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Transaction Catch-Up 6/3/22: Cards Say Hello to Oviedo and Thompson in Another Pitching Shuffle

MLB: 2022 St. Louis Media Day USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cards announced the following transactions since my May 23rd article:

5/26/22: Placed RHP Jordan Hicks on the 15-day IL (strained right forearm flexor), retroactive to May 25th. Optioned RHP Junior Fernandez and C Ivan Herrera to AAA Memphis. Recalled RHP Kodi Whitley and RHP Jake Woodford from AAA Memphis. Activated C Yadier Molina from the Bereavement/Family Medical Emergency List. Released RHP T.J. Zeuch.

5/30/22: Optioned RHP Jake Woodford to AAA Memphis. Recalled LHP Packy Naughton from AAA Memphis.

6/3/22: Optioned LHP Matthew Liberatore and RHP Kodi Whitley to AAA Memphis. Recalled RHP Johan Oviedo from AAA Memphis. Selected the contract of LHP Zack Thompson from AAA Memphis. To make room on the 40-man roster, designated IF Kramer Robertson for assignment. 40-man roster still full.

The Jordan Hicks experiment as a starter has not worked out. He’s walked about 16% of the batters he has faced in nine games and seven starts. In his most recent outing against the Blue Jays on March 24th, it took him 78 pitches to get through three innings, and he walked five batters. He got removed in the top of the fourth inning of that game after failing to retire a batter and surrendering two walks and a homer. Although Hicks has a strikeout rate that’s right around league average this year, he’s never had much swing-and-miss in his game, and this year, batters have barreled him up quite nicely. This injury is supposed to be minor compared to the other ailments Hicks has suffered, but manager Oli Marmol indicated to the media that Hicks might not have pitched out of the rotation in what would have been his next scheduled start. He’ll go on a rehab assignment at the appropriate time to work on his command.

Packy Naughton was recalled to take Hicks’s next turn in the rotation, but was used as an opener. Although he went only 2.1 IP, he had a solid outing on May 30th against the Padres, allowing two hits, but walking none and striking out four. He’s still on the club right now, and while his next regular turn would be in one of the games of the doubleheader tomorrow, the club has not announced a starter for either game. Jake Woodford was optioned to make room for Naughton, and Marmol acknowledged that Woodford was pitching better than some other pitchers that were left on the club. Part of it I’m sure had to do with timing, as Woodford pitched three innings in relief of Matthew Liberatore’s May 28th start against the Brewers. Woodford’s metrics aren’t eye-popping. He’s got a below-average strikeout rate, but as he’s focused on a sinker/slider combination this season, he’s kept the ball on the ground at an above-average rate and hasn’t been burned with the long-ball. His walk rate is also slightly better than the MLB average. Marmol told the press that Woodford needed to work on his slider, which Fangraphs rates as his best pitch by far according to its pitch values metric. Woodford is the most likely candidate to be added as the 27th man to start one of the doubleheader games tomorrow.

Liberatore had been recalled after his earlier spot start to take Steven Matz’s place in the rotation. His first try against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 28th went fine, as he allowed only two hits and no runs in five innings pitched, albeit with three walks. Last night’s start against the Cubs, however, threw his numbers all out of whack, and it was not a good performance. Everything seemed like it was right down the middle of the plate, and the Cubs torched him with three homers, and he allowed another three walks to go along with only one strikeout. This article is not the place to take an extended deep dive into Liberatore’s pitches, but it is interesting to note that he’s thrown his two fastballs, sinker and four-seamer, more than any other pitch. Just a cursory glance at his numbers suggests that he really ought to ditch the four-seamer and focus on the sinker. Not only has he not been able to command the four-seamer, but it’s been crushed and the expected stats on it are in the stratosphere. His sinker has actually been hit hard too, but at least he’s been able to keep the ball on the ground with the pitch. The fact that Liberatore was optioned initially suggested that Matz would take his next turn in the rotation, but Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat tweeted that Matz indeed will make a rehab start first, and another pitcher will have to take his turn in the Tampa Bay series. The option thus confirms that Liberatore was sent down for more seasoning.

Whitley was optioned on May 11th after he struggled with his control. He pitched three games since his May 26th recall, and has walked more men than he has struck out. There might be other pitchers who are performing worse who don’t have minor league options, but that’s not the way to keep a bullpen job. Whitley couldn’t finish the top of the 9th against the Padres with a 5-1 lead on June 1st, and after a homer, single and two walks allowed, the club had to call on Nick Wittgren to get the save. It might not have been the best idea to bring Whitley in last night with the bases loaded on no rest with the club down 5-3, and it backfired, as Whitley walked in a run and allowed a sacrifice fly to the next man to extend the Cubs’ lead. With both Whitley and Wittgren pitching on back-to-back days, the club needs some more arms.

To restock, the club has summoned two pitchers in Johan Oviedo and Zack Thompson, who have been in the AAA Memphis rotation all year. Most of you know the story with Oviedo, I’m sure. He was pressed into service in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season before he was ready, showed some flashes with a hard but straight fastball, and didn’t pitch that well in five starts. He didn’t start 2021 with the big club, but ended up making 13 starts as the club experimented with a six-man rotation and Daniel Ponce de Leon lost his rotation job. Oviedo posted poor peripherals in the majors last season with a double digit walk rate and a very small spread between his walk and strikeout rates. So far this season, Oviedo has been destroyed by 14 homers in just 50 innings pitched for Memphis. To be fair, his HR/FB rate is 28%, which sounds ridiculously high, but his rate at AAA last year was 21%. The ballparks Memphis plays in play into it, but of course, Memphis has had other starters who have pitched in the same environment and haven’t gotten lit up to that degree. Oviedo’s other peripherals are right around where they have been historically in the minors, which would rate as decent, with a walk rate higher than you’d like as a starter.

Given that Oviedo has struggled and the club seemed committed to leaving him in AAA Memphis to stretch out as a starter, one could fairly wonder why the Cards recalled him. That answer, in part lies in the roster rules. Pitchers now have to stay on option for 15 days. Jake Walsh was optioned on May 21st, Angel Rondon was optioned on May 23rd, Junior Fernandez was optioned on May 26th and Jake Woodford was just optioned on May 30th. With Liberatore and Whitley just optioned, Oviedo is the only other available 40-man roster pitcher besides Freddy Pacheco. Pacheco has struck out over 30% of the batters he’s faced with AA Springfield, but he does have a double-digit walk rate, and the club is not prepared to have him skip AAA Memphis at this time. In addition, he’s been used as the closer, finishing 15 games without right around one inning per appearance. The club is more interested in long relief for the upcoming series.

To round out the rest of the pitching staff, the Cards have added Zack Thompson to the 40-man and active rosters. Along with Matthew Liberatore, Thompson skipped AA last season and jumped straight to AAA after the 2020 minor league season was cancelled. Unlike Liberatore, Thompson did not take to the level well, struggling mightily to a FIP of over 6, with poor peripherals. Two years older than Liberatore, Thompson turned things around in a hurry this season. In 10 starts, he’s ratcheted his strikeout rate to over 30% from 18.5%, cut down the homers, greatly reduced the walks and increased his groundball rate. When Liberatore’s contract was selected earlier in May, there were some that thought Thompson should have been the one to get the call.

Now that both Oviedo and Thompson are here, the question is what role the two will serve, and what choices the club makes with the rotation. With Liberatore demoted and Matz still on the IL, there are a couple of spots available. The club has still not announced starters for tomorrow, but it is expected that Jake Woodford will be added as the 27th man for the doubleheader and take one of the games with a spot start. Naughton took the Hicks spot last time and that spot is open for tomorrow, as well. The Matz spot occupied by Liberatore will come back up on either June 7th or June 8th, and the Cards will need someone to cover that. Jeff Jones tweeted before the game that both Oviedo and Thompson would be available to pitch out of the bullpen today, but at least one of them are candidates for further rotation work. The club has also talked about using Andre Pallante, who has been used in both short and long relief this season, as a starter. Naughton is still in the mix. A lot will probably depend on how deep Miles Mikolas can get into today’s game with the Cubs. Long term after Matz gets back, there’s definitely one job up for grabs. It remains to be seen who will seize it.

To make room for Thompson on the 40-man roster, the club designated Kramer Robertson for assignment. They will have 7 days to either trade him, release him or assign his contract outright to the minor leagues. We had to rely on Goold, Jones and the other media for the information for this move, as the Cards didn’t post it on Twitter or their home page. The move wasn’t surprising. The club is not ready to ditch their 40-man pitchers just yet, and Robertson has no right to elect free agency if outrighted.

BULLPEN

Cabrera (L), Gallegos (R), Helsley (R), McFarland (L), Oviedo (R), Pallante (R), Thompson (L), VerHagen (R), Wittgren (R)