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The State of the Rotation

With Adam Wainwright coming back I take a look at what the rotation will look like in 2023 and beyond

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason, the starting rotation was a big question. There was plenty of discussion around who would fill the void in the rotation until the St. Louis Cardinals signed Steven Matz.

That discussion will not be had this year because Adam Wainwright is coming back to fill his own void. I, for one, am excited about the prospect of seeing him take the mound for one more season. The end of his 2022 campaign left some uncertainty, but he was mighty effective before the whole dead arm and stride length thing.

From the beginning of the season through the end of August, Waino compiled a 3.09 ERA, 3.54 FIP, and 3.88 xFIP. Nobody was questioning if he had anything left in the tank then. I know the last month changes things, and his age can leave some concerns too, but if he truly has gotten to the root of his issue and is able to fix it, then I have no doubts he can still pitch effectively next season.

With Wainwright coming back, the rotation is all but set.

The 5 pitchers are, presented in the order in which I would place them, are...

Jack Flaherty

Miles Mikolas

Jordan Montgomery

Adam Wainwright

Steven Matz

In all fairness, it’s really hard to distinguish between 2 through 5. They could go in any order and it would be hard to complain.

That’s a good rotation, but it’s good more so because there are no weak links and less so because it’s brimming with talent.

That’s why some are unhappy with bringing Wainwright back, because his signing effectively fills the only hole in the rotation and it doesn’t do it with a high-end arm.

I know there are some who may not like Wainwright coming back, but I am not in that camp. That’s because I don’t think bringing him back should stop the Cardinals from looking for a top of the rotation arm.

In all likelihood, it will, but it shouldn’t. The Cardinals had two pitchers clear 30 starts last year - Wainwright and Mikolas. They had 10 make 7 or more starts. And Dakota Hudson finished 3rd with 26 starts. Having 5 starters simply isn’t enough.

As the old adage goes, you can never have too much pitching.

Injuries happen during the year, and sometimes in Spring Training. Bringing in an impact arm would not only bolster the ceiling of the rotation, but also it’s floor by giving the team quality innings and more injury coverage.

I would be fine with one of the options listed above opening the season in the bullpen because I don’t expect he would be in the bullpen for long. That would also hedge against Wainwright struggling. In that case, Wainwright could move to the ‘pen and get a boost.

Wainwright coming back does nothing to stop me from thinking the team needs another impact arm. It’s nice to have rotation depth and another arm that can provide quality innings, but another quality starter should still be on the wish list.

Besides that, there’s also Jose Quintana to think about. He was a 4 WAR arm last year and posted both an ERA and a FIP below 3. He should still be considered.

That gives the Cardinals two ways of approaching the rotation. Well, actually, I guess three if you consider them doing nothing else as an option. The first option is to go out an get a top of the rotation pitcher. Relying on Jack Flaherty to be an ace is a dangerous game. He has it in him, but we need it to be out of him too.

Bringing in someone to bolster the top of the rotation would lessen the reliance on Jack Flaherty. That’s huge. If he returns to second half of 2019 form, then the Cards will have two dangerous arms and a bunch of mid-to-back end options.

If Flaherty remains a mid-rotation option or gets hurt again, then having a rotation anchor would be huge.

Signing an impact arm is still my preferred option this offseason.

The second option is to bring back Quintana. This is also a sneaky good option. First, it never hurts to add a 4 WAR pitcher to the rotation, even if he doesn’t quite replicate that success.

The real benefit of this would be opening the season with a six-man rotation. That’s the best way to use a rotation that consists of Jack Flaherty and a bunch of mid-rotation options. A six-man rotation would, theoretically, help the rotation stay healthy by reducing everyone’s workload.

This isn’t a good strategy if you have one or two dominant arms because then those arms are pitching as much, but that’s not the situation the Cardinals are in (unless they sign someone better than Quintana).

Extra days off could help the 41-year-old Adam Wainwright stay strong over the course of the season. It could help the oft-injured Jack Flaherty keep his innings down and build up his durability. It could help Steven Matz ease his way back into the rotation.

Miles Mikolas is also coming off a season in which he threw the third most innings in all of baseball.

The other benefit of a six-man rotation is that it’s flexible. If someone gets hurt, you can simply drop down to the standard five-man rotation. When the rotation gets healthy, the six-man rotation becomes an option again.

I am perfectly fine with this option too, and I even prefer it to not signing another starter. I don’t think the Cardinals should be done in the pitching market. Pitching was the team’s biggest weakness last year and simply keeping the band together does nothing to turn that weakness into a strength.

This team can hit, but it needs a catcher. Or two. And a reliable outfield option would be nice, though I think the Cardinals have three starting outfielders somewhere in the current group of Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill, Alec Burleson, Jordan Walker, and Moises Gomez.

The problem is that all of them still need to prove themselves to varying degrees. I would have no issues with signing an outfielder, but that, along with bringing in a catcher (or two) shouldn’t be the only things they do. Both of those issues could be solved when free agency begins. That’s not the only place the Cardinals should be looking, though.

This team has more than enough to be competitive on the trade market. There is a large group of MLB-ready prospects that are competing for limited MLB playing time. Trading from that group to bring in an impact player would have a huge effect on the team.

They have enough payroll available to sign a catcher, sign an outfielder, and then trade for a pitcher. Or sign Jose Quintana and an outfielder and then trade for a catcher. Or do any variation of the three.

My point is that the team shouldn’t be done adding to the rotation. Whether it’s an impact arm or Quintana and a six-man rotation, the rotation can still be improved. It’s fine now, but a rotation that’s more than fine coupled with a top 5 offense is a dangerous team.

The team should also be looking for a player that’s controllable well past this year.

Wainwright is done after 2023. Mikolas’s contract expires after the season. So does Montgomery’s. Jack Flaherty’s final arbitration year is 2023, meaning after the season he can enter free agency for the first time.

That’s a lot of uncertainty. Adding a high-end starter who can be an anchor of the rotation beyond this upcoming season could add some certainty. Otherwise, next offseason could see a complete rebuild of the rotation.


I’m glad Adam Wainwright’s back, but that changes nothing for me. I gave two ways the team could improve the rotation.

  1. Sign or trade for an impact starter
  2. Re-sign Jose Quintana and move to a six-man rotation

One of these is necessary. Otherwise the Cardinals won’t have done anything to address a rotation that ranked 16th in fWAR, 14th in FIP, 17th in xFIP, and 16th in ERA. That screams pedestrian. That’s something that needs to be improved.

In my optimism, I think the Cardinals know that. They have money to spend this offseason too, and it makes sense that it would be devoted to the pitching staff. The team needs a catcher badly but it won’t take much money to improve that position. It did compiled -0.6 fWAR last season after all.

The bulk of the money should go towards pitching. And good pitching. Not back-end of the rotation pitching.

I think, and I hope, that will happen this year. Quintana is a mid-rotation option and I think he should be the baseline. The bare minimum should be bring Quintana back. I won’t be disappointed with that move but I would love to see even more. I want to see a move that raises the ceiling for this rotation.