More than any other year, the Cardinals are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for pitching help. All baseball teams have a “Remember this guy?” player who you don’t remember until someone says “Remember this guy on the 2014 team?” You’ll remember briefly, and then go back to never thinking about him on the Cards until the next time someone asks that same question.
The Cards have had about 10 of those guys this year. Wade LeBlanc, Brandon Waddell, Max Moroff, Bernardo Flores Jr., Luis Garcia, TJ McFarland, and Justin Miller. None of these guys are returning in 2022. Probably. Guys like Flores Jr., already claimed off waivers, and Waddell were probably picked up on the off chance they would figure something out and then they could get value beyond this year. Guys like LeBlanc and Garcia? This will be their last year as a Cardinal, and were never intended to be anything but a stopgap.
Which brings us to the topic of today, TJ Zeuch. He pretty clearly falls into the former category. They picked him up in the hopes that he could be a future bullpen arm. Same reason they claimed Johan Quezada, who has unfortunately been out with an injury the entire year. By the way, quick update on him, he has recently returned from injury. He made a few appearances at the complex league, utterly dominated, and has since pitched a couple innings in AA. They did not go quite as well with three runs in 2 innings, but 3.03 FIP and he’s missing bats.
Anyway, Zuech. They’re hoping he’s a future reliever. Technically, he qualifies as a starter at the moment I suppose. I would personally be surprised if they saw him as a starter. I mean he may quite literally become a starter for Memphis, but that’s a very different thing than actually thinking he could be a starter in the majors. Let’s dig into why I think that by going through his history.
The first thing about Zuech is his size. He’s 6’7, 245 pounds. If you paid attention at all to the draft recently, the Cards drafted a bunch of guys around his height and size. Don’t know if that’s something to pay attention to, but they have a type right now. He went to Mason High School in Mason, Ohio and he attracted scouts of some sort, but he got drafted in the 31st round so clearly few teams actually thought he was a legitimate prospect. He went to the University of Pittsburgh and became a legitimate prospect. Here’s what our very own A.E. Schafer said about him back in 2016:
The package of tools and skills T.J. Zeuch brings to the table is as good as any pitcher in the draft this year, and could ultimately allow him to pitch not only in a big-league rotation, but at the front of one. There’s a reason he’s moving up draft boards, and if he’s still available when the Cardinals make their first pick he’d be on my short list of names I’m hoping to hear. There’s work to do, certainly, if he’s ever going to reach that very considerable ceiling, but the stuff is undeniable, and he’s done nothing but get better every step of the way.
He did not reach the Cardinals. With the 21st pick of the draft, the Toronto Blue Jays selected him, two spots ahead of him (the Cardinals would pick Delvin Perez). They signed him for $2.175 million, which was actually $110,000 under slot. And the Blue Jays clearly thought highly of him, because he was fairly aggressively promoted in his first season. He made one effective start at rookie ball, then three at short season A ball, and finally two starts at Low A (which featured both a 9.00 ERA and a 35.9 K% - only eight innings though)
In just his second professional season - and first full one - he was sent to High A. He had a promising start, but got injured in June, returned in August, made three bad starts, got put back on the IL, and ended the year with two good starts. He was clearly on some sort of limit in his August and September starts because he maxed out at just 4 innings. The overall season was good though with a 3.38 ERA/3.53 FIP/3.40 xFIP. Amusingly, Andy Schrag half-heartedly threw out his name after this season to pair with some teenager for Randal Grichuk in a post about the Blue Jays being trading partners.
He made six starts in High A the following year and when his results were essentially the same, but with somewhat of a homer problem, they promoted him to AA. At AA, he didn’t see much of a change in his stats and he managed to stay healthy all year. Two clear positives for the guy.
Important detail to note though so far. Despite his size, he strikes nobody out. He’s a groundball machine. He had about a 62 GB% in 17 starts in High A, and then a 55.2 GB% in 20 starts in AA. His K rate meanwhile is just 16.2%. He doesn’t walk many either. So he has the right mix of groundballs, just enough Ks, and limiting walks to keep his numbers in the 3.50ish range. This is all well and good, but it’s a pretty delicate balance. Pretty easy to see his profile quickly turning into a AAAA player.
In 2019, he appears to have started the year hurt. MLB dot com does not say he went on the injured list, but he didn’t make an appearance until June and made two starts in High A before getting sent to AAA. So sounds like he started the year hurt, made a couple rehab starts at a lower level first, and then started his season proper in AAA. He made 13 not great starts. His walks rose to 9.6% and his strikeouts plummted to 11.6%. He did still get 57% groundballs, but suddenly his profile is not workable for the MLB at all. You do need to miss some bats.
He did make his MLB debut in September, being added at the end of the year. He appeared in five games and started three of them. He pitched about as well as could be expected actually, with a 4.76 ERA/4.05 FIP/4.57 xFIP. In 22 MLB innings, he curiously saw a rise in his K rate to 20.2%. He also walked 11% of batters and his groundball rate was “just” 47%. He was less impressive in 2020, where he walked more batters than he struck out in 11 innings of work (though had a 62.5 GB% and a 1.59 ERA somehow)
This year, he’s 25-years-old and back to starting. His K and BB numbers have returned to AA and below, but he’s not quite getting as many groundballs with a 50.5 GB% in AAA. That’s why I suppose his numbers are just 4.03 ERA/4.60 FIP/4.35 xFIP. In just 15 innings in the majors this year, he has been.... pretty bad. He’s walking more than he’s striking out, has just a 47.4 GB%, and is giving up dingers like every game is at Great American Ballpark.
So what you have here is a guy who has not found that delicate balance that a pitcher with his profile needs. Ever since he’s reached AAA, the balance has been off. He’s either not getting enough groundballs, not struck out enough, or walked too many - or all three. He’s done a few of those separately, but never been able to combine them into being a good pitcher. The good news is that he’s not been able to do it as a starter.
So that’s why I think the Cards view him as a reliever, because I just honestly do not see an MLB starter out of his specific profile. Maybe they view him as Dakota Hudson redux, I kind of think not, but Hudson is a guy who kind of has found it, but still has bad advanced numbers. That’s because he walks too many, otherwise he’s the successful version of Zuech. And I already have trouble believing in Hudson as it is.
But as a reliever? Maybe he can find that combination. And maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so precise. Maybe he can strike out more than expected. It seems clear that he’s a guy who will give up more walks if he tries to strike out more batters, but maybe that won’t be the case if he’s a reliever. You never know. The Cardinals gave up on Adam Ottavino way back in the day and never gave him the chance to be a reliever. Completely different pitching profile, just an example of how some guys can’t work in the rotation might be able to in the bullpen.
Is it likely? I don’t think so. Is it implausible? Absolutely not, far stranger things have happened. He has the second of his three options burned this year, so there’s a decent chance the Cards will get the chance to find out over the rest of this season and next if they think he can. And if they think he can’t, he’s not exactly blocking anyone at the moment and they can just DFA him. A worthwhile risk on a team desperate for pitching.