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A Starting Pitcher Factory: 2021 Edition

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Between 2010-2019, the Cardinals produced a quality major-league ready starter every season. Did that streak continue in 2020? Are they planning for it to happen again in 2021 and beyond?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2019 season, I took a deep dive into the Cardinals’ remarkable ability to develop major-league quality starting pitchers in an article titled “A Starting Pitcher Factory”.

In that piece, I examined the club’s lengthy history of having a quality, rotation-ready starter developed and available just when they were needed. Here’s that list from 2010 through 2019:

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

Not all of these starters worked out as hoped. Many, though, were able to step into rotation openings with success. This is not by accident. This is the Cardinals’ intention strategy toward building a rotation. Compare that list with the list of starters acquired from outside of the organization over the same time frame:

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.

Over a decade, the Cardinals have only had to go outside of the organization five times to find rotation depth. Two of those arms were experimental scout and signs with little or no major league experience – KK and Mikolas.

Clearly the Cardinals plan on filling their rotation depth internally on an annual basis. They’ve been able to do so with notable success.

COVID threw a developmental wrench into that plan. Can we squeeze any of last year’s many starters into the slot for 2020 slot?

Johan Oviedo might be the most obvious fit, with 5 starts and 24.2 innings in 2020. The former international free agent had 23 starts in AA with a 4.13 FIP and a K/9 rate over 10 in 2019. He has an upper-end fastball/slider combo but lacked refinement. He couldn’t get his stuff past major league hitters and was rocked for a 5.30 FIP and a K rate under 6 last season. Simply put, compared to the other names on the above liest, Oviedo just wasn’t ready. The Cardinals never intended him to make that jump in 2020. Necessity and COVID required him to do it but availability does not equate to readiness. Oviedo was available. He wasn’t ready.

With Oviedo missing the cut, there are a few other possibilities as fits. Alex Reyes and Genesis Cabrera could have fit well but both players found themselves locked into high-leverage relief roles. Both players performed well in those essential roles in a strange season.

Daniel Ponce de Leon could be considered, but with three consecutive years of spot-starts, he’s already graduated beyond the parameters I’ve set above. The Cardinals planned to use him but only in a swing role.

Austin Gomber is probably the best choice. The former 4th round pick (135) made 11 starts in 2018. He would fit that year if it weren’t for Jack Flaherty. Instead, Gomber missed 2019 with injury and then made 4 starts over 29 innings in 2020. That placed him 6th on the team in innings last season even though he spent much of the season as a multi-inning reliever. He produced a 1.86 ERA and a 3.54 FIP.

Can we fit Gomber into the list in 2020? Probably so, but his experience level makes it a bit of a stretch. It seems a little disingenuous to throw him on the same list as the 2018 version of Flaherty or the 2019 version of Hudson.

So, 2020 is either Gomber or a blank. The Cardinals seemed to realize that in advance, which is why they took the rare action of bringing in a free agent – KK – to compete for a starter’s spot.

What about 2021? Do the Cardinals have an upper-end major-league-ready pitcher set to take a rotation spot during the season?

Their current actions suggest they aren’t counting on it. At least not yet.

Mikolas is certainly going to begin the season on the IL. Kim is likely to be delayed at the start of the season. With Gomber no longer in the mix, the Cardinals are not turning to a developing pitcher. Instead, they are recycling trusted arms. John Gant and Ponce de Leon seem poised to take early season turns in the rotation. Both arms are capable of filling in well-enough for a short rotation stretch.

This – especially Gant – seems like a delaying action. The Cardinals have talked a lot this winter and spring about Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore, two first-round leties who would fit perfectly with the names on the above list. With no minor league season in 2020, the Cardinals wisely want to give those two arms some AA and AAA exposure before promoting them to the majors.

Then there is Oviedo. Circumstances forced the club to bring him to the majors in 2020. Interestingly, there has been little conversation about him competing for a rotation spot now, despite obvious openings. The club wants him in finishing school at AAA. He needs that.

Gant and Ponce’s presence allows the team to give Oviedo, Thompson, and Liberatore the minor league time they need to test and evaluate their readiness for the major league rotation. Depending on what happens with the rotation, it’s possible if not likely, that any of those three pitchers could be in line for major league starts after mid-season, depending on their minor league performance.

This spring Thompson has continued to display his mature approach and quality stuff, though his line isn’t all that impressive. He still has not made a non-exhibition professional start, but his time in the SEC and at the Alternative Training Site last season has him looking like a AA/AAA caliber player. Having watched him a little this spring, I honestly think he could step into the rotation right now and be rookie-version of Dakota Hudson/Luke Weaver good. That’s unnecessarily aggressive, though, with the existing depth. In August, though? Maybe. The Cardinals are not ruling it out.

Liberatore’s short stat line is a little better than Thompson’s. He’s also featured a better-looking fastball than last spring. The velocity still isn’t what the Cardinals might like, but his location and tunneling ability look improved to my untrained eye. I would still argue he’s a step behind Thompson in terms of readiness (though a step-up in ceiling) but he also looks like at least a AA pitcher right now.

Oveido hasn’t received much attention this spring – just 2 innings in official Grapefruit League games – but his existing experience has to put him ahead of either of the lefties.

That is three names who are on the cusp of the majors, have quality to upper-end capacity, and could be available to the squad by the end of the season. It’s likely – if not certain – that the Cardinals are planning on these arms taking a rotation spot over the next 1-3 years, beginning with midseason 2021.

In a few years, that list of developed starts could continue like this:

2020 – Austin Gomber/empty
2021 – Johan Oviedo (with Zach Thompson getting some exposure.)
2022 – Zach Thompson (with Matthew Liberatore getting some exposure.)
2023 – Matthew Liberatore

There might be a few other names that emerge during that time, though I’m not sure they have the quality/upper-end ability to fit on the list. Depending on injuries and progression, it’s also possible that schedule could be accelerated, particularly for Liberatore.

Regardless, it looks like the Cardinals had a brief gap in factory production. The lack of a minor league season in 2020 might end up delaying production as the team moves forward. The talent, however, is there. And the Cardinals are without question planning to continue to build their rotation from within.