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Cards Have to Trust Someone ... or Just Make a Move Already

Matz is down for a while and the Cardinals’ rotation has its back against the wall. It’s decision time.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Lauren Bacho/Getty Images

5 and 13 innings.

That’s how much production the Cardinals got out of the second-half savior of their starting rotation in his return to action on Saturday.

Steven Matz looked pretty good. He K’d 7. He only walked 1. He did give up 2 runs. It was tracking toward the kind of start the Cards expected from him when they signed him to a 4/$44M contract in the offseason. It was the kind of start they will need from him to make a second-half run to reclaim the tight NL Central.

One infield chopper by Joey Votto and an awkward attempt to make a defensive play, and that’s it.

Matz had an MRI on Sunday, revealing a tear in his MCL. It’s expected to keep him out for at least several weeks. One report has him out for as much as 4-6 weeks.

Either way, his injury removes him from the Cardinals’ rotation beyond the trade deadline and forces John Mozeliak and the Cardinals into a position they likely wanted to avoid.

They either have to trust someone they don’t seem to want to trust with the 5th rotation spot. Or they have to make a trade (and the sooner the better.)

The Cardinals entered the season with a pretty obvious philosophical approach to constructing a rotation: gather as many marginal starters as possible so you always have someone to go to when a player gets hurt.

It makes sense. In a vacuum. Or on an analytics spreadsheet.

(Hey, I’m not throwing shade here. I’m one of those analytics guys and you’ve seen the number of spreadsheets I’ve used in many of these analysis articles.)

Let’s just stop for a minute a do a little roster math in that regard. Let’s take a loose definition of a starter, calling them “a pitcher who came into Spring Training stretched out to throw multiple innings and had a shot – however remote – at the rotation at some point.”

How many “starters” (by this definition) did the Cardinals have available to them when they entered camp? I’ll list them in something resembling their pecking order back in February:

Jack Flaherty
Adam Wainwright
Miles Mikolas
Steven Matz
Dakota Hudson

Jake Woodford
Alex Reyes
Jordan Hicks
Drew VerHagen
Matthew Liberatore
Aaron Brooks
Johan Oviedo
Packy Naughton
Zack Thompson
Andre Pallante
Connor Thomas
Angel Rondon

That’s 17 arms. 17 pitchers stretched out enough to potentially find their way to the rotation if such a demand called for it.

Of course, some didn’t make it very far. Connor Thomas held on for a while during the spring, but a full 40-man denied him any serious look at the MLB roster. Now he’s somewhat forgotten. (Not by me, though. You can hear my interview with him right here on VEB.) Aaron Brooks got a brief look in the bullpen before getting DFA’ed. He pretty clearly didn’t have the stuff to compete for a rotation spot. Thompson needed time to improve on his poor post-COVID 2021 showing in AAA and was shifted to the bullpen where he’s proven very useful. Rondon was always there as a “break in case of emergency” arm but he was rarely used and is now out of the organization.

The Cards probably didn’t expect much from any of those arms back in the spring. They did from others who have only disappointed. Alex Reyes got hurt in the first moments of spring. Jack Flaherty went down about the same time. Jordan Hicks has been on and off the IL. Steven Matz hasn’t been the stabilizer that the club desired him to be. Drew VerHagen has had at least two stints on the IL and has been shockingly ineffective in between.

With those kinds of numbers, though, Oli Marmol and Mike Maddux still had some arms to choose from.

The quantity of arms has not been the problem.

The quality has.

As I sit here trying to find the right adjective to describe the Cardinals’ rotation, the best one I can come up with is “meandering.”

Three rotation spots have been secure all season, at least in terms of consistent availability (if not consistent production). Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, and Dakota Hudson have all made more than 18 starts this season.

The Cardinals have filled the other two rotation spots with 8 different starters to get to a total of 40 starts. Here’s the list:

Steven Matz – 10
Andrew Pallante – 8
Jordan Hicks – 8
Matthew Liberatore – 6
Packy Naughton – 3
Jack Flaherty – 3
Johan Oviedo – 1
Zack Thompson – 1

That’s a total of 161 innings in those 40 starts – roughly 4 innings per outing. Production from those two spots? .1 fWAR.

That’s the thing with accumulating a large quantity of poor-quality starters.

Can they pitch? Yes.

Can you cycle them in and out as injury, roster mechanisms, and the schedule demands? Yes.

Can you get anything more than replacement level production from them? Typically, no.

That’s what the Cardinals have done. They’ve “meandered” their way through their depth chart searching for something more from somebody who probably isn’t capable of much more.

In taking this approach no one player has had a long enough look to really prove what they are and what they can do over an extended look. And the continual pitcher churn has certainly impacted the availability of arms for the bullpen.

To take this metaphor to its proper conclusion, when you don’t have a clear path toward your destination, you don’t really have much hope of reaching it without getting lost along the way.

That's meandering.

Let’s just take Jake Woodford as an example. For Mike Shildt, Woodford made 9 starts spread over two seasons and pitched 88.2 innings. He wasn’t great, but he did produce a 4.36 ERA. His ERA was 3.99 last year and the club exited the 2021 season talking about him as a possible rotation contender this year.

That never went anywhere. In ’22, he has just 20 innings on the year in 11 outings, almost all early in the season. He has an ERA just barely above 3.00 and has spent most of the season at AAA.

The club’s reasoning for banishing Woodford to Memphis was that he needed to continue to refine his breaking pitches if he wanted to find sustained success at the MLB level. That makes sense.

It’s an issue of trust.

Woodford’s stuff is marginal. Marmol trusts the analytics when they tell him that, and, therefore, he doesn’t trust Woodford to consistently produce at a quality level. So, he’s not in the rotation and off the roster.

Is that a bad decision? Nope. It’s one I rather like. It’s a bit refreshing.

But let’s keep going.

What about Liberatore? I had Liberatore pegged in that same rookie role as Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty, and Luke Weaver entering the season. The Cardinals would make plans not to use him and when the inevitable injuries happened, Liberatore would be there to slide in and take 15-25 starts with MLB average production. That’s what his projections said he could provide.

I think I overestimated the club’s confidence in him after a very solid 2021 season and his ability to translate his skills to the majors. Despite all the rotation flux, Liberatore has just 6 abbreviated starts. In those starts, he’s pitched like a 22-year-old, alternating between good and bad outings. And his bad outings have been bad.

Why should the Cardinals’ rookie manager trust him? He shouldn’t.

This lack of trust showed in Liberatore’s final outing in Philly before being demoted with Matz’s return imminent. Marmol knew the lineup and Philadelphia’s HR trends. He didn’t trust Lib to start there. So, he opted for Hicks, who lost his rotation spot following an injury earlier in the season, as an opener with Lib set to follow him. Then, when Hicks was inconsistent (as he consistently is), it was Oviedo (and his 6.7+ FIP in AAA) who got the call as the second man up before finally giving away to Liberatore for a shortened outing. None of that went well.

Marmol simply doesn’t trust him. Part of that is certainly based on the available analytics. Part is on performance. Part is on wanting to protect a young asset.

I could move on down the line, giving reasons why the club doesn’t trust every other starter on the list above.

But, and hear me on this one, someone has to take these innings.

Because of the way this roster is constructed that someone is going to be someone that hasn’t, can’t, and won’t make analytical or good ol’ common baseball sense.

Marmol can’t and shouldn’t trust any of these guys. But someone has to make the starts.

Maybe a better way to say this is that while Marmol keeps trying to find a way to make a good decision, he has to realize no good decisions remain. There is no one to trust. So, make the rotation decision for the fifth spot that you can live with and then live with it so that the rest of the roster can settle itself down.

Whether that decision is Woodford and his poor breaking stuff. Or Liberatore and his immature inconsistency. Or Oviedo and his very poor history as a starter. Or Hicks and his inability to go beyond a few innings. Or Thompson and his lack of endurance since he’s been in the pen. Or… or… or…

That brings me to Andre Pallante. He’s got his own set of “or’s.”

Pallante has been bad as a starter. He has an ERA and FIP over 4.5 since he left the bullpen. He has K’ed less than 6 batters per 9 and walked over 3. He’s been a replacement-level starter in the rotation and the peripherals don’t point toward much improvement coming.

Throw him into that group above and I would say, “Or Pallante and his peripherals that point toward imminent implosion.” (I wrote all that before his Tuesday night start... which changes some of the stats but only further illustrates the point.)

He has obvious flaws that the analytics department is surely picking up on. But Marmol has decided to trust him anyway. Or at least live with him even as he struggles in a role that’s simply too much for him at this point in his development.

He’s not a good solution for the #4 spot. But he is a solution.

Now find the same thing for the #5 spot. Trust someone.

Or come up with an outside alternative.

That’s where we shift our attention to Mozeliak and the front office.

If the analytics imply that these arms are trouble and the manager’s actions imply that he doesn’t trust any of them, then it’s up to the FO to fix the situation.

Or do nothing and live with the consequences.

There are multiple name players rumored to be on the market. Those range from Shohei Otani to Patrick Corbin, with a slew of recognizable personalities in between.

Do you want a Thor? You can get one. A Bum? He’s available, too.

I’m sure there are plenty of arms you haven’t heard of on the market as well. Like Pablo Lopez of the Marlins. Or Chad Kuhl of the Rockies. And that’s just naming two guys our own Connor Lemons picked out in his last post.

Despite all these names, what we haven’t seen, though, is movement.

There was talk earlier in the season that the short Spring Training and increased likelihood of pitcher injury would lead to hoarding and overvaluing. Now that we are in sight of the deadline, you have to wonder if that isn’t proving true.

At the blogger day, Mozeliak opined that the deadline was the most expensive time to add talent. That’s when demand drives up prices while the impact of acquisitions is at its lowest.

Is it worth it to move useful young talent with multiple years of control for 8 starts from a marginal starting pitcher who will leave after the season?

Is it worth it to give up a chunk of the farm system to get a guy who has multiple years of control?

Will DeWitt, who has been notoriously tight-pursed the last two seasons, even be willing to take on salary to make a move possible?

The Matz injury places this entire dilemma in front of John Mozeliak.

After dancing around it and waiting on first Flaherty and then Matz, it’s now unequivocally decision time.

One way or another. Settle on internal replacements that you don’t trust and know are problems. Or pay more than you want to pay to throw some talent into the shallow pool of currently available arms.

I could go either way. Despite the big names out there, it seems like the Cardinals are far more likely to dabble around the edge of the market. That means spending a couple of prospects to acquire more replacement-level talent, while maybe providing Marmol with someone he has to trust. That could settle the team but it doesn’t move them much in terms of competitiveness.

Thor – Noah Syndergaard – would probably be my reluctant choice.

Or they could just give those starts to Liberatore and see what happens. If he is going to be part of their plans next season, then it would be nice to see what he’s capable of when given an extended look. Can he settle in and find the consistency he showed in AAA? Can he translate the quality command/control he had in the minors to the best hitters in the world?

I honestly don’t know. But his prospect pedigree and AAA performance lead me to guess a hesitant yes. And if the back-end of this year’s rotation is a loss anyway, I wouldn’t mind seeing them gain some critical information for next year. Plus, if anyone could get hot at the right time and lock that spot down, it’s probably Liberatore and only Liberatore among the internal options. (If Thompson isn’t an option since he’s not stretched out.)

Regardless, the Cardinals need to make their choice. And they need to do it now.