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Ranking starting pitching depth in the NL Central

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Depth will be crucial in 2020. How do the Cardinals stack up?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been more than nine months since I wrote a VEB post on a game day that counted. The next time you click on an article of mine, real Major League Baseball games will have been played.

With the Cardinals’ Opening Day just three days out, I decided to look at how they stack up against their NL Central peers with regards to starting pitching depth. Rotation depth is obviously important in a normal year, but I’d argue even more so in 2020 given how many pitchers aren’t fully stretched out yet and the jam-packed nature of the schedule. (Case in point: the Cardinals play 40 games over the final 43 days of the season, including 17 straight games to close things out.) Here is how I would rank the five divisional clubs’ depth entering the season:

5. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ depth is going to be tested early. Their potential starting five of Kyle Hendricks, José Quintana, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Tyler Chatwood could—on paper, at least—hang with anyone in the NL Central, but Quintana isn’t expected back until around midseason due to a thumb injury.

Ah yes, the ole “getting [insert player] back from the IL is basically like a trade acquisition” quote. But I digress...

Chicago is expected to roll with Alec Mills as their fifth starter in Quintana’s absence. The former has been solid in brief stints across the past two seasons, but I’m more inclined to buy the 4.96 ERA and 4.56 FIP over 228.2 innings at AAA Iowa since 2018. Both the Steamer and ZIPS projections systems peg him for an ERA and FIP around 4.90.

After Mills, the Cubs’ other rotation options should another starter go down include Colin Rea, a righty who has toiled in the high minors since his last MLB appearance in 2016, and Adbert Alzolay, who hasn’t turned in an ERA or FIP below 4.41 at any level since AA in 2017.

Based on FanGraphs’ depth charts, the weighted average for Cubs starters after their top five works out to a 5.15 FIP projection, easily the worst mark in the NL Central. The gap between Hendricks-Quintana-Darvish-Lester-Chatwood and everybody else is 82 FIP points. For context, the next widest margin is the Reds at 39 points.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates entered camp with their rotation already decimated as Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer rehab from Tommy John surgery and surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms, respectively. Both will miss the entirety of this season.

That leaves Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Mitch Keller, and Derek Holland in the rotation, with Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl piggybacking the fifth spot to begin the year. Brault has a 4.85/4.90 ERA/FIP projection; Kuhl owns a 4.50/4.45. Beyond them, Robbie Erlin (4.56/4.47), JT Brubaker (4.81/4.76), and Chris Stratton (4.72/4.60) could see time in the rotation, but Stratton might stick in the bullpen, especially with closer Keone Kela on the IL and former closer Felipe Vázquez out of the picture after he was arrested on multiple charges (including solicitation of a child) last year.

I may have placed Pittsburgh ahead of Chicago depth-wise, but I would probably say the Pirates have the weakest overall rotation in the NL Central. Without Taillon or Archer, they simply don’t have the firepower atop their staff to match their four rivals.

3. Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers will also head into the regular season shorthanded after Brett Anderson was placed on the IL yesterday due to a blister on his left index finger. By my count, this is the 12th separate injury during his MLB career to force him onto the IL, which I feel like has to break some sort of record. This is also his 12th year in the big leagues, of which he has only made it through three with 20+ games.

Meanwhile, Brandon Woodruff looks to follow up a 2019 campaign that concluded with a 3.01 FIP and 3.3 fWAR in 22 starts and Josh Lindblom returns stateside after his second trip to the KBO.

What the Brewers do with the remainder of their rotation innings is uncertain. Former Padres starter Eric Lauer came into close contact with a COVID-19-positive person, so his camp arrival was delayed and he is expected to miss the start of the season while he makes up for lost preparation. It’s worth noting that the club is already indicating they won’t constrict themselves to traditional starter and reliever roles, and, as of Monday night, Woodruff remains the only announced starter for their upcoming series against the Cubs.

The door is open for Adrian Houser (4.27/4.32 projected ERA/FIP) and Corbin Burnes (4.35/4.17) to get starts for what will be a thinned-out rotation at least in the early goings. Freddy Peralta (4.27/4.26) is also in the running to receive extended innings following 3.72 and 4.18 FIP seasons for the Brewers in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Southpaw Brent Suter (3.97/4.20) also has starting experience, but could instead make multi-inning relief appearances like he did last year.

The Brewers’ rotation undoubtedly has question marks, but it’s worth remembering that their pitching staff contains Josh Hader and what projects to be the most valuable bullpen in the National League.

2. Cincinnati Reds

Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Trevor Bauer form the projections’ favorite top three in the division, plus Wade Miley and Anthony DeSclafani aren’t too shabby as 4/5 starters. In short, you can make a very compelling case that the Reds have the best top-to-bottom rotation in the NL Central.

Righthander Tyler Mahle would presumably be next-in-line for the Reds. His 5.14 ERA and 4.66 FIP from a year ago can likely be explained at least partially by a homerun-to-flyball ratio of 20.8%, with his xFIP dropping to 3.99. (Mahle’s SIERA, also a more predictive ERA estimator than ERA or FIP, was 4.16 across 25 starts in 2019.) As such, the projections have him down for a 4.32/4.30 ERA/FIP. Reds skipper David Bell said Mahle and Lucas Sims (4.51/4.65 projections) could provide piggyback starts as needed.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

There isn’t much for me to say here that you haven’t already heard. Mike Shildt made St. Louis’ rotation plans to start the season official: Jack Flaherty (who, as an aside, projects to lead the division and post the 9th highest WAR among all pitchers), followed by Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, and Carlos Martínez.

The reason why the Cardinals sit atop this list is simple: I don’t think any team in the NL Central has a six through eight in their rotation depth chart that beats Kwang Hyun Kim, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Austin Gomber.

I definitely would have been surprised if you told me back in March that Kim would begin the year as the closer, but with Martínez back in the rotation and Jordan Hicks, John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, and Alex Reyes unavailable, the bullpen quickly became a bigger weak spot than the Cardinals had originally anticipated. But as far as this article and the rotation is concerned, the weighted FIP projection outside of the Cardinals’ starting five is 4.38, well ahead of the next lowest in the Reds at 4.63. The gap between St. Louis’ rotation and depth options is a projected 12 FIP points, again leading the division with the Brewers (32 points) in second.

One of the many byproducts of Cardinals Devil Magic is sustained pitching depth throughout the organization. Let’s hope that translates into an on-field advantage once again this season. Regardless, baseball is finally back. Thanks for reading, and happy Opening Day...Eve Eve Eve.