I’m sure you’re all well aware of this fact by now but the St. Louis Cardinals only have one current member of the rotation under contract beyond the 2023 season - Steven Matz. With the team lacking both a top of the rotation arm now and, well, arms in general in 2024, this winter seemed like a good time to make a move to fill both of those gaps.
Instead, nothing materialized. So now we have The Great Mystery of the 2024 Rotation. Who doesn’t love a great mystery story after all?
Well, Cardinals fans don’t and I can’t blame them. But instead of complaining about the lack of a top-end starter, I want to take a look at what the Cardinals may do to fill out their 2024 rotation. The way I see it, there are a few options.
The Cardinals have three starters who could sign extensions to stay in St. Louis beyond this upcoming season - Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, and Jack Flaherty. I’m expecting at least one of them to sign an extension. My initial hunch is Miles Mikolas but Jordan Montgomery may be the better bet considering he’s almost 4 1⁄2 years younger. I do think the Cardinals will want Mikolas to stick around if he can keep producing, though.
I don’t think Flaherty will take an extension because I fully expect him to test the market as a 28-year-old. That’s about as good an age to hit the open market as possible. If Flaherty has a good season, I imagine teams will be lining up to secure his services. If he gets hurt again or pitches more like he has the past three seasons, then he may try to secure a prove it deal.
The Cardinals may opt to re-sign him or they may not. It’s unclear at the moment and I’m not here to speculate about which of these pitchers may come back beyond next season. What I will say, though, is that I expect at least one of these arms to stick around.
So, let’s pretend like we’re building a rotation. We now have Steven Matz and another proven mid-rotation arm (I’m not going to get into the nuance of Jack Flaherty). That means we need three more starting caliber options.
I also think the Cardinals can find at least one starter from within the ranks of their young arms. Matthew Liberatore, Gordon Graceffo, Michael McGreevy, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson, and Connor Thomas may all get a chance to lock down a rotation spot. Maybe even Jake Woodford as well.
Once injuries happen, and they will, the Cardinals have a large group of young arms who will get a chance to make some spot starts. By waiting another year to take care of the rotation, these young arms are essentially getting a tryout for 2024. Who might take the reins? I have no idea but I do have some thoughts.
I think it’s most likely that Liberatore and Thomas will get the best opportunities to start in 2023. With Pallante and Thompson having both experience and success in a bullpen role, I think they are likely to stay there. I would prefer to see them get a chance since they have already had MLB success, but I simply don’t think that will happen.
The Cardinals certainly aren’t going to give up on Liberatore as a starter and with Connor Thomas adding a cutter and using it to dominate the Arizona Fall League, I think his stock is pretty high too. I would expect both of them to begin the year in Triple-A but since they already have extensive experience there, any kind of early success would put them in line to be an injury replacement at the major league level. This is the route I think the Cardinals will go.
I would expect the reasoning to be something along the lines of “Liberatore/Thomas are already stretched out” or “we don’t want to weaken/disrupt the bullpen by taking Pallante/Thompson away”. I’m not a huge fan of those ideas and I would actually prefer to see Pallante and Thompson get a chance first but that’s the danger of being in the bullpen. Once you go in it’s hard to get out.
Things may be different in the spring of 2024 as guys like Pallante and Thompson could compete for jobs and stretch out their arms to be starters but I don’t think that will be the case in 2023. And I think 2023 is where the 2024 rotation will be decided.
I don’t want to discount Graceffo from this race but he has yet to pitch in Triple-A and he did struggle a bit in Springfield. He’s simply not as ready for a major league role as Liberatore and Thomas.
The interesting note here is that Liberatore and Thomas are both left-handed. If one of them can stand out and earn a starting role then the Cardinals would have two lefties penciled into the 2024 rotation. Will the Cardinals want to add a third lefty? I don’t imagine they will which means an extension could be off the table for Montgomery if this scenario comes to pass. That’s just speculation of course but that would potentially be a weakness in the playoffs if a team was able to stack it’s lineup with strong right-handed bats.
Regardless, let’s continue on with our discussion. Let’s pencil one of the young guys in to bring our rotation to 3 strong.
We now have two spots to fill and one should be a top-end starter. We’ve seen the Cardinals be resistant to signing top of the rotation talent in the past (or the present, if you like), but this would really be the best way to strengthen the rotation. Matz isn’t going to more than a mid-rotation arm. Neither is Mikolas or Montgomery. Neither is Liberatore is Thomas. Neither is Pallante or Thompson. However you want to slice it, I don’t think the Cardinals really have a potential top of the rotation arm in the system outside of Tink Hence right now.
Thus, one of the two signings next year should be a top-end talent. The Cardinals could have looked for that arm this year and improved the 2023 rotation and the 2024 rotation and taken away some of the pressure from next offseason, but that’s not the route they chose.
If the Cardinals need two players next offseason, they should look for one to fill out the rotation and one to elevate it. The other option would be to make a move at the deadline to get pitching help. Regardless, let’s just say for argument’s sake that the team will bring in two starters next offseason.
That gives us a 2024 rotation of:
- FA Starter #1
- Miles Mikolas
- Steven Matz
- FA Starter #2
- Matthew Liberatore
Keep in mind that I’ve taken some liberties here. Mikolas can easily be replaced with Montgomery or Liberatore with Thomas. Or Pallante or Thompson or Graceffo could lock up a spot. Or both Montgomery and Mikoas get re-signed. But to me, this is the most likely scenario. In this scenario the depth starters would be Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson, Gordon Graceffo, and Michael McGreevy.
That’s a good amount of quality depth, which isn’t surprising because the Cardinals have a good amount of quality depth in the upcoming season too.
A lot can change in a year. Prospects can lose their shine, new names can emerge, and players can get hurt. I don’t imagine the exercise I went through here will look the same after the 2023 season.
What isn’t going to change (barring another move) is the need for a high-end starter. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse at this point but this is the most glaring hole on the team and it will remain so until it gets filled.
The problem with not filling it this offseason is that there’s now a lot riding on the next off-season. The Cardinals will have to scrounge up nearly an entire rotation of arms that aren’t in the opening day rotation in 2023. That’s a bold undertaking.
Really the only potential positive from this is that the Cardinals have more opportunities to try out young arms. That gets outweighed by the negative of having a mediocre rotation, but, hey, it’s something...I guess.
If Pallante and Thompson aren’t in the rotation by 2024, I don’t think they will ever make it to the rotation. This year might give them a chance to chart a path from the minors to the bullpen to the rotation. I would love to see that happen. It may also give Connor Thomas or Matthew Liberatore a chance to emerge before the Cardinals look externally to fill out the rotation.
This will be crucial too because I’m not a huge fan of giving a rotation spot to an arm who hasn’t proven himself in an MLB rotation before. If none of the young arms can rise to the challenge when pressed into duty then next offseason may be a whole lot more important. And more expensive.
Thanks for reading, VEB! Enjoy your Sunday and let me know in the comments which prospects you think can work their way into the rotation and which veterans you think may earn extensions.