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What to Do About the Pitching Depth

The Cardinals are looking internally right now, but that’s to be expected. Prospects and injury returns will get the first chance to fortify the staff, but if more is needed, the Cards shouldn’t hesitate to look externally.

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It feels like at some point every year, and usually way more than once, we’re all talking about “internal improvements”. It may get frustrating to hear it time and time again, especially for those who yell for Mozeliak and DeWitt to spend money. That’s simply the St. Louis Cardinals M.O. If you haven’t heard the term before, then you either live under a rock, live in denial, or maybe don’t live at all.

So, I assume that none of us are surprised that the organization is looking for internal improvements to fortify the pitching staff. At least, they apparently aren’t looking for external improvements, so the term “internal improvements” is implied.

It’s clear that some fortification is needed. I mean, it’s not the smartest idea to throw Gallegos, Helsley, and Pallante until their arms fall off, but it’s also tough to have a lot of confidence when McFarland, Wittgren, and VerHagen are in the game. Even Cabrera isn’t his usual self (18.4% strikeout rate and 5.38 FIP), which leaves the Cards with questionable options against lefties.

With so few reliable arms in the ‘pen it’s a good thing the rotation can pitch deep into games. Except, oh wait, it can’t. There’s only three reliable starters, which leaves a lot of innings to be picked up by the ‘pen. In fact, the Cardinals bullpen has thrown the eighth most innings among major league bullpens. Of the seven teams who have put more innings on their relievers, only two have winning records (Twins and Rays). The other five are Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, and the Chicago Cubs. Not exactly world beaters.

Something needs to change if the Cards want to win games and preserve the arms of their best relievers, and it sounds like “internal improvements” is once again the man for the job.

What does this actually mean, though? Well, it could be one of two things. First, the Cardinals could keep Wittgren and McFarland on the roster for a while and hope they improve while shuffling the last bullpen spot or two around. Option number two is freeing up some roster space, specifically a T.J. McFarland sized space, and testing the young guns.

I prefer option number two, and I’m sure you all do too. Option two seems way better than option one, but is it better than looking at players outside the organization?

I won’t answer that directly, but there is an advantage to it. First off, you of course remember last season when everybody got hurt and the Cards needed pitching depth, but do you remember when McFarland and Garcia were added to the roster? It was July. It’s because few teams are shopping anyone this far before the trade deadline.

That can work in the Cardinals’ favor, or at least in the favor of the talented arms in Memphis. If all the Cardinals can do at this point is bring in guys off the scrap heap like they did last year, then it makes sense to let the young guys take the first shot. I’m siding with Zack Thompson over a shaky veteran lefty, for instance.

There has been plenty of talk about the Cardinals needing to find right-handers who can get outs, but they also need a reliable southpaw because T.J. McFarland is borderline unusable if the game is within four runs.

Maybe Zack Thompson can be that guy. He threw four innings on Friday with a fastball that regularly touched 96 and a curveball that averaged almost 2900 rpms. A few bad starts in Triple-A raised his ERA to 4.67, but his 3.98 FIP and 3.66 xFIP are much more encouraging. Why not give him a chance? I would rather bet on him than on McFarland or anyone else the Cards can find on the scrap heap.

Perhaps it would be better for his development to stay in the Memphis rotation, but the bullpen needs help now. If he can pitch effectively at the major league level, then he should stay, at least for now. If he goes back to Memphis, then perhaps Packy Naughton can be the second lefty in the ‘pen. Beyond that, Connor Thomas could also provide help, but I would rather him stay in the Memphis rotation and develop as a starter.

For right-handed help, Jake Walsh, Junior Fernandez, and Angel Rondon should all be options. Walsh because he’s dominated Triple-A, and Fernandez and Rondon because they are on the 40-man and easy to move.

All that goes to say that the team has options. They don’t need to stick with underperforming veterans.

There could be an argument that the Cards did a bad job of building up pitching depth this offseason. You don’t need to look any further than Saturday’s doubleheader for proof of that since the team had to use Johan Oviedo and give Andre Pallante his first ever big league start to get through the day. I don’t think that’s a sign of poor depth, though. Those were the Cardinals’ choice for eighth and ninth starter. They only made one start each, and that was in a pinch. Neither may start another game for the rest of the season.

Eighth and Ninth starters are eighth and ninth starters either because they aren’t good or they aren’t proven. That’s the case here. The Cards threw the pair into the fire and came out with a win. It wasn’t always pretty but it was one day with two games in the middle of a long stretch of games. These things happen over the course of the year.

The real problem is that the Cards haven’t been able to find reliable sixth or seventh starters. The hope was that Hicks or Libby could step in, but that hasn’t been the case. Instead, only 3 out of every 5 games have had a starting pitcher capable of pitching deep enough into games to not overtax the bullpen.

Flaherty has been out since the start of the regular season, but Matz has been out since May 22nd. Prior to the Matz injury, the pitching staff had a 3.70 ERA and 4.14 FIP. After the Matz injury, the ERA rose to 4.19 and the FIP to 4.85. Matz may be hit or miss, but the Cards need a rotation arm, and he can at least go deeper than Hicks and Naughton (usually).

Obviously, other things have happened since the Matz injury that haven’t helped. Things like Kodi Whitley and Nick Wittgren falling off a cliff come to mind. Still, the team needs help in the rotation and nobody has been able to step up and fill the void.

The team had rotation options at the beginning of the year, but they all flopped. It was thought that Aaron Brooks and Drew VerHagen could potentially help in the rotation but they haven’t even been effective in the bullpen. There was an idea that Hicks and Libby could help, but they haven’t, at least not yet. Jake Woodford apparently doesn’t have enough trust from the organization to be thrust into a starting role, and the team hasn’t yet given Connor Thomas a chance in the big league rotation.

All of that is depth, but none of it has helped.

I expect that part of the reason why the Cards aren’t going shopping right now (besides the fact that it’s early June) is because they know they will get better soon. Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz are both close to making rehab appearances, and when they come back, they will help everything. The other reason they aren’t shopping is because nobody who can help is really for sale yet.

Right now, the Cardinals really have three reliable starters - Waino, Mikolas, and Hudson. When Flaherty and Matz come back, Hicks can move to the ‘pen and become a much-needed source of outs later in games. This improves both the bullpen and the rotation at the same time

Still, that makes them just one injury away from having a hole in the rotation again. If there is another key injury, I think a trade will (and should) absolutely be on the table.

If the pitching staff doesn’t improve, then expect the Cards to shop at the deadline. They may be patient, but they aren’t blind. If they need help, they’ll find it.

It’s not time to panic with this pitching staff, but there should be some slight concern. Help is on the horizon, which is great, but the staff also has the sixth worst FIP in the league, slightly better than Colorado and slightly worse than Pittsburgh. That’s not great company.

The staff also needs help everywhere as the Cards have the sixth higher bullpen FIP and the sixth highest rotation FIP. Both ERAs are above average, at least, at 13th in both regards.

Still, the bones of a good staff are there. Gallegos and Helsley are quite the one-two punch. Pallante has been great as a rookie. Waino is still slinging despite his age and Mikolas has bounced back well. Even Hudson keeps overcoming his decidedly average FIP.

Now the team just needs to get healthy and build on the bright spots. That means trimming away the deadweight and replacing it with producers. The team will look internally for those producers first, but if they don’t find them, then they must look outside the organization, because the other half of the team is too good to be wasted.

The Cardinals are fifth in fWAR among position players, 10th in wRC+ and one of the best defensive teams in the league. With a better pitching staff, this team could be a serious threat. Let’s see how much improvement can be provided with better health and young players, but if it’s not enough then the team needs to look externally as the deadline approaches.