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A 28-Man Roster and the Cardinals 5th Starter Race

A look at Flaherty’s situation, expanded rosters in April, and handicapping the 5th starter competition.

2021 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Grapefruit leagues are starting and so is the race for the #5 starter.

As everyone knows by now, Jack Flaherty is out indefinitely as the Cardinals presumed ace with inflammation in this shoulder. That opens the door for one of several depth pieces to assume his spot in the rotation.

How long Flaherty will be out is anyone’s guess. His shoulder woes stem from bursitis, which is inflammation of a bursa sack near where the shoulder tendons meet bone. I am by no means a doctor, but I can Google WebMD. It sounds like such an injury can be caused by overuse. This fits Flaherty’s report. In a rare moment of medical honesty, largely to correct what he viewed as misstatements by Mozeliak and the front office, Flaherty opined that his inflammation was due to overcorrecting for last year’s oblique injury. He does have a strain in his SLAP muscles but that’s been something he’s dealt with for several years.

The whole story is a little strange. But it also tracks. He had a PRP – platelet-rich plasma – injection in the shoulder to encourage healing of the inflammation. With limited concern about structural issues – the kind of thing that can cause surgery and 1-2 years missed – it’s reasonable to believe that Flaherty will pitch again this season. Probably sooner than most fans seem to suspect.

The club shut Flaherty down for a few weeks to allow the body to kickstart the healing process. Then he’ll likely be re-evaluated before prescribing a course of therapy and/or a throwing program. Then he’ll require his own spring training.

The Cardinals are likely to need a fifth starter for at least the first month of the season and probably several weeks beyond that.

Who is it going to be?

While fans are still calling for the Cards to pursue one of the A’s available starters – Manaea seems the popular choice – a simple glance at the depth chart proves the futility of such calls. Mozeliak has stockpiled starter depth. It’s just not depth that fans want to see in the rotation or players of which they have heard.

Like Drew VerHagen. Non-roster invitee, Aaron Brooks (not the former quarterback of the Saints). And, my favorite, Packy Naughton.

Yes, Packy is on the 40-man roster. He does have options, though.

There are so many names that I resorted to a spreadsheet to keep it straight.

I just posted that image last week here on VEB and I’ve already had to make pretty significant revisions to it. Jack Flaherty joins Alex Reyes on the IL. Jake Woodford went into his slot in the rotation – we’ll get to that. And Naughton and Brooks occupy a row I’m now calling “Extra RP” for lack of a more creative name.

This is where the 5th starter competition gets interesting.

Jeff Jones is my go-to source for pretty much everything in this article; you should check out his work at the Belleville News-Democrat and @jmjones on Twitter. He has indicated to me that there is a strong chance that the league will open the season with expanded rosters. 28 players instead of 26.

Ah! And conveniently, just as I’m typing this, the news breaks. How fortuitous for my writing rhythm. MLB and the PA have agreed to expand rosters in April from 26 to 28 with no limit on the number of pitchers.

They also agreed to other changes on the year, including the ghost runner for extra-inning contests, 9-inning doubleheaders, and the Ohtani rule (read about it here.)

For April, I am projecting the Cardinals will carry 15 pitchers and 13 batters. Right now I have the aforementioned Brooks and Naughton in those roles as “Extra RP”.

This would require clearing 40-man roster space for Brooks but it shouldn’t prove to be a problem. It seems highly likely that the club will be able to put Alex Reyes on the 60-day IL. Maybe Flaherty, too, but I’m not ready to project that. Such a move would allow space for Brooks to get a 2-month tryout without having to cut anyone else, which the club won’t want to do until the season gets underway.

From there we can better handicap the competition for the starter spot vacated by Flaherty. Here are the likely candidates, listed in what I feel is their current standing in the competition:

1. Jake Woodford – This feels like it is Woodford’s job to lose. Last season, with the rotation in turmoil, Woodford started 8 games for the Cardinals. He posted a good 3.99 ERA overall, with a very average 4.50 FIP. His expected stats – xERA and xFIP – were considerably worse at 4.73 and 5.06 respectively. He performed better as a starter, with a 3.55 FIP and a BB% just under 7. With a low K rate – even in the minors – and a mediocre BB rate, Woodford survives mostly on smoke, mirrors, and a ballpark that suppresses HRs. That alone makes him a viable candidate for a short stint in the Cards’ rotation.

Ironically, I think the longer Flaherty’s injury goes the less chance that Woodford holds this job. Woodford has a -.4 fWAR projection with a 5.44 FIP from ZiPS. Steamer is similarly pessimistic. The Cardinals have their internal projections and they are likely a little more optimistic than Fangraphs. However, they can’t possibly see him as much more than a replacement-level starter, which is exactly what he’s been in his two seasons with the club. For short stints in the rotation, he’s ok. For 32 starts in a year? Ouch.

2. Drew VerHagen – VerHagen started 8 games in his 6 seasons in the major leagues with Detroit. He was mostly a reliever and not a particularly successful one. His ERA is 5.11 career. FIP is a bit better at 4.76. He produced a replacement level .3 fWAR in 199 career MLB innings. That didn’t earn him much opportunity. He left the majors for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Baseball Reference doesn’t list GS – Games Started – for the Japanese League but we can surmise from his innings and games totals that he routinely went 4-6 innings. He had a 3.22 and 3.80 ERA in ’20 and ’21, with a K/9 over 9 and a BB/9 under 3.

The Cardinals love pitchers who can throw strikes and limit HRs. If you can get K’s, all the better. If you can do it from Japan or Korea??? Well, you’re guaranteed a job in St. Louis. The club is very confident in their overseas scouting and for good reason. Drew VerHagen looks an awful lot like Miles Mikolas, with maybe a few more walks. Gut feeling? I think VerHagen would outperform Woodford if both were given 15 starts.

3. Matthew Liberatore – Liberatore’s biggest hurdle is not performance or ability. He has significantly better stuff than anyone on this list so far and certainly those below him. No, his problem is roster space. He’s not on the 40-man roster. And the Cardinals don’t have a compelling reason to kick someone else off the roster to give him his shot out of Spring Training, regardless of how well he performs.

That’s why I have him third in this competition. It’s not about ability. He’s better than the guys above him. By a considerable amount. But he’s also just 22. Even though he’s ready enough for the majors based on what I saw of him last year, it would not hurt him one bit to get more time in the minors, where he only has 235 career innings. Right now, of these four starter candidates, Liberatore has the strongest projections at a league-average 4.33 FIP projection and 1.3 fWAR in 120 innings and 18 starts. The Cardinals’ ballpark and defense only accentuate what he already does well. If Flaherty can’t get back to the mound, I would not be surprised at all if Liberatore ended the season as the Cardinals’ best starter.

4. Aaron Brooks – Stop me when this sounds familiar. Swing starter/reliever spends 4-5 years floundering around replacement level, with a FIP in the low 5’s. Goes overseas – Korea. Becomes a starter for the Kia Tigers. Performs well. Throws strikes. Lots of strikes. Refuses to walk anyone. He catches the eye of Cardinals’ scouts. And now he’s in camp. Unlike VerHagen, Brooks doesn’t have a guaranteed contract.

But he does have a shot at the fifth spot in the rotation. And a pretty decent shot if the Cardinals suffer another injury before camp breaks. Brooks had a 1.4 and 1.7 BB/9 in his two seasons in Korea. Unlike VerHagen he couldn’t generate K’s. He had K/9s of just 7.7 and 6.3. Against weak competition that’s not very encouraging. But since he doesn’t walk anyone and doesn’t give up homers, it could play in St. Louis. I think the Cardinals will at least want to get a look at him, which is why I have him making the roster as the 27th man.

Next in line: Johan Oviedo, Packy Naughton, Angel Rondon, Connor Thomas

Prediction: Jake Woodford will win the spot out of Spring Training based on seniority. Then I think this depends entirely on Jack Flaherty. If Flaherty can return within 6-8 weeks – 2 months or less into the season – then Woodford can hold down that spot about as well as any of the other arms. VerHagen is right there to challenge him if he falters. But I actually prefer to keep that 5th spot fluid early. I don’t really want VerHagen locking it up with a just-better-than-replacement-level projection. I have more permanent long-term plans and a higher level of production in mind.

If Flaherty’s shoulder hasn’t responded by the roster cut down on May 1, or if another starter goes down, talent will start to matter. It’s fine for the Cards to test out their new arms during expanded rosters, but the goal has to be to bridge toward Liberatore. They should shoot for Liberatore to get 15-20 starts or about 1/2 to 2/3rd’s of a season in the rotation. Injury will likely make the space for that to happen. Flaherty won’t be the only starter to go down this season. But I would prefer if those 20’ish starts came later rather than earlier, so he is still at or below the 120-inning mark around the start of the postseason.