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Playing to Win … in 2021 (Part 2: Pitching)

Luck will reign in a compressed 2020 season. The Cardinals would be wise to use this season to prepare their arms for 2021 and they don’t have to sacrifice winning to do so. 

St Louis Cardinals Summer Workouts Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

In a typical season, the Cardinals should do everything they can to put themselves in position to win the division. That is a goal that is within their ability to plan toward through smart roster decisions in the offseason. However, over a shortened and compressed season, like baseball’s postseason, marathoners have to become sprinters. A team built to win over 162 games is not guaranteed success over 19.

60 games feels more like an extended postseason rather than a short regular season. Luck will have as much say in baseball’s victors as talent, payroll, and planning.

I believe the Cardinals front office and management should build goals not around their finish in the standings, but on those things they can actually control.

The best use of the 2020 season is to prepare the club to win … in 2021.

That will require some difficult roster choices, cutting back playing time for established veterans who are likely heading off the roster and expanding opportunities for players who will be required to play a greater role next season.

You can find part 1 of this series, which covers the Cardinals 2020 offensive priorities, here. Let’s talk pitching.

There is a distinct difference between the Cardinals developing offensive players and their pitchers. The club has several position players whos talent level ranges from star to starter in need of immediate testing at the MLB level, including Tyler O’Neill, Andrew Knizner, and Dylan Carlson.

That is not necessarily the case with the Cardinals’ young arms. The real talent in the system has either already graduated to established Major League roles (ranging from Flaherty to Helsley) or they are just beginning their professional careers (Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore). A third group of intriguing impact arms have a wide range of possible outcomes and do need some attention by the major league squad this season. Let’s consider these players in terms of priority and see where we can place them in the Cardinals depth chart.

Priority 1: Provide a High-Quality Environment for Pitcher Development

The Cardinals have assembled an impressive group of developing arms lower in their system, headed by Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson. These two lefties have as much upside as any southpaw starters the Cardinals have produced in a decade (or two). The upside is tantalizing, but their age and lack of experience necessitate caution.

Thompson was drafted in 2019 out of Kentucky and he had 13 just innings and no starts for Palm Beach in 2019. The club likely entered this season hoping Thompson could succeed in a short return to A+ before rewarding him with a promotion to AA at mid-season. He is an arm with fast-track potential and he impressed this spring.

Matthew Liberatore was the surprising return in the Jose Martinez trade. Liberatore played 2019 in the Midwest League (A) at age 19. His upside is exceptional, but he has a long way to go.

Neither Thompson nor Liberatore needs to be considered for the MLB roster. However, their continued development in 2020 is as important to the future of this club as Dylan Carlson’s. Star-caliber players are what make championship clubs. Liberatore has that kind of ceiling and Thompson’s stuff isn’t that far behind.

The Cardinals would be wise to include these two young hurlers in their 60-man player pool to ensure these two arms have access to the best coaching possible. While those two will not receive live innings this season, they will only benefit from spending the summer with the coaches in the upper minor leagues and pitching regularly against advanced AAA and AAAA caliber hitters. This environment could test them as well or more than A ball coaching and competition.

Thompson was added to the Cardinals player pool right away. Just yesterday Liberatore was added as well. This is great news! Pay attention to reports coming from this secondary camp.

Priority 2: Use the Flexible Roster Structure to Get Intriguing Arms on the Roster

The active roster will feature a unique structure this season. Beginning with their Opening Game on July 24, the Cardinals will be able to carry 30 players on their active roster. Two weeks later that number shrinks to 28. Two weeks from that point – about the halfway mark of the shortened season – the roster settles in at 26 for the remaining games.

The Cardinals have a month of extra roster space to make use of some intriguing arms who sit on the fringe of the roster, but who might likely be needed in 2021.

To identify these arems, let’s consider the staff as a whole. My plan for the roster assumes 13 offensive players for the entire season.

Roster Locks:
Starters (5): Flaherty, Martinez, Mikolas, Hudson, Wainwright.
Backup Starters (2): Hyun Kim, Ponce De Leon
RHRP (3): Gallegos, Helsley, Gant
LHRP (3): Miller, Webb, Cecil*
Total: 13

* Cecil is currently on the 40 man roster and will have to be on the active roster unless he is designated for assignment. I think there is a strong chance that Cecil does not break camp with the club unless he can show improved velocity. He switched to a side-arm delivery at the opening of Summer Camp because he said it made his stuff feel more “competitive”. That’s a good move, but one that seems birthed out of desperation.

The Cardinals will carry at least 13 pitchers the entire season. This list accounts for 13 and does not include Hicks, who is throwing after his 2019 Tommy John surgery, but not ready to resume a roster spot.

That leaves us two extra spots for the first month of the season, and two spots for the first two weeks of the season – 4 additional spots total, with the potential for 5 if Cecil is cut.

The likely candidates for these roles are arms with MLB experience who are on the 40-man roster. This list includes (in order of experience): Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, and Junior Fernandez. Below them are 40-man arms who have not seen action: Jake Woodford, Alvaro Seijas, and Ricardo Sanchez.

I would prioritize playing time for these players in this way:
Spot 14 & 15 (first month of the season): Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes
Spot 16 & 17 (first two weeks of the season): Genesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez
Next in line: Jake Woodford
The club should also consider: Angel Rondon (who is not on the 40-man)

Now, with 17 pitchers on the roster for at least two weeks, how will any of these arms ever see the field?

Priority 3: Have a Quick Hook with Starters to Develop a Quasi-Piggy-Back System

With 60 games to fill, the top 5 starters on the roster will get 12 starts each, barring injury or schedule adjustments. A reasonable goal would be to assume those starters will provide around 50 innings pitched for the season. That would allow them to start at 3-4 innings early in the season and progress to normal outings about the time rosters compress to 26 players (13 pitchers).

In a quasi-piggy-back system, the Cardinals would use the backup starters – KK and Ponce as the first priority, followed by Reyes, and then Cabrera – for 2-3 inning stretches to support the short-outing starters for the first 20-30 games. KK and Ponce have to stay stretched out for most of the season to assume a starter’s role if a player falters or is injured.

This is a “quasi-piggy-back” system because a true piggy-back has two scheduled starters each game. The Cardinals have already said that they are not planning such a system. However, not scheduling a back-up starter does not mean they won’t be necessary. Shildt knows this and has indicated that he will have a quick hook for his starters, particularly early in the season.

The rest of the bullpen can fall into their expected roles, covering the 6-9th innings as normal. While Gomber can fill a back-up starter role, he also should compete for with Miller and Webb for late-inning lefty relief. Reyes, also, could work his way into later innings if he can ever find control. Fernandez and Woodford are there to fill gaps when inevitable injuries or ineffectiveness happen.

How will this impact the club’s ability to win in 2020?

Prioritizing young offensive players should have a minimal impact on the standings and could actually enhance the Cardinals’ ability to compete now. That might not be the case if the Cardinals intentionally seek innings for the 14-17th best arms in their system. The best it can hope for is volatility.

That cost of that volatility, however, must be weighed against the club’s need to find potential in-system replacements for key arms who might not be with the club next season. The Cardinals will have to replace one starter – for Wainwright – one key bullpen arm – Andrew Miller (whose option status is up-in-the-air – and several other roles (Cecil comes to mind). KK, Ponce, Gomber, Reyes, and Cabrera could all play a vital role next season. Its time to find out who the club can trust and who they can’t.