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Time Is Winding Down for the Veterans

With rookies bearing the load and veterans underperforming, some players may soon be at the end of the road. I take a look at how much time they have left and what the Cardinals’ options are.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Hey guys! I’m back from my honeymoon in Sedona, Arizona and ready to dive into some St. Louis Cardinals baseball again. I haven’t paid much attention to the Cards this past week because, well, you know, a wedding and honeymoon is a bit more important.

With that being said, it’s been impossible for me to not notice Gorman crushing it and the other rookies solidifying their roles. Heck, Andre Pallante even got his first win last night. it’s been great to see these guys help steer the team in the right direction and give some much needed production, but on the other hand, it’s been impossible not to notice the struggles of fringe veterans like McFarland, Dickerson, Wittgren.

I know we’ve all seen it, but it’s fair to wonder how much time these players have left. Take McFarland for example. Can you really keep throwing a guy who has a 7.23 ERA in almost 20 innings? This is why he was given a cheap, one-year deal. He was great in St. Louis last season but he had a lot of red flags. He’s obviously not the same pitcher, and his contract makes him easy to get rid of. That was kind of the point of bargain bin bullpen shopping.

The team has to run out of patience at some point. When you don’t get groundballs and you can’t get outs against lefties and you were signed to get groundballs and get outs against lefties, the future doesn’t look too rosy. Left-handed hitters have a .482 wOBA against McFarland this year and his groundball rate has dropped to 51.6% (it was 63.7% in 2021). Not great.

The only other lefty reliever is Genesis Cabrera, though, so McFarland would need to be replaced with another lefty instead of Jake Woodford or Jake Walsh. Perhaps Packy Naughton should get an extended look. He’s performed admirably when called upon and he can’t be worse. Hopefully. Maybe Connor Thomas or Zack Thompson get a look, but that feels premature.

McFarland can’t have much time left. Another bad outing and the team may make a change, especially since Naughton had a decent outing yesterday. Greg Holland got 32 appearances before he was cut, but he was also getting paid $14 million. McFarland is at 17 appearances with a $2.5 million contract. He doesn’t have the luxury of a big contract.

If he doesn’t turn it around soon, I expect the Cards to move on. Genesis Cabrera can’t be the only trustworthy lefty in the bullpen. That’s a recipe for overuse. Something needs to give soon - either McFarland finds his 2021 form or Packy becomes the Cardinal legend that his name deserves.

For as bad as McFarland has been, the bigger problem is finding right-handed outs in the ‘pen. Marmol admitted as much recently.

https://twitter.com/jmjones/status/1531368592037625856

For some reason, I am unable to embed the link into the article, so now you all have to click the link to read Jeff Jones’s tweet. You can thank me later for making your lives harder because this won’t be the only link in the article.

Basically, Jeff Jones reported that Marmol has talked about the difficulty the Cards have had in finding reliable righty relievers not named Gallegos, Helsley, or Pallante.

Nick Wittgren and Drew VerHagen are a HUGE reason why. The pair have been worth -0.5 fWAR in 30 23 innings while occupying two roster spots that could be going to (at least) replacement level arms. Technically, VeHagen hasn’t been that bad in terms of run prevention as his 3.65 ERA is acceptable. That’s about the only good thing I can say about him, though, since his FIP and xFIP are both around 6, and he’s walked as many batters as he has struck out (8).

Wittgren has pitched more than VerHagen and his 5.40 ERA and similarly bad FIP and xFIP don’t inspire much confidence. He also has more walks and hit by pitches (12) than strikeouts (9). Again, it’s not hard to imagine how much better the Redbirds’ bullpen would be with the two Jakes instead (Woodford and Walsh).

Who’s ready for another tweet that won’t embed? You’re welcome.

https://twitter.com/jmjones/status/1531314870657994754

Here, Jeff Jones reported a quote from Marmol, who stated that Woodford has outperformed several arms still on the roster. I love the bluntness from Marmol, and it makes it easy to wonder how long Woodford will need to be sacrificed before the team cuts bait with underperforming veterans.

There is some wisdom to keeping these veterans around in case of injury and turnarounds, but there is also wisdom in getting ahead of usage issues. If the team only has three reliable right-handers then it’s easy to overuse them. Getting guys like Woodford and Walsh into the mix soon could help alleviate that problem.

However, I don’t think the team is going to move on from Wittgren or VerHagen immediately, considering that Wittgren leads the team in appearances and VerHagen at least has a decent ERA and has only made 8 appearances.

Wittgren has only gone downhill recently, surrendering nine runs in his last nine innings and five runs in his last four innings. The team may give him a chance to get out of his funk and see if he can be more like the pitcher he was at the beginning of the year when he allowed just two runs in his first 11 appearances.

Much like the situation with the lefties in the ‘pen, something has to give. Wittgren and VerHagen need to improve or the Cards need to find pitchers who can help.

Jake Walsh may have had a bad last outing, but he’s dominated in Triple-A and recorded 5 of his 8 outs at the major league level via strikeout. The other Jake has a 2.25 ERA and 3.82 FIP. He’s certainly not a bad option either.

The team’s problem last year was that when it needed more arms early in the season, it had no one to promote and no one was on the market. This year, the Cards have plenty of options. They don’t need to wait until the trade deadline or look to the bargain bin. Instead, they can simply replace underperforming arms with Triple-A arms. That’s a good spot to be in and it allows the team to be aggressive.

Wittgren is more likely to fall by the wayside than VerHagen. His $1.2 million contract expires after this season while VerHagen has a two year deal. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

The trio of McFarland, Wittgren, and VerHagen have combined for -0.8 fWAR. If they don’t improve soon, the Cardinals will need to find production elsewhere. Marmol’s comment about Woodford demonstrates that the Cardinals are self aware and realize that players like Woodford deserve to be in the bigs over players like Wittgren and McFarland. Woodford is a victim of the fact that he still has option years left, but that may not be the case much longer.

This is not only true of the pitching staff. It’s also painfully obvious with Corey Dickerson. The veteran outfielder has already accrued -0.7 fWAR. To put that in perspective, it’s slightly more than Brendan Donovan’s fWAR on the season (0.6), except in the opposite direction and it puts him in the bottom 10 of all major league hitters this year.

Dickerson literally has a 34 wRC+ and it seems that his time on the roster is winding down. That would allow Lars Nootbaar to be the clear 4th outfielder, though Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez are also seeing plenty of time in the grass. Dickerson is simply not needed on this roster. Even if injuries happen and another outfielder is needed, Alec Burleson and his 159 wRC+ in Triple-A should suffice.

Honestly, I expect Dickerson to be the first one off the roster. The only other player giving him competition is McFarland, but Dickerson is most clearly the player who can be dumped without risk of losing depth or talent. I would expect the right handers in the ‘pen to last longer, but they are certainly on notice.

Don’t be surprised if Dickerson and McFarland don’t make it past the middle of June. There is simply no reason to be running out a massive negative (Dickerson) when there are so many above average hitters who can take his place.

On the left-handed pitching side, there isn’t as much depth, but Packy Naughton should be better than McFarland. Zack Thompson and Connor Thomas could both come up from Memphis if needed, but I (and probably the organization too) would like to see them keep developing in the Triple-A rotation, especially since neither is dominating.

All Cardinals fans are getting frustrated with underperforming veterans, but it’s good to have reasonable expectations. If there’s anything we have learned over the years, the Cards don’t just cut a player loose when they are struggling early in the season. It often takes more time than most fans want it to. Still, the writing is on the wall for Dickerson and it’s getting there for McFarland too.

Besides that, expect a little more patience with the right-handed pitchers. VerHagen will need to pitch more before the team gives up on him and Wittgren won’t be tossed aside so easily after leading the team in appearances in the early going.

That’s it for my first piece back from a great break. Thanks for reading! It feels great to be back at the keyboard and watching the Cardinals again! I’ll be back on my regular rotation now, so come back on Sunday (and every other day) for some more reading and discussion.