One of the few moves the Cardinals made this winter involved adding a left-handed pitcher to compete for a spot in the rotation. Kwang Hyun Kim was signed from Korea to a 2-year, $8 million contract and his left-handedness is a large reason why. Sure, the Cardinals could have used another starting pitching option, but Kim must have been appealing because he is a southpaw. Before this signing, the Cardinals were short on left-handers, and especially lefties that can pitch out of the rotation. At the very least, Kim should be an upgrade over Tyler Webb, who was merely adequate last season, but was a trusted option in the bullpen as he appeared in 65 games. While Kim was brought in to compete for the #5 spot in the rotation, he might not be the lefty that is in that role at the end of the season. Austin Gomber spent much of 2019 on the minor league injured list, and seems to be near the bottom of the list of starting pitching candidates for next season. However, when he came back from injury, he was one of the most effective pitchers in the extremely hitter friendly Pacific Coast League and after shoeing that he can hold his own in the MLB in 2018, he could claim a spot in the rotation, or in the bullpen, at some point during the season.
For Austin Gomber, the 2019 was about regaining his health. He had biceps and shoulder problems that caused him to be kept off the mound until reutrning near the end of the season. He made a couple of rehab starts at A-Advanced Palm Beach and AA Springfield before regaining his spot in the Memphis rotation. When he returned, however, he was dominant. In just eight starts, the former 4th-round draft pick posted a 2.98 ERA and 10.32 K/9. His FIP (4.00) and xFIP (4.44) were not quite as friendly. However, since the hitting stats were inflated in the PCL this year, the median FIP among pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched was 5.12. Even though Gomber’s FIP might seem pedestrian, it is squarely in the upper tier of the league. Additionally, his strong strikeout rate and acceptable walk rate (3.18 BB/9) demonstrate that he has not declined since 2018, when his AAA numbers were very similar.
It seems likely that the Cardinals will send him to AAA to begin the season since he has one minor league option remaining and missed most of last year. However, he could be back in the bigs quickly if there are any struggles or inuries on the major league staff. He has four quality pitches, a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup, and he has shown an ability to eat innings. Last season, he averaged nearly six innings per start in Memphis, in 2018 he did the same thing in the minors, and in 2017 he averaged exactly five and a half innings per start. This is a solid skill set for a pitcher would would only be asked to occupy the #5 spot in the rotation.
He can get into trouble when he does not command his fastball precisely as he is a flyball pitcher without the velocity to blow hitters away (his fastball usually sits around 92 mph). However, he was a fastball/changeup pitcher coming out of college and quickly developed a 12/6 curveball that is easy to fall in love with. He has used this pitch to attack right-handers and, with a four pitch arsenal, he is comfortable pitching in a platoon disadvantage. This should give him all the tools that he needs to start.
Recently, it has proven difficult to rely on Carlos Martinez to pitch out of the rotation, and Kim is an unknown quantity in the major leagues as we have yet to see how his production in Korea will transfer over to the United States. The Cardinals have not had an effective left hander in the rotation in the past few seasons, and Gomber could change that, or at least be the second southpaw in the ‘pen.
Gomber has the frame (6’5”, 230 pounds) to withstand a starter’s workload as well as the arsenal; now he just needs the opportunity. If Gomber’s strong minor league results continue next season then he will likely force his was onto the 26-man roster and if a starter is ineffective or injured, it might just force him into the rotation where his strong four-pitch arsenal would give him the chance to establish himself. While the Cardinals looked externally to find a left-handed starting pitching option in the off-season, the best one might have already been in the organization.