I’m not going to take the blame for making everyone worried about the 2024 rotation, because well I just don’t have that kind of influence thankfully. But I do feel a bit guilty writing this post, having stressed more than few times during this offseason, that the reason to sign a starter is for the 2024 rotation. But we’ve gone from me feeling the need to stress that point because it didn’t seem to be talked about to that being all that seems to be talked about.
So stop worrying about the 2024 rotation. That is a worry for next year.
The 2023 rotation is fine and has a lot of depth. Frankly, I feel most Cardinals fans seem to vastly overrate the amount of pitching depth the typical baseball team has. For 2023 specifically, not talking about who has the best pitching staff, the Cardinals have one of the deeper pitching staffs in baseball, easily. They have, if healthy - which is not a small if - five starters who have a good chance to be 2+ WAR or greater.
Their sixth starter is Dakota Hudson, a below average pitcher who nonetheless is a much safer bet than most teams have at 6th starter. At 7th-9th, depending on the Cardinals’ plans, they have some combination of Andre Pallante (4.01 FIP as starter in 2022), Matthew Liberatore (a recent consensus top 100 prospect), and Jake Woodford, who is Dakota Hudson lite. Past that, they have Connor Thomas with two full years of experience in AAA who also showed in the AFL he might be MLB ready, and Gordon Graceffo, who is well-suited to be ready by the All-Star break if things go right.
Most teams are not touching this kind of depth, and you might be inclined to argue “none of those pitchers are likely to be good.” Maybe, but not all of them are going to be your worst case scenario. And besides, what you’re looking for doesn’t exist - someone you’re pretty sure can be good is not going to be found past six rotation spots, and including a sixth member applies to probably less than five teams. The number of arms and MLB ready guys sets the Cardinals up well to handle injuries to the pitching staff in a way that hasn’t been true in years.
And part of the justification for not getting Carlos Rodon or another starter - is to see what these 6th and beyond guys can do. They can be better informed of their 2024 plans if some of these guys actually make MLB starts. Wouldn’t you like to see if the Cards can pencil Andre Pallante into the 2024 rotation? I certainly would. Not going to do that if he gets zero starts. What if Connor Thomas breaks out? What if Graceffo - who was literally drafted last year - is dominant through the 1st half? I wanted Rodon as much as anyone, but it actually does make sense, if things go wrong with the planned starting five, to see who steps up. The person who steps up can probably be counted on for the 2024 rotation.
I’m actually kind of excited to see how the Cardinals build the 2024 rotation honestly. They can pour just about every resource they have into the starting rotation in 2024. Technically, we’ve seen this before, but I don’t think this situation is comparable to the 2007 rotation. They have more money to spend and an actual farm system to deal with this problem.
The 2024 rotation is way easier to build than you’d think too. Locked into one of the five rotation spots will be 33-year-old Steven Matz. Let’s hope his 2023 goes well so we can feel good about this spot. Adam Wainwright is likely to retire, while Jordan Montgomery, Miles Mikolas, and Jack Flaherty all become free agents. I think the Cardinals are going to try to extend one of those three, but I feel like they should resist that urge, short of a smart deal falling into their lap, which is harder to imagine after the recent free agent starting pitching contracts. Yes, it’d be nice to have a second member to count on, but I don’t feel like there’s this great discount to be found and might as well wait to see if they’re healthy before you sign them.
And then, in my estimation, there are two spots that will go to internal options. Every pitcher I’ve mentioned as depth is a contender for those two spots. But I’ll narrow it down to four pitchers: Pallante, Graceffo, Liberatore, and Hudson. My personal plan and I have no idea what the Cardinals plan to do, is to hope that two of Pallante, Liberatore, and Graceffo look like capable starting pitchers. I already think Pallante does - I’m sky high on him - so for me, it’s mostly a matter of just one of the other two stepping up.
Assuming two of those three are Opening Day starters may be a bit much - that’s where keeping Hudson comes into play. Hudson is the backup plan. He is a perfectly acceptable 5th starter, as much as some people don’t like to watch him pitch (me included honestly). It’s possible Hudson pitches well enough in the 2023 season to make him the first plan too. There’s many ways this can go. Maybe Thomas enters the discussion. For now, I think counting two starting pitching options as internal is a reasonable bet. Things may obviously change.
And as much as the 2023 salary has annoyed people, it’s probably going to annoy you that I’m going to make the case that the 2024 rotation is going to be easier to construct than you’d think because of the money available to spend on it. The Cardinals have a ton of money to spend and nowhere else to spend it. There is a rich free agent starting pitcher market as well, and a relatively weak position player one.
The Cardinals current 2024 payroll is $106 million, not including arbitration. Between Hudson, O’Neill, Edman, and Helsley, I estimate an additional $22.4 million. Both Andrew Knizner and Genesis Cabrera are also in arbitration, although I feel Knizner will probably not be on the Cards at this point and that Cabrera is maybe an addition $2 million. The big wild card is Dylan Carlson, the only pre-arb player set to enter arbitration next year and his price hinges on his 2023 to some extent but even he isn’t going to make more than like $4 million. And of course, Hudson’s $4 million salary is possibly getting nontendered or traded if they don’t feel like they need him. So in total, $28.4 million in arbitration, give or take, plus about $10 million to the pre-arbitration players. So the 2024 salary is currently set to be $144 million.
They are, at minimum, matching the 2023 payroll I imagine, which is currently $183 million according to Roster Resource. Which gives the Cardinals at least $40 million to spend on the remaining two roster spots. However, I don’t believe one of those rotation spots will be filled by a free agent. I think they’ll utilize some of their excess prospect depth to trade for one. Or least, I think that’s their intention.
There are a few candidates: Tyler Glasnow, Pablo Lopez, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, German Marquez, and Shane Bieber could all be available depending on what their teams do in 2023, specifically at the trading deadline. Which would also explain some of the “dry powder” they currently have. Count on the five starters you have right now, use some of the depth to patch it up if things go badly in the first half and see how they look for the 2024 rotation, then if need be, trade for one of these starters to add a 2024 member. There are worse plans. Some of the pitchers would take up about half the budget (Glasnow and Lynn), some would take a portion (Lopez and Cease will still leave $30~ million to spend), and some would be somewhere in between (Marquez and Bieber).
Then the free agent market. One starting pitcher. And if there’s room in the budget, two starter pitchers maybe. Blake, in his piece on Sunday, has two free agent pitchers in his mock 2024 rotation But you certainly have the budget for one starting pitcher at least. Two if you have the budget and the right fit. And one of those may very well be a re-signing of Montgomery, Flaherty, or Mikolas.
Because that’s the other part of my argument: there’s no other way to spend this money. They aren’t going to spend it on the infield: Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado will prevent 1B/3B signings, I don’t see Tommy Edman going anywhere, and at least one of Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, or even Masyn Winn will keep that position locked down for years to come. In the outfield, things would have to go very wrong for them to want to sign an outfielder. And the outfielder market is... not great. Ian Happ and Harrison Bader seem to be the two best outfielders. And outfielder seems like it will be one of those markets where it wouldn’t make sense for the Cards to grab a guy unless he was an elite guy.
That leaves starting pitcher. They are as well-positioned to replace four starters as one could possibly be, with a few potential internal starters getting the chance to grab a job, a good amount of money to spend, and a deep enough position player pool that it’s not only smart to trade from that pool, it’s necessary. There’s going to not be enough room for them all. Plus, there is nothing else to spend it on. All of those resources will go to starting pitcher.
So I think we can stop worrying about the 2024 rotation. Let’s let this play out. The possibilities are endless as to how they reboot the rotation. I’m guessing it won’t be this unclear when we enter the 2023-2024 offseason personally. I’m guessing, when October 2023 hits, we’ll already know three pitchers who can pencilled into the rotation and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s as high as four.