This week the Cardinals will cross the 2/3rds mark of the season, leaving them with 54 games remaining. That is 54 opportunities to try to reach the postseason. And 54 opportunities to see the players they will form a roster from in 2022.
With their odds of a division championship now at a season low (.7%) despite adding veteran starters at the trade deadline and winning two of three against the Twins, the Cardinals would be wise to focus the last third of their season on the latter of those two priorities.
Yes, the Cardinals should still hope they can get hot and sneak into the postseason.
But they should do it while trying to answer critical questions for 2022.
That means shifting some priorities around. Here are four things they need to do:
1. Make Final Evaluations for the 2022 Starting Lineup
A few weeks ago, I outlined the Cardinals’ payroll situation with an eye on roster depth in 2022. Using existing core players and likely minor league promotions, I was able to fill in a nearly complete roster for 2022.
Molina and Wainwright will be free agents after the season but are expected to return. Nolan Arenado has an opt-out that he is unlikely to exercise. If those things happen as expected, it will leave the Cardinals with just one hole each in their lineup and rotation: DH (assuming that happens) and 5th starter. The club has viable prospect options for both positions.
That means that if the team wants to improve upon their rotation or lineup, they will have to do so while displacing someone they’re currently counting on. They have 54 games remaining to evaluate whether they can return their current talent and contend for a championship, or if they need to shake things up from outside the organization.
There are three places where that evaluation needs to center:
1) Paul DeJong – the Cardinals locked DeJong into an arb buy-out deal that continues until 2023, with two option years to follow. His salary next season will be just $6M. DeJong’s price is right. Is his production? DeJong is currently a 1 fWAR player who has seen a steady offensive decline since his rookie season and inconsistent defensive metrics. With aging stars at the corners of the infield, the club frankly needs a lot more from shortstop.
2) Tommy Edman – in some ways, Edman’s story is similar to DeJong’s. He’s cost-controlled and was given a starting job based on production early in his career that he hasn’t been able to replicate. Defensive metrics are inconsistent. He doesn’t walk or hit for power. The club saw him as their second baseman and lead-off hitter of the future. He is failing to demonstrate the ability to lock down either role. Meanwhile, he seems ideally suited to a utility role.
3) Yadier Molina – the catcher position for the Cardinals seems like a mess that the club refuses to acknowledge. Molina started strong but suffered injury early in the season. Since then, his production has dropped (42 & 52 wRC+ in June and July), yet he remains a daily fixture in the lineup despite obviously playing through discomfort. Knizner got just 34 at-bats combined the last two months. Total production at the catcher position is among the worst in baseball. The Cardinals need to decide if fan sentiment (which isn’t bringing fans to the stands this season) is enough to let this continue another season.
2. Can They Count on Mikolas in 2022?
If 2021 proved anything it’s how risky it is to rely on bouncebacks and health from injured starters. The Cardinals went into this season hoping that Mikolas and Martinez could both stay healthy and recapture the form they showed several years ago. To this point, both have failed. Martinez was horrible before succumbing to injury. Mikolas has not been healthy from the first moments of spring training.
While the club can project a full rotation plus depth in 2022, Mo and Girsch have to acknowledge the injury and recovery questions that come with their core arms. Of the top five rotation candidates for next season, three of them – Flaherty, Mikolas, and Hudson – will be coming off a significant injury. Reyes will be years removed from starting and has a lengthy injury history himself. Wainwright will be 40.
Of those potential starters, Mikolas is the vital pivot point. He will be the most expensive arm on the team – at nearly $16M — and the riskiest.
That means the club has to use their remaining games to find out what Mikolas has left. Mikolas has made three rehab starts at Memphis. He pitched into the 5th inning last night, throwing 68 pitches when he was pulled (against his will.) There is no reason to be overly cautious with him and waste what’s left of his season in Memphis. His next rehab start should be 80+ pitches or 5+ innings and it should come for the Cardinals.
If they follow that timeline, it would give Mikolas a little less than two months of MLB starts, or 8-10 games, depending on if they roll with a 5 or 6 man rotation. That’s the bare minimum that the club needs to evaluate his ability to contribute in 2022. In 2018, the Cardinals gave Adam Wainwright eight late-season starts and saw just enough to award him a one-year “prove it” deal for 2019. It worked out. Mikolas is locked into a contract but the club should give him the same trial. If he can’t stay healthy or can’t get MLB’ers out at near his previous levels, then they’ll have to bring in someone who can.
3. Give MLB Exposure to Liberatore (and Maybe Thompson and Gorman)
In 2018, at age 23, the Cardinals threw Dakota Hudson into the bullpen, giving him 27 late-season innings.
In 2017, at age 21, Jack Flaherty made 5 pretty bad starts in September before he won a rotation spot the next year.
In 2016, at age 22, Luke Weaver made 8 spot starts, producing a 5.70 era and .4 fWAR. He tripled that fWAR the next season.
Michael Wacha got 9 starts and bullpen time as a 21-year-old late in 2013.
Carlos Martinez appeared in 21 games at age 21 in ‘13. He cut a run off his ERA the next season.
Do I need to go on? The Cardinals have consistently tried to give their young starting pitcher prospects brief exposure to the majors the season before relying on them to produce, allowing them to fail in a safe environment before counting on them the next season.
This is exactly where Matthew Liberatore is in his development. While his ERA at Memphis isn’t great, his peripherals for his age are really excellent. He’s flashed improvement with his fastball velocity and tunneling and shown impressive control. He’s not a finished product but there is also little reason to make him repeat AAA next year.
He’s as much in the Cardinals’ plans for 2022 as Jack Flaherty was in 2018 or Dakota Hudson was in 2019 – both of whom were allowed to compete for a rotation spot. That means the club needs to afford Liberatore the same opportunity that they gave those other starters. They need to give him a month to get hammered by MLB hitters so he doesn’t come in shell-shocked next year when his performance matters. Then he can compete with Mikolas, Reyes, or a recovering Hudson in 2022.
That doesn’t mean Liberatore needs to get a call up now. September is fine. And the bullpen would be ok, too. It would be great to see him get at least 15 innings somehow. 25 innings would be ideal.
Does that same logic apply to others? Zack Thompson has looked better of late. However, with the rotation lining up as it is, I think he’s destined to apprentice in the bullpen next season. I have no problem with them starting that early this fall but won’t complain if they don’t. Rosters won’t expand as much as they used to this season, so the club will have some limitations on space.
On the other side of the field is Nolan Gorman. The Cardinals have taken the opposite approach with the few high-upside hitting prospects they have had. Oscar Taveras returned to AAA in 2014 and debuted mid-season. We don’t know what the club would have done with Dylan Carlson in 2020, but with the COVID-shortened season, they held him back several games to buy an extra season. I, personally, would like to pencil Gorman into the starting 2b/DH job next season. Because of that, I would like to see him get some innings in platooning with Edman late in 2021. Will it happen? I seriously doubt it.
4. Get Reyes up to 80+ Innings.
Reyes has just 48.1 innings on the season. That’s a far cry from the 80-100 IP range that the club wanted him to land this season in order to prepare him to compete for a rotation spot in 2022.
Blame that on Shildt’s insistence on using Reyes in the traditional one-inning closer role. Despite being used routinely for multiple innings in 2021, Shildt and Maddux have only taken Reyes into a second inning 6 times this season.
The club knows this needs to change. On Sunday, Reyes threw one inning in a non-save situation against the Twins. After the game, Shildt acknowledged that his motivation was to get Reyes more innings. That needs to continue. And he needs to start bringing Reyes into the 8th inning.
Reyes needs to average 1.5 innings per outing for another 20-23 outings to finish at 80 innings or above. That’s still lower than the level he needs if the club wants him ready to throw 150 innings out of the rotation in 2022, but since they refuse to give him starts, it’s the best they can do at this point.
Of those four priorities, none of them will directly affect the low playoffs odds they have for the rest of 2021. In truth, giving more innings Reyes, Mikolas, and Liberatore could help them win, especially if it removes opportunities for replacement-level players at the margins of the roster. The club can win now, make things interesting for their fans, and still set themselves up to be better next season.