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The Pitching Factory Is Still Churning

After a one year reprieve, the Cardinals are back to churning out pitchers. Andre Pallante is the most recent example, but there are more on the way.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Remember when the St. Louis Cardinals traded for J.A. Happ and Jon Lester last year and brought in T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia and Wade LeBlanc as reinforcements? Many of us were (rightfully) frustrated by a staff that couldn’t seem to throw strikes and the lack of reinforcements to that staff.

The reinforcements eventually came from the scrap heap, but it was curious that a team well-known for it’s ability to churn pitching depth through the system was unable to find quality help from Memphis.

Don’t let this make you think the Cards have lost their edge on developing pitchers. I mean, just look at how many talented, homegrown pitchers are on the roster this year. In the ‘pen, Ryan Helsley, Andre Pallante, and Kodi Whitley all came from the draft. Jake Woodford is the same. And let’s also not forget about Alex Reyes even though he’s hurt again.

Each of Helsley, Pallante (if he stays in St. Louis), and Whitley look like they could have key bullpen roles this year. Giovanny Gallegos is the go to closer/stopper and Genesis Cabrera is the top lefty, but this talented trio of homegrown prospects will fill out the rest of the key bullpen roles.

Of the three, Pallante was drafted earliest, being selected in the 4th round. Helsley was taken in the 5th, and Whitley in the 27th round, which no longer exists. None of these guys were early round picks.

In the rotation both Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks are homegrown in recent years after being selected early in their respective drafts.

That’s five homegrown players in the pitching staff with key roles and it’ll be six when Reyes comes back. That’s pretty good. I’m not as confident about Woodford but he has every chance of becoming a contributor.

So, the Cardinals have done a pretty good job of developing arms in the recent past, but there were legitimate concerns after last season that pitching might not be the strength of the system anymore.

Some national outlets were more concerned about the Cardinals system as a whole than usual. For instance, Baseball America ranked the Cardinals system 18th in their annual organizational talent rankings. This was at the beginning of the year after the depth issues were exposed in 2021.

From 2017-2021, the organization ranked between 11th and 14th every year, which is typical Cardinals — in the top half but closer to the middle than the top.

Dropping down to 18th is significant and I think that’s too low. This is a really underrated system, especially in the pitching department. I was slightly concerned about the system last year, but nobody really knew what to expect after a lost season. A decline to 18th feels like too much punishment.

I understand the ranking considering last season, but a lot of pitchers have really put themselves on the map. For instance, Zack Thompson looks like a completely different pitcher this year. He has a 3.67 FIP and 2.96 xFIP through his first 20 innings while seeing a massive jump in strikeout rate (18.5% in 2021 to 30.8%) and slashing his walk rate (12.8% in 2021 to 2.6%).

You would excused for becoming lukewarm on Thompson after he had an ugly 7.06 ERA and 6.15 FIP last year. Don’t forget that he was a first round pick, though. He simply had a lot of challenges last year. He jumped to Triple-A after throwing just 15 professional innings in his career and he saw his velocity dip below 90 at times.

He looks much more like the first round pick version of himself this year. I think he faded from a lot of people’s radar last year, but he is putting himself firmly back in the picture with his strong start to the season.

He isn’t the only promising arm in Triple-A though. Matthew Liberatore and Connor Thomas have picked up where they left off last year, and Johan Oviedo, and Angel Rondon both have major league experience.

Libby (3.70 FIP, 3.20 xFIP) and Thomas (3.46 FIP, 3.36 xFIP) are likely nearing debuts considering their strong results last year and early this season. Libby’s strikeout rate has jumped up to 31.5% while his walk rate has dipped to 5.6%. Thomas has also shown excellent control (4.7% walk rate) while getting ground balls on two-thirds of the batted balls against him. Oviedo and Rondon were once more highly touted prospects, and though they have lost some of their prospect luster, they shouldn’t be counted out.

That’s a solid group of arms who should be pushing for spots in St. Louis in the near future.

Liberatore will likely get the first chance to claim a rotation spot (perhaps if Adam Wainwright retires), but Connor Thomas is also going to be a major league pitcher. I’m expecting him to debut this year.

These two, along with Andre Pallante, give the Cardinals three strong rotation candidates in the near future. There aren’t going to be spots for all of them, but that’s a good sign that the pitching factory is still going strong.

Jake Walsh, who had a long Spring Training stint, should also make his debut this year and he’s been lights out in 10 Triple-A innings so far. He looks ticketed for a bullpen role soon, especially considering that he’s on the 40-man roster

The solid pitching doesn’t stop end in Triple-A either. Michael McGreevy (High-A), Gordon Graceffo (High-A), Dionys Rodriguez (High-A), and Inohan Paniagua (Single-A) are all good starting pitching prospects. Graceffo, specifically, put himself on the map this Spring when he came to camp and touched 100. He has then dominated in his first four High-A starts, so he could be looking at an early promotion to Double-A soon.

This isn’t a bad system at all. It wasn’t great last year and that showed on the field with poor team performances across the board. The lost 2020 season made it tough for prospects to develop and many were took big jumps across levels to make up for the lost time. For proof, simply look at Liberatore and Thompson who both skipped High-A and Double-A.

The system has recovered, though, and It’s certainly not a below average system (as rated by Baseball America). It’s underrated because of the struggles in 2021 but individual bright spots have expanded into depth and talent that is set to contribute at the major league level soon.

The bats in the system get the most attention, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals don’t have pitching. Sure, Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Ivan Herrera and Juan Yepez are all exciting, and there’s been plenty of talk about Gorman considering his hot start to the season and DeJong’s flailing, but the pitching doesn’t get enough love.

The organization has done a great job of developing middle round pitchers into solid prospects. This is the case for Thomas, Walsh, Graceffo, and others. This is perhaps why the farm system is so underrated. Besides the struggles last year, there is simply a large group of solid arms. Guys like Connor Thomas, who tops out in the low 90s, are never going to get much love from national outlets. He’s a control guy who gets groundballs and mixes pitches, so basically he’s someone who’s built to fly under the radar.

Gordon Graceffo seems to be at the start of a breakout season, so it will take a bit before he gets more attention. Zack Thompson is turning things around this year after a forgetful performance last year. Dionys Rodriguez had a quietly strong season in 2021 and Paniagua is still emerging.

Just because there isn’t a ton of national attention on the pitching pipeline, doesn’t mean it’s bad. The Cardinals system is always a bit underrated because they never get high-end first round picks. Rather they pick in the early 20s every round and do a great job of squeezing every ounce of production possible from middle round guys.

The Cardinals have a lot of good pitching on the way, Between Libby, Thomas, and Walsh, there is MLB-ready pitching depth that can contribute if/when injuries happen. This should help them avoid a similar scenario to last year.

This offseason, the Cardinals felt the need to bring in pitching depth, which was wise, but there will soon be a glut of minor league pitchers ready for big league roles. It’s never a bad thing to have lower end guys like VeHagen, Brooks, McFarland, and Wittgren to give yourself some depth, but it would be nice if those spots could go to promising pitching prospects instead. This may be the case soon.

If all goes well, Thompson, Liberatore, Thomas, Walsh, and maybe others will be ready to compete for a job next Spring. It’s still incredibly early, but Graceffo is someone who could follow Pallante’s path. Both pitchers saw their velocity and overall stuff take a jump after being drafted and both have come on strong early in their careers. I am expecting to see Graceffo move to Double-A this year and probably pitch in the Arizona Fall League this fall, just like Pallante did last fall.

It’s way too early to bet on that happening, but it’s certainly possible, even if it is a best case scenario. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but I do think this year will be a breakout season for Graceffo. He is currently ranked outside of the top 10 Cardinals prospects, according to Baseball America, but that should change soon.

There was a gap in the pitching pipeline but guys like Graceffom, McGreevy, Rodriguez, and Connor Lunn are helping to fill that gap.

There were legitimate concerns about pitching depth and the state of the minor league system last year, but that was simply a one year anomaly, not the breaking of a trend. The Cardinals always have a solid farm system, and they have always churned out solid pitchers, and that is true this year as well.

Don’t let last year cloud your vision of this year’s prospects. The pitching is strong in the system and I expect to see quite a few homegrown arms join the major league staff in the next few years.