The St. Louis Cardinals couldn’t even make it to the first Spring Training game without having key pitchers get hurt. Neither Jack Flaherty nor Alex Reyes will be ready for opening day and both will open the season on the IL. Being down a top starter and top reliever at the beginning of the year is never a good start. The Cardinals have options to fill these gaps, but no starter is going to replicate Flaherty’s numbers (unless Matthew Liberatore hits the ground running) and Reyes was the of the most often used relievers in the entire league last year (15th in IP among relievers).
It may be hard to replace this production, but Oli Marmol may get creative in his attempt to mitigate these losses. The new manager has already stated his intention to use his best relievers in the biggest moments. I don’t know why it has taken a Cardinals manager this long to even consider the idea, but it’s nice to see Marmol being willing to take a different approach. It already seems like he will be a breath of fresh air after Matheny and Shildt.
Reyes may have been an option for such a role, but he would have needed to beat out Giovanny Gallegos, who should be the fireman with Genesis Cabrera also contributing. Jordan Hicks could also help out if he pitches well this year and after impressing last season, it’s possible that Kodi Whitley could more into a higher leverage role. The injury to Reyes may benefit Whitley the most by giving him the chance to take on a larger role in the bullpen and continue his success from the end of last season.
The two pitching injuries opens two roster spots. One will need to be taken by a starter, so Jake Woodford and Matthew Liberatore should compete for that spot. If the Cardinals don’t sign any more pitchers to cover for the injuries, it is likely a sign that they believe in Liberatore to cover a lot of innings this year. I think Woodford has the slight edge on the final rotation spot, but Liberatore has a strong chance. The Cardinals would probably prefer to give him more seasoning in Triple-A, but if he impresses in the spring, he may open with the team.
Regardless, the two roster spots should be taken by two pitchers who can start. Marmol said on Monday that he would prefer to begin the season with a traditional five-man rotation instead of a four-man rotation with a fifth day bullpen/piggybacking option. Still, the Cardinals would be smart to keep more than five pitchers stretched out. Jack Flaherty is already hurt, but the rest of the rotation is fragile. The Cardinals will need more than six starters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another injury in the early stages of the season.
If Liberatore begins the year in Triple-A, Jake Woodford should take the rotation spot and Aaron Brooks could take the bullpen spot. The Cardinals should then keep VerHagen and Brooks stretched out in case they need to take over in the rotation, but also to make them piggybacking or multi-inning options.
Marmol may prefer a traditional five-man rotation to begin the year, but that could change depending on circumstances. He has already shown that he is willing to challenge the traditional notions of the closer, and the Cardinals have a pitching staff which lends itself to piggybacking.
Between Steven Matz, Miles Mikolas, and Jake Woodford, the Cardinals have a trio of pitchers who all seem like piggybacking candidates. Steven Matz rarely throws more than five innings, and even in the best season of his career (2021), he still struggled to get outs the third time through the order. His FIP rose steadily from 3.20 the first time through the order, to 3.41 the second time through, to 5.89 when facing batters for the third time. He is a fine pitcher in the early innings of a game but once the lineup turns over twice, he is no longer an effective option. Miles Mikolas is similar and Jake Woodford is even more extreme. Woodford’s FIP when facing the order for the third time last season was 6.86.
It doesn’t sound like Marmol is interested in piggybacking, but it’s not impossible that he uses the strategy after the start of the season. If the Cardinals stretch out Brooks, VerHagen, and Woodford in the spring, and they should, then piggybacking would allow each of them to maintain a multi-inning role and stay stretched out in the event of another injury which pushes one of them into the rotation. There was a time last year when the Cardinals had to send Woodford to Memphis to get him stretched out for the rotation, but piggybacking a pair of pitchers in the fifth rotation spot, or even in the fourth as well, would prevent this from being needed. If another starter got hurt, then the two piggybacking arms could just become two starters and the team could move back to a more traditional rotation alignment until it gets healthy.
If Liberatore gets the final job, then piggybacking won’t be an option. The Cardinals will want to see what he can do, and that is the best approach. If he impresses the team and beats out Woodford for Flaherty’s spot, then a traditional rotation makes the most sense.
Let’s be honest. The Cardinals aren’t going to piggyback their new $44 million starter, nor are they going to piggyback someone who threw almost 400 innings in his first two seasons in St. Louis. This may change down the road if both of them struggle to pitch deep into games, but the team certainly won’t begin the year that way. Woodford is really the only arm who has a reasonable chance of being piggybacked. However, it sounds like the organization wants a traditional rotation, so if the Cardinals think that Woodford can’t throw five or six innings by himself, then Liberatore will make the rotation.
It would be nice to keep Brooks and VerHagen stretched out, but long relief is probably their best chance for that. I don’t think the Cardinals are going to be piggybacking any time soon this year. Marmol just said as much. Still, with the rotation that the team has, it makes a lot of sense to try it.
An opener could also be an option. Letting a reliever work through the top half of the order before giving way to someone like Matz or Woodford could allow the starters to go twice through the heart of the order and three times through the bottom of the order. This would be a bit safer while also allowing pitchers who could struggle with length to work a little deeper into the game.
Marmol seems willing to go against the grain a bit and work with non-traditional pitching roles. He showed that by wanting more of a fireman than a true closer, so if it becomes obvious that the team would perform better with piggybacking starters or openers down the road, I would expect Marmol to consider it. The new manager already sounds different than Shildt, and that’s a good thing. Now, he needs to show that he is different than Shildt. Better usage of the pitching staff is an easy way for him to differentiate himself.