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A Starting Pitcher Factory: Revisited

In November, I called the Cardinals a starting pitcher factory. Did their development streak continue this season? How does the rotation look for 2021?

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Last November, I took a deep dive into the Cardinals’ remarkable ability to produce major-league quality starting pitchers. You can read that article, “A Starting Pitcher Factory”, right here.

In that article, I examine the club’s lengthy history of producing a rotation-ready starter just when they were needed. Here’s that list again:

2019: Dakota Hudson (34th pick) – 32 starts, 3.35 era
2018: Jack Flaherty (34th pick) – 28 starts, 3.34 era
2017: Luke Weaver (27th pick) – 10 starts, 3.88 era
2016: Alex Reyes (intl signing) – 5 starts, 1.57 era
2015: Marco Gonzales (19th pick) – 1 start, 13.50 era (injured)
2014: Carlos Martinez (intl signing) – 7 starts, 4.03 era
2013: Michael Wacha (19th pick), Shelby Miller (19th pick) – 9 starts, 2.78; 31 starts, 3.06
2012: Joe Kelly (3rd round) – 16 starts, 3.53 era
2011: Lance Lynn (39th pick) – 34 innings, 3.12 era
2010: Jaime Garcia (22nd round) – 28 starts, 2.70 era

Compare that list to the starting pitchers that the Cardinals have sought from outside the organization since 2011:

2020: Kwang-Hyun Kim – 2/$8M
2018: Miles Mikolas – 2/$15.5M
2016: Mike Leake – 5/$80M
2014: John Lackey – in-season acquisition for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.
2014: Justin Masterson – in-season acquisition for James Ramsey.

The Cardinals’ strategy toward their rotation should be obvious. After the debacle that was Mike Leake, Mozeliak and company have leaned on internal options while supplementing them with low-cost, scout-and-signs from alternative sources. In the case of Mikolas and Kim, the overseas markets provided risk-free rotation insurance with little budget commitment and no prospects lost in trade.

Has their strategy worked again?

The Cardinals are deep into the 2020 season and, as usual, the starting pitching has been largely exceptional. Even after Wednesday’s gut-punch by Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals ERA is 6th in baseball at 3.79. This despite the craziness of the compressed schedule and significant injuries affecting the rotation and bullpen. It seems like whoever Shildt has thrown into the starting role for the day, that player has performed up to the Cardinals already high pitching standards.

The Cardinals had their typical pre-season starter go down with injury. This time it was Mikolas with forearm weakness. Carlos Martinez also missed the start of the season with COVID and he is only now nearing full steam. In just 43 games played, the Cardinals have had to use 10 starting pitchers, ranging from Adam Wainwright’s 8 starts and 53.1 innings pitched to Alex Reyes and his singular 1-inning start.

What the club has not had this season was a highly regarded major-league-ready, plug-and-play prospect, like Flaherty, Hudson, Weaver, or Miller to make use of.

Johan Oviedo is probably the closest fit to the names above. When the Cardinals needed a sixth starter, Oviedo was the club’s unlikely choice. Oviedo had just 23 starts at AA in ’19 and had attracted some notice for his increasing fastball velocity and movement, but he was rated well below Zach Thompson and Matthew Liberatore in the team’s prospect rankings. If everything had gone as planned for the Cardinals, Oviedo would have seen some bullpen time this season before being thrown into the rotation depth in 2021.

Necessity forced that plan to change. Heading into Wednesday’s double header, Ovideo’s four brief starts followed by a precautionary COVID-IL trip are probably enough appearances to justify including him on the list above. But the rapid acceleration of his development was not part of the club’s plan. The unfortunate circumstances of the season have forced Mozeliak and Shildt to make use of Oviedo rather than choice based on readiness.

So, include Oviedo above if you want, but in my opinion, the Cardinals have finally ended their impressive run of producing major-league ready starting pitcher prospects with higher-end potential this season. After Hudson’s elevation in 2019, Mozeliak had to go outside the organization to Kwang-Hyun Kim to secure rotation depth. It’s proven to be a brilliant signing. The club likely had Oviedo and Zach Thompson (late season) penciled in for 2021, with Liberatore to follow in 2022. The gap in their starter development schedule is very short.

That gap doesn’t mean the Cardinals are suddenly lacking rotation depth. Quite the opposite! Instead, the Cardinals have a collection of intriguing young arms who have considerable major league experience but have had their path to the rotation delayed by either injury or the success of others. This list includes (in no particular order):

1. Alex ReyesReyes exists! And he’s healthy. And he’s filthy when he can throw strikes.
2. Austin GomberGomber has been brilliant from Spring Training on in a variety of roles.
3. Genesis Cabrera – Just 23, Cabrera is starting to get the results to match his stuff, small-sample era, notwithstanding. He has a 13.5 K/9 rate but a BB/9 over 7. He remains an intriguing arm.
4. Johan Oviedo – (mentioned above).
5. Daniel Ponce de Leon – Ponce remains erratic but he has consistent been an option for the rotation.
6. Jake Woodford – Woodford is getting some valuable experience and has had to take a few for the team. He’s… well, he’s on this list.

With the possible exception of Woodford and Oviedo, every one of those players is likely to have a guaranteed roster spot either in the rotation or the bullpen in ‘21 and the club will expect each to contribute in some way. This list also could be expanded to include John Gant and Ryan Helsley, but it looks like their days of potential starts are over.

Where does that leave the rotation for next season? Considered the rotation depth and the developmental talent, the rotation looks like it’s in great shape for next season. Consider this potential rotation depth chart:

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

1. Jack Flaherty

I’m writing this on Wednesday morning right after Flaherty fell apart in Tuesday’s game. Let’s not overreact to a handful of bad innings. Flaherty still has ace potential. If the Cardinals can have a normal environment in 2021, it’s reasonable to expect Flaherty to resume his elite level of production.

2. Kwang-Hyun Kim

I have KK in the second spot in the ’21 rotation. I’ve been ringing his bell since the moment the Cards signed him. I’m not going to stop now! Don’t expect him to be a Cy Young contender, but I think the club can bank on him being at least as good as the ’19 version of Miles Mikolas in his second year through the league.

3. Carlos Martinez

Carlos will always be a wildcard. His upside and history in the rotation give him the advantage in all tie-breakers for the rotation, assuming health. That’s the problem. Carlos has not been able to stay healthy enough to lock down a spot in several seasons. This is where that depth mentioned above might come into play.

4. Dakota Hudson

Hudson has improved in all the right ways in this shortened season. His K-rate is up slightly. His minor league history supports a BB-rate in the low- to mid- 3’s and that’s where he is now. Hopefully, his HR/FB rate will continue to drop as well. He’s a solid mid-rotation starter now with the potential for an All-Star season if everything falls into place.

5. Miles Mikolas

Mikolas could slide in the rotation anywhere from 2nd to 5th, depending on how he recovers from his forearm issue. Only time will tell if he is healthy or if a more invasive surgery, like Tommy John, is required to fully rectify the issue.

6. Austin Gomber

Based on what I’ve seen, Gomber is easily my 6th starter entering 2021. The certainty of an injury means he might finally get the chance for the long-term rotation stint that he deserves. If that doesn’t happen, all the better. He’s versatile and can provide quality innings in the rotation or in a high leverage bullpen role.

7. Alex Reyes

Reyes should probably come to spring training in 2021 stretched out and ready to start if needed. However, with the rotation full and Reyes several seasons removed from a starter’s workload, the bullpen might be the best spot for him. I would not be opposed to giving him 50 innings out of the pen and 75 innings starting, either in the MLB rotation or in AAA. If he’s finally healthy, his future should be in the rotation. The club needs to work slowly toward that goal.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs - Game One Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What about Oviedo and Thompson? Oviedo could get some serious consideration for the rotation, but he can just as easily hold in reserve in AAA or transition for a season to the bullpen. Thompson, meanwhile, has lost a season of competitive development, but has faced AA and AAA batters since July at the Alternate Training Site. I would expect him to also start the season at AAA with Oviedo, though the club is likely to leave him off the 40-man roster for the time being. Liberatore could advance all the way to AA this spring.

There’s an obvious name missing from this list: Adam Wainwright. At the moment (yes, he is throwing his complete game as I type this), I don’t see a reason beyond sentiment to bring Wainwright back. Despite being the Cardinals best starter this season, there are two problems with his return: 1) age and 2) budget. Only two starters since 2010 have thrown a qualifying number of innings in their age 39 or older season – R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. Teams just don’t risk relying on aged arms anymore. The budget, though, is the larger concern. MLB clubs are likely to slash spending to recoup as much lost income as possible. The Cardinals can field a highly competitive rotation at least 7 deep without spending a dime of extra money.

Wainwright might only have a few starts left with the Cardinals. Enjoy them!

While the Cardinals didn’t have a fully developed, higher-level major-league-ready prospect to join the rotation this season, they again proved that they are a starting pitcher factory. Right now, the warehouse is full, and a whole new set of intriguing arms are set to come off the production lines soon.