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2024 Rotation: The Number of the Counting Shall be Three

Two starters? Three? The Cardinals comments have been inconsistent. But there really is only one viable option.

St. Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, the Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations met with the media to announce LHP Steven Matz’s lat strain, give an update on Adam Wainwright’s status in the rotation, and answer questions about the club’s offseason plans regarding the starting rotation.

It’s that last point that captured my attention today as it represents some inconsistency from the Cardinals’ communications with the media over the last few months.

Back in July, when the club began talking publicly with the media about their intentions to sell at the trade deadline, John Mozeliak indicated that the Cardinals’ winter shopping list would likely include at least three starting pitchers.

Last week, Cardinals’ General Manager Michael Girsch went onto the radio and indicated that the Cardinals would be looking for two starters.

Then there was yesterday’s afternoon presser. Mozeliak was back at the podium and back to his originally stated position. Here is the report from Cardinals team reporter John Denton:

I’m not here today to parse what Mozeliak and Girsch have said, when, where, and why they are inconsistent. That seems a fruitless effort. The reality is that the club is likely considering multiple scenarios to fix their beleaguered rotation for next season. It’s only August. Their primary focus is still on this season. They’re likely only beginning their offseason planning in earnest. It’s not surprising that their message would be a little inconsistent at this point.

What concerns me is not the consistency of their public communications. It’s that they land on the right decision.

In my opinion, there should be no waffling here. There is only one option. The Cardinals have to add three starters to their rotation. Anything less would represent a serious challenge to their stated goal of returning to contention in the NL Central.

Let’s look at both options, what I’ll call simply the “two starter plan” and the “three starter plan”. We’ll break down the clubs option for both plans and then I’ll give my reasons for rejecting the first outright.

The Two Starter Plan

When Girsch made his public comments about shopping for two starters, they quickly made the rounds on various podcasts and fan blogs. It surprised me when many of the commentators I enjoy and respect immediately settled on it as the likely and logical solution for the Cardinals in 2024.

Their argument in support of the “two starter plan” goes something like this:

1. Sign a free agent or make a trade for a pitcher who projects to be equal to or better than Miles Mikolas.

2. Miles Mikolas.

3. Sign a free agent or make a trade for a pitcher who projects to be equal to or better than Steven Matz.

4. Steven Matz.

5. Open competition for the fifth spot from among their current young arms.

Mikolas has rebounded from his early struggles. Matz has been good lately. They should be good options for the rotation next season. Finding two more arms kind of like them solidifies four spots.

And the fifth rotation spot? They argue that the Cardinals should not block their developing young arms by bringing in a third option. Instead, an open competition allows space for their current group of developing arms to get MLB exposure.

Matthew Liberatore is probably the odds-on favorite to land the gig. His start last Thursday and the narrative around it – which I discussed in detail here – have momentarily bolstered his case. Dakota Hudson is in the rotation and under control for next season. Zack Thompson is getting starts now that Matz is injured again. Then the club has Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy. Both now have a season of AAA experience under their belts with sketchy results. The newly acquired Sem Robberse, Drew Rom, and Adam Kloffenstein are all in AAA and pushing for MLB time.

Surely one of these arms can take a step forward and lock down the 5th spot, while the rest could, as the Bens from Cardinals Off Day would say, “raise the replacement level floor” to provide depth when the inevitable injuries or poor performance happens from among the other four starters. Or so the argument goes.

However, even while adopting a heavy draft and development philosophy, the Cardinals have very rarely entered Spring Training with a rotation spot available through an open competition. Go back and look at the Cardinals’ “on paper” starting rotations entering each season since 2015:

2015: Lackey, Wacha, Martinez, Lynn, Garcia

2016: Wainwright, Martinez, Leake, Garcia, Wacha

2017: Martinez, Lynn, Wacha, Leake, Wainwright

2018: Mikolas, Martinez, Wacha, Weaver, Wainwright

2019: Flaherty, Mikolas, Wainwright, Wacha, Mikolas/Hudson

2020: Wainwright, Flaherty, Hudson, Kim, Martinez/Mikolas/Ponce de Leon

2021: Wainwright, Kim, Flaherty, Martinez, Mikolas/Gant

2022: Mikolas, Wainwright, Hudson, Matz, Flaherty

2023: Mikolas, Montgomery, Flaherty, Matz, Wainwright

It’s a messy list. The top five “on paper” names for the rotation rarely (ever?) even made it to Opening Day. Injury timing and recovery timelines all play heavily into how we interpret this.

Still, you can point to five proven/veteran names in the rotation for every season. The exceptions come from players who had already had a lengthy and successful stint in the rotation covering for an injury – like Luke Weaver in 2018. Or they were prospects who ended up in the rotation for a full season because of an early spring injury – like Flaherty and Hudson.

It’s the messiness of that list and the number of starters beyond the top five who saw notable innings in the rotation that makes the “two starter plan” completely untenable to me.

Even when the Cardinals entered the spring with five veteran/experienced/proven names whom they believed they could count on to lock in a rotation spot, they were still forced to dig deeply into their starter depth chart.

If they settle with four experienced starters entering the season, how far into that list above will they have to go to find starts for next season? Can they have any expectation of climbing up from 13 games under .500 to being the best team in the NL Central if they do?

Part of my lack of confidence in the two starter plan stems from who they already have.

Miles Mikolas has indeed rebounded from a horrendous start. He’ll also be 35/36 next season. He’s taken small steps back this season in strikeout rate and velocity. His xFIP is 4.65. His solid ERA and FIP are based largely on a completely unsustainable 7.7% HR/FB rate. If you change nothing about his ’23 season and only regress his homerun luck back to norms, Mikolas would experience at least a half-run increase to his ERA/FIP totals and probably close to a win decrease from his current fWAR. The club also has to account for his injury history and the increased likelihood of injury with age.

Steven Matz? His experience this season is hardly out of the norm for him. Matz is 32 years old. He debuted in 2015. He has had two seasons where he eclipsed 150 innings. He has one season where he reached 2.8 fWAR. He has only two seasons total where he passed the 2.0 fWAR barrier. He might barely sneak over that threshold this season if he’s able to return. Matz is consistently injured and when he’s not injured, he’s consistently inconsistent.

If the Cardinals are only going to add two starters to that pair, they will have to be very good starters. Or they have to pray for very good production from one of their young players.

Does anyone have any hope that any of the names mentioned above can become a very good starter next season? That seems like a real stretch.

The two starter plan simply doesn’t cut it for me. Not with the lack of proven, effective depth the club currently has. Not with the age and injury risk of their current starters. Not with the relatively low upside of their current crop of young arms.

The two starter plan is a plan that the club could get by with. It’s not a plan that a team who is serious about returning to contention should even consider.

The Three Starter Plan

It’s good, then, that Mozeliak reinforced the three starter plan in Monday’s presser. What does the three starter plan look like? Here’s how I would arrange it:

1. Sign a free agent or make a trade for a pitcher who is better than Miles Mikolas.

2. Sign a free agent or make a trade for a pitcher who is equal to Miles Mikolas.

3. Miles Mikolas.

4. Steven Matz.

5. Sign a free agent or make a trade for a pitcher who is equal to or slightly behind Steven Matz.

Over the last few seasons, the Cardinals have been able to adequately fill in the middle of their rotation. Arms like Mikolas, Matz, Montgomery, Wainwright and probably even Kim fit with various levels of acceptably into that mass of middling rotation arms. Such players can occasionally step up to provide 3.0+ fWAR production (#2 caliber starter) and occasionally slip down to provide 1.0 fWAR production (#4/5 caliber starter). Most of these arms are more likely to slip than surge. It’s simply more common for pitchers to get injured and lose playing time and production than for them to find something more from their talent.

What they’ve lacked comes on the other two ends. For the last few seasons, Jack Flaherty was supposed to provide the 4.0 fWAR (#1 caliber starter) production that such a rotation needs as its anchor. He has suffered injuries that sapped his upside and kept him out of the rotation for long stretches. They also lacked quality “raise the floor” arms to fill in for injuries and ineffectiveness in the rotation’s back end. Instead of pitchers like Austin Gomber, Luke Weaver, Dakota Hudson, or Jack Flaherty, they’ve been forced to use pitchers like Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford, and Daniel Ponce de Leon.

The plan I present here fills those gaps, landing them a pitcher capable of sitting at the top of the rotation and providing 3-4 fWAR. It gives them three arms in the 1.5 – 3.0 fWAR range. Then provides someone at the backend who can provide a variety of different traits, depending on what you prefer.

Yes, it technically blocks the Cardinals’ young, developmental arms from an inked-in rotation spot, but history tells us that could change as early as mid-February. Even if they have five starters that fit the descriptions above, they’ll still need to plan to give between 15-40 starts to any or all of the developmental arms mentioned above.

What happens if one of those developmental arms surges? Injuries will create space for them or an inked-in starter could get moved to the bullpen.

What if none of the starters get injured or perform poorly and the developmental arms never really get much of a chance? That’s a good thing, friends! Sign me up for that scenario.

To help visualize this better, I’ll even list the names of some likely available players for the three starter plan:

1. Aaron Nola – historically a #1/#2 caliber pitcher.

2. Logan Gilbert – a solid #2 pitcher with some projectable upside.

3. Miles Mikolas – decline phase #2/#3 starter.

4. Steven Matz - #3 starter when healthy, #4 most likely.

5. Kyle Gibson – aging #4/5 with solid peripherals and FIP/xFIP.

Don’t get too caught up in the actual names. How they would have to be acquired. How the club could afford them. Or the likelihood of their availability in a trade. That’s not the intention here. Instead, think of each name as a player type or transaction:

1. Pricey free agent

2. Cost-controlled trade target

3. Mikolas

4. Matz

5. Low cost free agent or low cost trade target

After digging through the market, I believe the Cardinals have around 4 choices to fill that #1 spot, ranging from Ohtani to Nola on the back end. They have another 4-6 options for the #2 role, including several solid trade options. Gilbert is probably on the high end of that list. There are no less than 20 options for the #5 spot, with quite a large range of skills/talents/traits to consider based on your preference. Gibson offers innings security and FIP upside that could play ok at Busch. The team could just as easily go after an arm with more upside who has had some injuries. Or overseas to someone like Kim.

In my opinion, the three starter plan is their best chance at returning to contention next season.

It’s the one that fits the best with their historical approach toward the rotation.

It’s also the one that John Mozeliak has been most consistent in naming.

Until he says differently, we should build our offseason plans around three starters.

I’ve given my take. What about you?

Would the three starter plan I outline be enough to raise this club from last place to first place in the NL Central?

Can the Cardinals do as well if they only acquire two starters?

What names would you prefer for either strategy?

Let me know in the comments.