The last time I wrote a player preview, the MLB season was still set to start on time. That was a week ago. It feels like the longest week of my life, but I wrote my Matt Carpenter player preview with the hope that the season would be played as scheduled. I mention this because the pitcher today - Kwang-Hyun Kim - had a more clear role last week, but whose role is less clear if the season is starting on June 1st.
Kim absolutely deserves to be in the MLB rotation. I have little doubt that he’s one of the five best starting options on the Cardinals. It is unclear where he would rank among the five. He’s below Jack Flaherty. And that’s about all we can be sure about in my opinion. Dakota Hudson walks too many to think he’ll be #2, Carlos Martinez hasn’t been a full-time starter since the beginning of 2018, Adam Wainwright is 38-years-old, and of course we don’t even know when Miles Mikolas will be healthy.
In fact the entire reason Kim starting was a certainty was because Mikolas was hurt. Mikolas may not be hurt on June 1st or whenever the season actually starts. The original plan was to go into spring training prepping for Kim and the other five as starting pitchers, and then Kim would step in if one of them faltered or got injured, which is what happened, but what happens if Mikolas is ready and able when the season starts?
It’s easy to say back to Plan A and move him to the bullpen, except things have changed. Spring training is not particularly useful except if there was a time it was useful, it would be to see how a foreign import with no stateside data would perform against MLBers. And, well, Kim was unbelievable this spring.
Spring training stats - 8 IP, 11 Ks, BB, 5 Hs
No earned runs. 11:1 K/BB ratio. Like I said, spring training stats are not to be trusted, but in this particular case, the spring training stats happen to align with another, more useful fact: Kim has one of the five best starter projections on the Cardinals. Not only does he have one of the five best, he is tied with Mikolas with the second best WAR projection. This is a pitcher who absolutely has to be in the rotation.
ZiPS projection - 157.3 IP, 19.6 K%, 6.3 BB%, 4.05 FIP, 4.00 ERA, 2.2 WAR
You remember when I said that Kim could theoretically be the second best pitcher on the Cardinals? Well ZiPS thinks he is. It’s not by much. He’s projected to throw the fourth most innings among Cardinals pitchers, but tied for the 2nd best WAR. Mikolas is projected for more innings and they have equal WAR. Hudson isn’t too terribly far behind (1.7) and you really don’t want to know the Martinez and Wainwright projections, which are admittedly based on significantly less innings (and a role in the bullpen)
These are also the kind of stats that just won’t translate into the bullpen. Yes, it would suggest he’d be dominant, but I don’t think he’d touch 2 WAR and there is a rock solid chance that one of the other five has less than 2 WAR over a full season. Well a theoretical full season. A 2 WAR season on a rate basis. You get it.
So Kim deserves to be in the rotation. But will he? (I guess a better question is: if Mikolas is healthy and ready when the season starts, will they move him to the bullpen? Or do you not expect that to be a problem?)