Earlier this week, I posted Part I of this series here which describes my assessment of Cardinal needs on the offensive side of things. This article goes on to examine the pitching side. In between, John Larue posted a nice article on same topic here. Part III will then summarize that back into how it fits both in the roster scheme and the payroll budget scheme.
Due to injury issues, non-performance issues (can anyone throw a strike?) and expiring contracts, a mediocre Cardinal pitching staff has multiple openings and needs. Pitching appears to be where the team really needs to concentrate their efforts at improvement. When I describe the Cardinal pitching as mediocre, I mean average-ish with a lean towards below-average. With all the injuries, it is likely the performance was below the initial talent level. But, to offset that rosy view comes the realization that an extreme pitcher-friendly park also probably made the mediocre results better than they should have been, and better than they would be if the park is changed. To begin, I’ll add a couple wrinkles to STLCARDFAN4’s recent roster analysis.
From the present roster, he projects Wainwright, Mikolas, Flaherty, Hudson and Reyes as the rotation. Can’t argue with that. But stop and realize that only one of those pitchers has exceeded 80 IP in either 2021 or 2022 (Wainwright). Flaherty had 40 innings in 2020, 78 in 2021. Mikolas pitched 0 innings in 2020, 44 in 2021. Hudson 39 innings in 2020, 8 in 2021. Reyes has 19, then 72. Most pitchers, particularly young ones, don’t see major bumps in IP from one season to the next, not without major increases in injury risk and/or performance degradation. There appears a critical need for a strategy to leverage these 5 strong pitchers without over-using them or trying to get anywhere near a normal starters load, which recent tradition has been ~180 innings. I’d be a bit surprised in any of these 4 guys crossed 150 IP. One strategy might be to add a couple of pitchers who become the "bulk" guys, or in a less acceptable term, part of a "piggy-back". Other than maybe Woodford, I see no one on this roster ready to fill such a role. Another strategy might be to add back more starters, say by bringing back some combination of Happ, Lester, LeBlanc, and going with a more "fluid" rotation ala the Dodgers. This is one of the reasons I’m not on the Scherzer bandwagon. Even in perfect world, he would only fix one rotation spot and innings are a looming problem with 4 spots, not 1.
An oft-overlooked aspect of the Cardinal’s late season surge is how dependent it was on LH pitching. The Cardinals had several decidedly average-ish LH veteran pitchers succeed in the second half, and that tells me their local competition (NL Central) is vulnerable to even average LH pitching. It seems like the Cardinal’s may want to invest more heavily in LH pitching this year at the outset, both of the reliever and starter variety. Note, with the single exception of Cabrera, the absence of any quality LH pitching on the post-world series 40 man roster. This may be the key to the 2021 off-season right here. Spoiler alert: Fans may see a lot more of Austin Warner next year than one might think.
Another area almost certainly needs to be addressed … if you look at the next tier of starters behind the top 5, the next-man-up scenario reveals names like Oviedo, Woodford, Rondon and perhaps Newsome later in 2022.. Behind the curtain lies Liberatore. Given the certainty that the Cardinal’s will need to rely on these guys, that list needs to be improved. I’m all for planning to expose Liberatore sometime in 2022, but him as the next-man-up, hold down a rotation spot for a long period of time is probably a bridge too far for me. If you have an injury or performance problem with someone in the top 5 and any one of these guys is your next best bet, you may be in for a rude awakening. In 2022, Liberatore will be better suited for the limited exposure that comes with 2nd games of doubleheader, occasional spot starts, and some time as the bulk pitcher in the bullpen.
The arms to be added may well be of the mix-and-match variety, moving the Cardinal pitching staff to a more modern opener->bulk->late inning match up approach than the paint-by-the-numbers of the prior manager(s).
Last in pitching, you have the bullpen – the match-up team, the guys you piece together in the back of the game to get to the finish line. Gallegos, Hicks, Cabrera, Helsley, Whitley appear to form the core here. A strong LH is needed, as well as just plain more arms, since the traditional bullpen is 8 deep now and I can only name 5 guys. Here they need to improve the depth.
That's it. The sum of the needs on offense and pitching create some interesting conundrums for Cardinal's management. Stay tuned for that summary next week.