Not long ago, I penned a column examining the primary free agent starters still on the open market, with the overall message of the piece being that there were interesting, useful options available to fill a spot, depending on what direction you wanted to go. The Cardinals’ rotation looked shaky at the time, what with the uncertainty of Miles Mikolas’s elbow, Adam Wainwright’s advancing age, Carlos Martinez’s unpredictability, and Alex Reyes’s questionable suitability for a starting job. There were three players I covered — James Paxton, Jake Odorizzi, and Rick Porcello — representing the full spectrum of performance vs predictability.
Well, since that time, things have occurred. Lots of things. For one, both Paxton and Odorizzi have now signed contracts with teams not named after birds (Paxton actually signed with the Mariners midway through me writing the article, to mild annoyance on my part), thinning out the useful possibilities left on the market substantially. For another, things have not gone well for the Cardinals in terms of their starting pitching. At all.
That’s why, as of this rather pleasant Wednesday morning, I think the Redbirds need, very badly, to add a starting pitcher, and I think that pitcher should be the one remaining option I covered earlier. El Birdos really, really need to take a hard look at Rick Porcello.
To run down what is going on in the Cardinal rotation currently:
- Alex Reyes, it has been determined, will pitch out of the bullpen, with an innings limit of about 100 for the season. The club has not ruled out potentially stretching him out for longer stints — perhaps even a start or two — as the season goes on, but at the outset of the campaign he will serve strictly in a relief role, and will be limited all year as to how many total innings he can contribute. Now, given Reyes has not thrown as many as 100 innings in a season in almost five years, this plan makes sense and is probably the right move to make. However, it defines what the Cards can expect from Reyes, and sets a pretty firm upper limit on how many innings they think they can get from him under the best of circumstances. It’s a shame, because Reyes has looked incredible this spring.
- Miles Mikolas is dealing with a balky shoulder in addition to his worrisome flexor tendon issue, and will not be ready for Opening Day. Mikolas threw 385 innings between 2018 and ‘19, but will almost certainly not be providing the Cardinals with that same kind of mid-rotation bulk innings load this year. And it’s a shoulder. Shoulders are scary.
- Carlos Martinez has looked very shaky. Better yesterday that he had, but he still walked a pair of batters in just three innings, and his velocity looks like a question mark to me still at this point. I would dearly love to see the return of 2015-’17 El Gallo, but I just mentioned a moment ago how hard it is to count on Alex Reyes, who hasn’t thrown 100 innings since 2016. Well, Carlos hasn’t really been great for three full seasons now, or at least hasn’t been both great and fully healthy. He looks physically sound this spring, but still diminished from who he once was.
- The good news is Daniel Ponce de Leon struck out four batters in two innings a couple days ago against the Marlins. The bad news is that he allowed four baserunners in those two innings and required 47 pitches to get through them. Which means that the news news about Daniel Ponce de Leon is that he’s pretty much the same guy this year as he has been. Which is fine, but it ain’t a dependable starting pitcher.
- Kwang-hyun Kim has an ERA of 21.00 so far this spring. Yes, I know, spring stats are meaningless, and Kim did settle in after a really rough first inning his last time out. The problem is that Kim already looked like a slightly shaky bet coming into camp, considering the lack of innings from last season upon which to judge him, and the fact the 2021 version of Kim will be scouted in ways the 2020 version simply wasn’t.
- John Gant wants to start. Okay, John. Great. When was the last time you started? 2018, you say? Okay. Are you better at it now than you were then? And even if you are, how many innings should we really count on from a guy who hasn’t thrown starter’s innings over the past couple years? I really like John Gant. I do. I think he is a fantastic reliever at this point in his career. But if John Gant is penciled in to your rotation, you have some concerns.
- Austin Gomber is still, sadly, a Rockie. And the Rockies are still being real dicks about him pitching for other teams.
- Adam Wainwright has looked good this spring. Full stop. He is still 39 years old.
All of this leads us to an inescapable conclusion, at least as far as I’m concerned: the Cardinals are going to have a serious, potentially cataclysmic, shortfall of innings this year. The bullpen looks remarkably strong, yes, and it’s possible the Cards can cover for some of this uncertainty with piggyback starts and multi-inning appearances from certain relievers. But even so, this is a team that came into camp with some rather large question marks surrounding the rotation, and things have not improved — indeed, they’ve gotten much more worrisome — since spring training opened.
So far, the Cardinals are continuing to tout their depth, and that is at least somewhat fair. They have Johan Oviedo coming off his first big league season, though it would be best if he saw some more development time in the minors, I believe. Zack Thompson has made some positive noise in camp. Matthew Liberatore looks to be a little farther off, but could still be knocking on the big league door sometime in 2021 if things go well for the big lefty. Those are all really positive things. But this is also a team with legitimate late October aspirations, and thinking you could be playing deep into the harvest nights seven months from now does not skew well with a starting rotation that looks like it might struggle to hit 650-700 innings this year.
What the Cardinals really need is a predictable, consistent starter who will take the ball every fifth day without fail, and allow the bullpen at least a partial day off. Somewhat stunningly, there is still a pitcher available on the free agent market who does exactly that. The Cards need a Rick Porcello type, and wouldn’t you know who won the pony? There is not only a Rick Porcello type waiting to be signed, it is literally Rick Porcello.
I won’t go over Porcello’s whole resume again here; if you want the full rundown you can check out that previous column I wrote and linked up above. But here’s the short version of what we should care about: excepting the 2020 season, because of course, Porcello has never made fewer than 27 starts in a season. He has made 30 or more starts in eight of eleven seasons. He is projected for 154 innings of 4.50 ERA ball this year according to ZiPS. That inning total actually feels a little low, but a) that’s how projections work and b) it is somewhat doubtful any pitchers are going to work completely without restrictions or caution this year following everything that happened in 2020. Still, if we are legitimately worried about a 175+ inning metronome like Porcello falling short of his usual innings load, what does that say about the pitchers the Cardinals are just hoping like hell can give them enough innings to get through this season?
The Cardinals could be a very good team this year. Maybe even better than that. The offense is still a question mark, but should be better certainly that it was during last year’s sprinting slog. The defense could be historically great. The bullpen looks extremely intimidating, and flexible enough to handle most anything thrown at it as well. The division looks very weak to me, though I admit to just not seeing what a lot of other people seem to see in the Brewers. But all of that could crash and burn in a giant hurry if the rotation implodes. The Redbirds badly need to stabilise the situation, and there is a money-only solution sitting there waiting for a call. Please, Cardinals, don’t build a team with this kind of ceiling, then cheap out on fire insurance. It just doesn’t make sense. The pitching talent percolating up in 2022 and beyond looks like a real strength of the organisation. But in 2020, I think relying on that would be an enormous mistake.