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How Much More Pitching Depth Do the Cardinals Need?

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The team wants to fill out the staff with a swingman and probably a reliever, but is that enough?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows about the injuries the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff had to deal with last season. It didn’t take long to discover that the team did not have enough pitching depth. Even though Steven Matz has signed and the Cardinals are reportedly looking for a swingman who can start if needed, it can be argued that the Cardinals are making the same mistake this year.

The Cardinals have three starters - Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson - who combined for under 140 innings last season. Additionally, Adam Wainwright is 40 years old and Steven Matz has had injury issues in the past and doesn’t work deep into games. Overall, this is a group that is likely to need some coverage. One swingman is not enough to provide this coverage.

In 2021, the Cardinals used 13 different starting pitchers. In 2020, the team used 10 different starters in a 60-game season, and in the previous five seasons, the Cardinals averaged nearly 9 starters per year. The recent uptick and the current rotation make it realistic to predict that the team will use around 10 different starters next season.

The rotation takes half of that, and hopefully the bulk of the starts that are made in the season. The next five pitchers are a little murky. The swingman that the Cardinals are looking for would be the sixth. Jake Woodford is likely the seventh. The problem with these two is that they will need to be stretched out before entering the rotation. Both Woodford and the swingman are probably going to be in the bullpen to start the year, though that depends on who is signed. This means that when a spot opens up in the rotation, they might not be ready to immediately claim it. Such a situation happened in 2021 when the Cardinals sent Jake Woodford down to the minor leagues to stretch out his arm for a rotation spot.

Unless the pair is kept on a somewhat regular schedule, and as long as they work as long relievers in two to three innings stints, it may not take long to stretch out their arms. Still, it is a potential problem. The team has talked about Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks claiming rotation spots, but even if they are stretched out in the spring, once they go into the bullpen and start throwing one inning stints, they will lose the ability to immediately slide in as starters. Even though the Cardinals are talking publicly about using the pair as starters, or at least giving them a chance to be in the rotation, I doubt that they will be removed from the bullpen mid-season. It is possible that one of them moves into the rotation if a starter gets hurt in Spring Training, but besides that, it seems unlikely.

The other three pitchers would come from Memphis. This leaves a host of options, including Matthew Liberatore, Connor Thomas, Johan Oviedo, Angel Rondon, There are cases to be made for all of these pitchers spending a full season in Triple-A. Liberatore just turned 22, and though he improved over the course of the Triple-A season, it was just his first year above Single-A. If he dominates Triple-A to start to the year, then he could be ready for a promotion, but he could need more seasoning considering his youth and lack of experience. The same can be said of Connor Thomas. 2021 was his first year above Single-A, and though he performed well over the course of the year, 2022 may be too early to rely on him as an injury replacement. Johan Oviedo struggled in both the majors and the minors last year and he needs a year in Triple-A to figure things out. Angel Rondon made his MLB debut, but he could also use more time in Triple-A.

The Cardinals are betting on their pitching depth to be able to fill-in for injured pitchers. This is a classic Cardinals’ formula, but the effects of the lost 2020 minor league season are still being felt. Of these pitchers, Liberatore is probably the best suited to start for the Cardinals in 2022, followed closely by Connor Thomas. Ultimately, though, it may come down to who starts the year well in Memphis. Even after those two, the Cardinals need one more pitcher to reach ten starters for the year. Maybe it’s Rondon, but I only say that because of how much Oviedo struggled in 2021. Maybe Adre Pallante or Zack Thompson builds off their strong AFL seasons and can earn starts in St. Louis, but it seems too early for both of them as well.

The fact that there are not really any clear cut rotation options beyond the top seven is an issue. Again, its possible that Hicks, Reyes, Liberatore, or Thomas are able to fill-in admirably, but it is not likely that three of those four will be able to. Unless the Cardinals are content with this group taking at least a few starts, they should add another pitcher.

Since the Cardinals signed Steven Matz instead of a more expensive option, they now have the money to add perhaps two swingmen instead of just one. Injuries can pile up quickly, especially in a rotation that missed much of last season. Another veteran swingman that can stay in Triple-A, or one that is good enough to claim an MLB role should be added on top of the swingman that the team is already looking for.

That would at least give eight clear cut starters. At that point, you would hope that someone can be good enough in Triple-A to earn a mid-to-late season promotion if necessary. Eight starters should at least be able to cover the first half of the season, and at that point Triple-A pitchers have had more time to mature and the trade market will be heating up.

Another issue to consider is that the lockout may delay the season. If that were to happen, then a shortened Spring Training could be on the table. This would make injuries more likely since players would have less time to get into competitive game shape and prepare their arms for a full workload.

If the Cardinals are not careful, the depth issues of 2021 may resurface in 2022. Because of this, the team should be proactive and make an extra signing. Matt Boyd has already been mentioned here at VEB as an option, and he would certainly provide stability in the case of injury. Bringing Wade Leblanc back on a minor league deal could also help. The lockout is delaying any action, but once it ends, the Cardinals will need to survey the market and shore up their pitching depth.