value Michael Wacha, a lucky Daniel Ponce de Leon and a clearly over-matched Genesis Cabrera.

Here’s what the pitchers who have drawn starts for the Cardinals have looked like this season:

Cardinals Starters, 2019

Jack Flaherty 23 23 128.1 28.60% 7.80% 1.47 0.268 79.30% 37.50% 16.70% 3.72 4.04 2.3
Miles Mikolas 23 23 132.1 17.70% 4.00% 1.16 0.303 74.40% 49.90% 14.30% 3.94 4.1 2.1
Dakota Hudson 23 22 117.1 17.60% 10.80% 1.46 0.308 75.60% 57.60% 25.00% 3.99 5.37 0.2
Adam Wainwright 21 21 114 22.30% 9.50% 1.11 0.318 74.30% 49.20% 14.90% 4.5 4.33 1.6
Michael Wacha 20 15 89.1 17.90% 10.50% 2.12 0.316 75.00% 46.80% 23.90% 5.54 6.11 -0.5
Daniel Ponce de Leon 10 7 40.2 26.70% 12.70% 1.11 0.255 77.30% 45.90% 13.90% 3.76 4.27 0.6
Genesis Cabrera 5 2 11.2 17.00% 11.90% 1.54 0.333 59.40% 32.50% 12.50% 6.17 5.79 0

The depth

It can be assumed the idea was that there would be enough pitchers competing for spots that, if one were to struggle, the front office could just mix and match with the starters tearing through the competition at Triple-A.

That hasn’t happened.

Alex Reyes is reportedly still in pain and isn’t expected to pitch in 2019. Three seasons of a pitcher once touted as one of the game’s best prospects have been lost to injury. Even then, the story on Reyes was that he would have to ease back into a rotation spot if he were to do so in 2019. We can close the book on that.

Austin Gomber, who was part of the depth movement at the end of 2018, has only seen starts at Triple-A after struggling with injury since mid-May. He’s on a throwing program now, but how long until he’s able to contribute at the major league level? Will he be able to do so?

Carlos Martinez was a staple in the rotation, filling the ace spot for a few years, and now holds a late-inning role due to his injury history and worries about aggravating the issue again.

Looking beyond those three obvious candidates, the Cardinals don’t have the options they used to. The organization has seen 11 pitchers make six or more starts at Memphis this season. Four have already been mentioned in this article—Cabrera, Gomber, Ponce de Leon and Reyes—and a fifth, Ryan Helsley, has only been used in St. Louis as a reliever. He hasn’t pitched five or more innings in any appearance this season.

The remaining six have lines like this:

Triple-A Starter Depth, >6 Starts, 2019

Jake Woodford 22 21 21 122 20.2% 12.3% 1.18 0.261 73.4% 34.5% 10.7% 4.20 5.49
Mike Hauschild 29 10 9 37.1 13.1% 14.2% 1.21 0.328 57.8% 36.9% 10.6% 7.96 6.41
Harold Arauz 24 13 9 57.2 12.1% 8.6% 1.87 0.299 70.7% 42.4% 16.0% 5.93 6.95
Anthony Shew 25 10 8 40.1 22.9% 10.6% 1.56 0.345 69.3% 43.4% 15.2% 5.58 5.57
Austin Warner 25 7 7 38 19.0% 10.9% 2.84 0.325 76.1% 33.6% 22.6% 6.87 7.89
Evan Kruczynski 24 7 6 30.1 18.8% 11.4% 0.89 0.414 61.2% 31.3% 7.1% 8.01 5.13

The development

It’s been a steady progression for the Cardinals. Going back to 2015, the organization had 11 pitching prospects with future values of 40 or greater. Two were FV 50 or higher.

In 2016, those numbers grew. They had 13 total, with four at FV 50 or higher. In 2017, it was 14 total, five FV 50+.

That started to dip in 2018, when the number fell to 10. Flaherty (FV 50) and Reyes (FV60) were the only ones at the top. On 2019’s updated list, the Cards have 11 pitching prospects in the range, but they’re all FV 45 or lower.

Obviously those valuations aren’t always correct, but it’s pretty clear the organizational talent level has decrease in the minors. Part of that comes from prospect graduations to the majors, yes. But not all.

Flaherty and Reyes have both graduated from prospect lists. Gomber, Hudson and Ponce de Leon have done the same. There were some flops, like Tim Cooney, who was traded to Cleveland and hasn’t pitched since 2017.

But there are others who were sent off and have seen success. Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales and Sandy Alcantara were all members of those lists. They’re all major league starters in other rotations now. Zac Gallen is another, who wasn’t highly-touted, but has been a bit of a breakout for the Marlins and now the Dbacks.

Their absence is why we have Tyler O’Neill, Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt. But O’Neill ‘s future is still very fluid. The Athletic reported that Ozuna recently expressed interest in an extension, but the front office seems more interested in giving time to younger players in the future.

Players like Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader, who could’ve landed the team a quality starter at the deadline.

The implications

You know what the Cardinals do have quite a bit of these days? Outfield depth.

You know what the Cardinals were hesitant to trade from to land a quality starter at the deadline? Outfield depth.

The outfield has become like the mound was in the Cardinal’s system, to a degree. Some prospects have recently graduated, but they now have eight OF prospects with FV of 40, with four of those at Triple-A or higher. Another, Dylan Carlson, has a FV of 50 and is ranked 95 on FanGraphs’ top prospect list.

That’s after trading off an excellent outfielder like Tommy Pham for minor league parts, and sending the now-successful Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for a younger outfielder.

The message was that 2019 was the year to think about more than any other. The trades we’ve seen of pitching depth for big prospects, and of major league players for spare parts, doesn’t seem to line up with a goal of winning this season.

The rotation is the obvious weak spot, yet the Cardinals played their hand close to their chest. It seems like they’re still valuing outfielders like they’re a rare commodity and viewing the pitching depth as an endless resource.

The well looks like it’s starting to run dry in the pitching department. They had a chance to turn outfielders into starters, and they didn’t take it. And the cavalry doesn’t seem like it’s going to show up this season.