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A look at internal options for the rotation

Wondering how the Memphis crew is pitching to see if they can pitch better?

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at St. Louis Cardinals Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals get to leave April behind, and while the changing of months is more symbolic than something that can actually change performance, I still cling to a fresh month as a fresh start. That’s really the only thing you can do unless you’re just attached to the idea of the Cardinals as a 56 win team all year. Again, I cannot stress enough: no matter how pessimistic you are about this team, it’s all uphill from this point. There’s an extraordinarily, overwhelmingly good chance we now get to witness a better than .500 ballclub from this point on (and frankly, I’d almost be interested to see how exactly they could continuing being a losing team, because it’d have to be a different kind of suck than April)

One of the culprits is the starting pitching. Although one that is somewhat overemphasized by fans due to wanting to be right that the Cardinals needed another starting pitcher. It’d be nice and tidy if you could completely blame the starting pitching, sort of a comeuppance for neglecting the “need” (which I put in quotes because they didn’t need a starter, but if they were going to get one, it should have been an ace). But well, they are 20th in ERA in baseball - and the bullpen has the second best FIP and the best by far xFIP - and if you pair that with an elite offense (on paper anyway), that’s at least a .500 team.

Yes, yes the starting pitching is the weakest part, but the offense, baserunning, and defense are underperforming more than the starting pitching is. I expected a slightly above average pitching staff and am getting a slightly below average pitching staff. I expected an elite offense and am getting, by runs scored anyway - a slightly below average offense. I expected a decent baserunning team, not one of the worst. I expected a good defense, not a below average one. You get the idea. The entire team is underperforming and I would argue the starting pitching maybe is the closest to actual expectations (which some would argue is the problem of course)

But there’s not much you can do about the offense or the baserunning or the defense. The position players are not really something you can improve upon or it’d be a waste of resources in any case. They have the right guys. They just need to play better. The starting pitching is something that can be improved upon, which is perhaps why it gets the focus. We are a ways away from a trade being viable (as you need a partner to make a trade, and nobody is making trades this early in the season). Which leaves the only possible avenue to improvement being internal options.

Now, I am not advocating for a move yet, but some Cardinals fans probably want to know about the internal options as a matter of curiosity. How are they doing? How close are they to being ready right now? Will they be better than the current options? One thing to remember in these discussions is to not look a starter’s April performance and say “well player x can do better than that.” Well so can the current Cardinals’ starter most likely. That’s not the question you should be asking. “Can player x do better than I expect current Cardinals starter to do from this point on?” And that’s a significantly harder question to answer.

So here is list of every potential Cardinals’ starting pitcher in the 2023 season, anyone remotely a potential option to start games by the end of the season. It will feature players who probably won’t start any MLB games, but I just want to cover my bases on this one.

Adam Wainwright

Last rehab start: 5.2 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 9 Ks, HR

Rehab starts are tricky to grade, because they aren’t specifically focused on a good performance. Good performance is certainly something you hope for, but especially for a starting pitcher, we don’t know what they are working on. That said, Wainwright had a pretty encouraging last rehab start, if indeed it is his last one. You may notice the 4 ER, and be discouraged, but I’m looking at the 9/1 K/BB ratio. He allowed a homer at the worst moment: it was three-run homer.

With how Jake Woodford pitched yesterday, it’s pretty safe to say that we are going to see Adam Wainwright when Woodford’s spot in the rotation comes next. And I have to say, I do not appreciate the disrespect Wainwright is getting from the fanbase. I realize it didn’t end well, but he was nearly a 3 win pitcher last year (by Fangraphs). He had a 22.4 K% and 3.4 BB% in his rehab appearances and yes he faced AA and AAA competition, but I mean that’s pretty much what you want.

And honestly, the Durham Bulls is a pretty good warmup before facing the MLB - As a team they are 5th in OPS in the International League and the lineup Wainwright faced featured five guys with a better than average line and two of the guys who didn’t were Ben Gamel - a MLB vet with a 97 career wRC+ in the big leagues - and Vidal Brujan - who was above average in AAA the past two seasons. Wainwright is going to continue being the old guy defying the odds and projections for one last season.

Matthew Liberatore

AAA Stats: 6 GS, 33.2 IP, 33.8 K%, 9 BB%, 50.7 GB%, 2.14 ERA/2.65 FIP/2.92 xFIP

Liberatore is presenting an actual debate that the Cardinals may very well have a better starter in the minors than one of the five starters in the majors. I don’t have a specific name in mind, but I actually do think he is probably one of the five best starters in the organization at this point. But I didn’t mention a name for a reason: I don’t actually know which of the five he is better than (coming from someone who just defended Wainwright and is still a fan of Steven Matz).

However, that might not be a necessary debate. The Cardinals have talked about experimenting with a six-man rotation and if you’re going to do it, May is the month to do it. They have 19 straight games during May at one point. They have an off-day today, and then at the very end of the month, but only one time in between then. So he may very well start some games in May without having to remove someone from the rotation and somewhat conveniently, it can be a good test run to see if he should be in the rotation for good.

If there’s something Liberatore could work on, it’s probably walks. You can live with a 9% BB rate if you’re forcing hitters to ground the ball 50% of the time and strike out a third of the time, but I’m not sure either of those things are likely at the big league level and that kind of command turns into a 10+% BB rate in St. Louis. It’s actually more walks than last season and 2021 in AAA. But the groundball rate is very new. He had a more pedestrian 42% last year. If the combo of strikeouts and groundballs at all translates though, he should be a good pitcher in the majors. Right now.

Connor Thomas

AAA Stats: 5 GS, 27 IP, 16.5 K%, 6.6 BB%, 53.3 GB%, 5.33 ERA/4.24 FIP/4.58 xFIP

A very disappointing start from a starting pitching prospect that seemed to turn the corner. It’s still early in the year, but not sure the new cutter has suddenly made him a viable rotation candidate. His stats are eerily similar to last season actually: slightly worse K%, the same BB%, and slightly more groundballs. Weirdly, the FIP and xFIPs have switched places. He had a 4.53 FIP and 4.29 xFIP, and so far this season, he has a 4.24 FIP and 4.58 xFIP.

But again, it’s pretty early. If he had a 10 K performance next start, I think his stats suddenly transform into good, especially in the hitting environment of the International League. So it’s too early to write him off. But certainly not the kind of April we Conheads wanted.

Dakota Hudson

AAA Stats: 4 GS, 18.1 IP, 15.1 K%, 5.8 BB%, 42.4 GB%, 5.40 ERA/3.83 FIP/4.73 xFIP

What an absolutely strange combination of statistics that only a month’s worth of stats could produce. Hudson isn’t striking anybody out, isn’t walking many - which would normally be good - but also isn’t really getting groundballs. Hudson has never been a strikeout pitcher, but a guy with a career 16.3 K% and 55.9 GB% failing to do either in AAA is not a good sign. He has also somehow allowed a .462 BABIP against, but hasn’t allowed many homers at the same time.

He is now on the 7-day IL due to “neck discomfort” and I don’t have any more updates beyond that. At the time of the news, it was going to be “at least a week, if not longer” and since this was announced on April 21st, longer it is. Doesn’t seem like a long-term thing though.

Andre Pallante

AAA Stats: 3 G, 5.1 IP, 40% K rate, 0 BB%, 58.3 GB%, 1.69 ERA/0.39 FIP/1.78 xFIP

I list him here, just because I’m not sure what the Cardinals are doing with him. He faced six batters in his first two appearances, and his most recent appearance was an 8 batter appearance. If we see him face 10 or more in his next appearance, maybe they’re gearing him back into the rotation. I do think it’s interesting all of his appearances have been more than one inning at the very least.

And hey, if Pallante wants to get himself back to the big leagues, he’s pitching exactly like he should. Damn.

Gordan Graceffo

AAA Stats: 5 GS, 22 IP, 20.6 K%, 10.3 BB%, 40 GB%, 4.91 ERA/4.85 FIP/5.26 xFIP

Unlike Thomas, who has two full years of AAA experience at this point, I wouldn’t read too much into these stats except maybe that they shouldn’t call up Graceffo tomorrow. He started last season in High A and is still just 23. There wasn’t much reason to expect him to dominate AAA right away. Graceffo is most likely going to have to dominate his way to the big leagues - with Liberatore ahead of him, Thomas on the 40, and a potential starter from a trade and the fact that Graceffo doesn’t need to be added to the 40 man until December of 2024, the odds are pretty against Graceffo making a start this year.

Michael McGreevy

AA Stats: 3 GS, 18.2 IP, 22.5 K%, 1.4 BB%, 67.3 GB%, 1.45 ERA/2.60 FIP/3.60 xFIP

AAA: 1 GS, 6 IP, 20 K%, 8 BB%, 44.4 GB%, 4.50 ERA/4.89 FIP/4.57 xFIP

Apparently a 3.60 xFIP in Springfield is amazing, because I can’t figure out how a K/BB ratio of that with a 67% GB can possibly produce that high of an xFIP. Yes, when hitters made contact against McGreevy, 67% of balls were hit on the ground, which is preposterously high. The forgotten or ignored prospect of the starting pitching prospects, he has started the year as well as possible.

He’s probably a bigger longshot than Graceffo, but he has completely caught up to Graceffo on the pecking order. All he has to do is pitch better than Graceffo in AAA.

And that’s the list. I know some people think Tink Hence should maybe be on this list, but if he reaches the majors this year, it’ll be in the bullpen. Just from an innings management perspective, there’s just no way. (Also the update on him is that he’s on the injured list but could be activated soon. Assuming it’s a minor injury and that update is accurate, only throwing 7.2 IP in April is going to help manage his innings quite a bit)

So if you were wondering if there is help on the way, there is, kind of. Wainwright is about to rejoin the rotation, pushing out the worst member. And then Liberatore is there if needed. And I’m kind of hoping they transition Pallante into a starting pitcher in the minors, so that there are two pretty good starting rotation options in case of emergency. Thomas will need to pitch better and I’m not sure counting on Graceffo or McGreevy in 2023 is smart. Any one of those three could easily becoming pitchers you want in the MLB later this year, but not quite yet. Honestly, even though not everyone has started as well as hoped, I think this is better depth than most teams.