At the beginning of spring training, I pushed hard for the Cardinals to sign a proven, MLB starter, because I didn’t see a lot of current MLB depth in the system. Given that John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Johan Oviedo have a combined 13 starts this year, and we’re not even in June yet.... hard to argue that was a wrong assumption. Granted, the Cardinals have been enormously lucky this hasn’t blown up in their face - Gant inexplicably has a 2.04 ERA despite a performance that suggests he shouldn’t even be in the rotation.
I called the Cardinals organizational pitching depth theoretical rather than actual. This was because they had virtually nobody who you’d want throwing MLB innings at the beginning of the year outside of the planned five. Which meant nobody could get hurt. Which also hasn’t happened and should never be the assumption with pitching ever. But I also stressed that this theoretical pitching depth would become actual by the middle of the season when we saw how pitching performed in the minors.
We’re not quite there yet. But I was forecasting next season’s pitching rotation and was noticing the lack of... reliability. Jack Flaherty will be here. Dakota Hudson should be ready, but he was always kind of dealing with a tightrope act, so who knows how effective he’ll be. Miles Mikolas has officially reached the point of pretending he doesn’t exist, and being surprised when he’s pitching in an MLB game. Adam Wainwright might retire. Carlos Martinez is definitely gone and I’d find it hard to believe they re-sign soon-to-be 33-year-old Kwang-Hyun Kim personally.
So Flaherty. That’s the list. I mean Hudson will probably be here too, but I’d rather plan on him being a 5th starter or something. They’re going to be in an even worse position than they are this year. Sure, a Wainwright re-signing, Kim re-signing - neither hard to imagine, but nothing I’d count on - and Mikolas being healthy suddenly means they have all five members of the rotation. But also easy to imagine Flaherty and cross-your-fingers Hudson returns and is good and that’s it. Not the best starting point for an effective rotation.
Ah, what a great word following that paragraph. Except that the Cardinals have kind of an insane Memphis rotation right now. All five members, theoretically, could become a factor for next year’s rotation. They all won’t, but the fact that they could is remarkable. We’ve already seen Oviedo. He’s not ready and isn’t good right now, but if you’ve seen him when he’s working, it’s very tempting to just pencil him into next year’s rotation already. That’s how good he’s looked in spurts.
We’ve seen another guy pitch too. He did not look good. But it’s hard to ignore his Memphis stats, small sample that they may be. And he was legitimately interesting prospect when the Cards nabbed him off the waiver wire. Bernado Flores Jr pitched in one inning in the majors, walked two, and allowed a run. But in Memphis, he’s got a 1.38 ERA in 13 IP with 17 Ks to 5 BBs. His FIP is 2.84 and his xFIP is 3.79. He’s only 25. One weird quirk of the SSS is that he’s usually a groundball pitcher who doesn’t strike many out - his GB% this year is 24.2%. But he’s on the 40 man and absolutely someone to pay attention to.
A third member of the rotation and another pitcher on the 40 man has struggled so far. Through 3 starts, Angel Rondon has a 7.98 ERA and his advanced stats aren’t much more encouraging. But two years ago, he was the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year, splitting his 28 starts between High A and AA at just 21-years-old, and excelling at both levels. He’s still just 23.
The two guys not on the 40 man roster are the best prospects of them all, and some assume will make an appearance later this year. Matthew Liberatore’s debut has been solid, a little shaky, but considering he’s 21 and playing at a level far above what he’s ever done before, holding his own is an accomplishment in its own right. Zach Thompson’s leap to AAA has so far not been as successful, but it’s not that hard to imagine him righting the ship by the end of the year and emerging as an option.
That rotation includes at least two guys you absolutely expect to be in the rotation very soon, probably by the beginning of next year. (A locked rotation spot that is, not what Oviedo currently has) Then you have a Minor League Pitcher of the Year and a 19th overall pick (Oviedo is above Thompson for now, things could change). And Flores Jr.
Oh yeah and this does not include a former top 5 pitching prospect in baseball who has been perfect in save opportunities to this point. Remember him? Alex Reyes is supposed to go back to the rotation too. His current stats are going to need to improve - obviously not his ERA, but it’s simply hard to imagine him becoming an effective starter if he can’t stop walking batters.
Now, I will say this. This group is not particularly ideal for a team trying to win a World Series. It’s a great group if you’re on the come-up. But if you’re actually going for 1st place, there will be growing pains. None of these pitchers are all that likely to be great immediately. I don’t even know if they are likely to be good. Way too much uncertainty in this group. It’s not that dissimilar from the Cardinals plan in the outfield this year in fact, but this outfield included a top 15 hitting prospect who finished strong last year, a top 5 defensive CF who’s been a 3.7 WAR player per 600 PAs, and a 2.4 WAR player per 600 PAs in his short debut. So... quite a bit safer than if the Cards went with the all-prospect approach and Flaherty.
But the depth does not stop at Memphis. Springfield has some interesting arms as well. The 4th round pick of the 2019 draft skipped his way from the now nonexistent short season A ball all the way to AA. And he’s doing pretty well. In 4 starts and 17.2 IP, 22-year-old Andre Pallante has struggled with walks, but has a 25 K%, 2.55 ERA, and 3.78 FIP so far.
Also in AA is 23-year-old Domingo Robles, whom the Pirates traded to the Cardinals for international bonus money. In 3 starts, he has a 30.8 K% with a 2.81 ERA/3.12 FIP/3.35 xFIP. He’s another groundball heavy/no strikeout guy the Cards acquired who is striking everybody out now and not getting groundballs. Weird. (He also started yesterday, which my stats above do not account for. But 5.1 IP, 5 Ks, 2 BBs, ER isn’t going to make his stats look bad)
And I have to give a shout out to maybe the most under the radar great pitcher in the system, Connor Thomas. Who is Thomas, you might ask? Well, Thomas was drafted in the 5th round of the 2019 draft and had a similar debut to any old high round college draftee, which is that he pitched well in short season A ball, and was solid in Low A. Didn’t really trigger any prospect bells, especially with the lack of Ks in Low A. Cards saw something because they sent him to AA, where he’s dominating. He has a 31.3 K% and 1.6 BB% in, yes, just 16.1 IP. He also has a 63.4 GB%. He literally could not have had a better three starts to begin his season. Maybe someone worth paying attention to.
It’s early yes, but pretty much every name I’ve mentioned could end up emerging as a serious threat for the rotation next year. The guys in Springfield could force their way to Memphis by the end of the year. Obviously the guys in Memphis have a shorter road to the big leagues. But it’s been a little while since I’ve seen just so many options in the high minors. Which is good because the big league rotation is looking as uncertain as it has in years.
That’s realistically probably the only names that I could mention for next year, but it’s not like the interesting names stop there. 6’6 lefty Jack Ralston has struck out 40% of batters so far this year - also walked a ton - and has only thrown just over 3 innings per start. Already 23 and in High A, he seems like a future bullpen piece, but an exciting one nonetheless. 23-year-old Michael YaSenka has had dinger problems, but a 29.6 K% with a reasonable walk rate should be successful if he continues doing that. Undrafted free agent John Beller - albeit one who would be drafted with more than five rounds - has a 38.8 K% in Low A and had more strikeouts than Jacob de Grom in that one game, which he will be proud to tell his grandkids one day. And 2020 3rd rounder Levi Prater is unhittable if only he can get out of his own way and stop walking guys with a 36.4 K% and 24.2 BB%.
So pretty exciting time to follow the pitching depth of the Cardinals minor league system and while I’m not the most ardent follower of the system, it feels like it’s been a while? I could be wrong. Maybe this is normal. I don’t think it is. One thing is clear: this depth will be tested and quickly. Who knows if it will work out? But it should be fun to find out.