The Cardinals lost yesterday evening; the second game in a row they've dropped to the Detroit Tigers. The loss of game two also sent the Cards to their second series loss out of the last three, after they began the season by winning eight of their first nine sets, with the lone holdout being the opening series against the Cubs which saw a two-game split, with the middle game rained out and yet to be made up. I'll admit it's a bit worrisome; the club looked nigh-invincible for a while there, but the cracks are beginning to show.
Of course, 'worrisome' is relative here; no one expected the Cardinals to win 115 games this season, and given they're still leading the National League Central by a fairly healthy margin, we should probably preface all concerns with a reasonable disclaimer of things being pretty damned appealing right now as a Cardinal fan. Still, there are reasons for concern. The injuries are beginning to mount, the club has gotten exactly zero production from first base and very little from right field for the second year in a row, which is beginning to feel as if it may have been built on an Indian burial ground at this point, and really, considering the nearness of various burial mounds, who's to say there aren't vengeful native spirits haunting Jason Heyward and his predecessors? Yadier Molina is looking troublingly non-Yadi-esque, and while Peter Bourjos had a nice little run of hitting the everloving hell out of the ball for a bit there, he has come back to earth with a resounding thud since opportunity came a-callin' in the guise of Jon Jay's ill-timed trip to the disabled list.
Most worrisome of all, though, is what we saw from Tyler Lyons yesterday. He wasn't terrible, by any means; there was a moment there in the third inning, I believe, when I glanced at Game Day and he was tossing a 4:1 strike to ball ratio when it looked like he might be putting together a big-time audition reel to keep his current spot in the rotation. That brief buzz rather quickly wore off, though, as he was unable to maintain any kind of efficiency, and was rather unceremoniously yanked from the game.
Now, in his defense, Lyons was put in a nearly impossible situation, owing in large part to the whims of Mother Nature, not to mention a rather ill-considered decision on the part of the umpiring crew to start the game on time, when any idiot capable of looking out a window could have told you things were about to get worse. But, I digress. The fact is, Tyler had a bad, bad hand dealt to him, throwing an inning and then being forced to sit for 90 minutes or so before going back out and trying to crank it back up. However, it is also a fact that Tyler gave the Cardinals virtually nothing in the way of innings, and did so the day after Carlos Martinez showed tremendous improvement and plenty of swing and miss stuff, while also unfortunately failing to record an out in the sixth inning, which has been a bit of a leit motif for Martinez throughout his career. Not every time out, mind you, but often enough it's a notable feature of a still-developing young talent.
The bottom line is this: the Cardinals have a pretty serious innings problem. They're carrying eight relievers, and yet the bullpen still seems constantly stressed. Part of that, of course, is the fact Mike Matheny is still an absolutely atrocious manager of the 'pen in general, but it's also a fact that since losing Adam Wainwright to the sorrow of Achilles, the Redbirds have lacked a pitcher capable of putting together that long, seven-plus inning start that effectively resets the bullpen. One would hope Lance Lynn would be that guy, but Lance Lynn has most definitely not been that guy. I'll leave my grumblings about Lynn for another day, but suffice it to say when 37 year old John Lackey is the closest thing to an innings horse you have and the de facto ace of your staff is tossing 20+ pitches per inning nearly every time out, you've got a problem.
There are potential reinforcements on the way, I should say, though I'm less than hopeful that's the sound of the cavalry I hear coming ever nearer. Jaime Garcia has ramped his way up to 90 pitches, and maybe, just maybe, is ready to take a turn in the big league rotation. Marco Gonzales is back throwing in Triple A coming back from a pec/shoulder issue, but hasn't looked great yet and is probably still trying to round his way into proper form. We saw Tim Cooney at the big league level, and while it would be foolish to judge him too harshly based on one start, it's also a truth that Tim Cooney looked very, very bad in that one start, and is probably a fringy sort of pitcher going forward. (Which makes me sad; I saw him in Double A in 2013 and his curveball looked positively Zito-esque, generating some truly helpless swings, and I thought he had really found something with that pitch.) Carlos Villanueva seems to be making a really, really compelling argument for why he should be taking some of these starts, but damned if it isn't tough to want to move him out of the long man role, when he's already rescued the club on several occasion when things could have turned turtle in a big bad way without his steadying presence. In other words, there are internal options, but they all come with caveats and concerns of their own.
There'a also the crisis looming of how to limit or slow down the innings accumulation of Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. I'm not a big believer in the Verducci Rule, but it seems to be a truism that you shouldn't expect a pitcher to necessarily go from throwing >100 innings one year to a full-time starter's workload of 30+ starts and 180-200 innings the next without some sort of negative effects, be they health-related or a simple downturn in performance as said pitcher blasts well past where he's been before. At some point, the Cardinals are going to need to find a way to save some innings of Carlos and Wacha's arms, and given the questionable nature of those reinforcements we just went through, that's going to be a tough thing to do.
What I'm trying to say with all this is that the Cardinals, loath as I am to say it, are probably going to have to go outside the organisation to find some innings this year. As in, they're going to have to make a trade, which will likely either a) bring back a questionable value, as in the case of Justin Masterson, or b) cost something we might not like to see go, as in the case of John Lackey for Joe Kelly. (That's the Joe Kelly who, admittedly, has been very up and down so far this season, but I still find incredibly intriguing, and miss having around, if only because this team seems to have a rather severe lack of cat dance.)
Still, unless we want to watch the 2015 season go down the drain, bolstering will almost have to take place. And so, the trade market. To that end, I've tried to put together a fairly brief (hopefully it's brief, anyway, considering my introduction to the meat of the post is now creeping past 1250 words, somehow), rundown of a few of the more notable names of the pitching world who might be available and attractive as the Cardinals look around for buttressing material, along with the pros and cons associated with each name. Without further ado, then, we'll start with:
The A Tier
The biggest, brightest stars who will quite possibly change teams this season. These are pitchers with impressive pedigrees and performances, but usually price tags to match.
Pros: We all know the good with Hamels; basically, the good part is that he's Cole Hamels. And being Cole Hamels means he's pretty good at throwing baseballs. After starting out the season on a real down note, Hamels has rebounded nicely of late, with a handful of very impressive starts to bring his numbers more in line with what you would expect from a pitcher with his pedigree. He's been a bit homer-prone this season, and the walks are up significantly from the levels of 2014 and before, but he's definitely trending in the right direction. He's also signed for three more seasons after this one (four, if you include his 2019 option), and at a relatively market-appropriate or even slightly below rate. He wouldn't be a rental, nor would he require an enormous extension (heh), to feel as if the investment of talent to acquire him was justified.
Cons: While Hamels's contract is relatively affordable, the fact remains he's signed for at least three more seasons, is on the wrong side of the 30, and 'relatively affordable' in this case means $25 million a year you're investing in a guy. I personally don't think he's a great bet to maintain his durability going forward, though he's also been much more durable than I expected in the first place, so take that with all the grains of salt. Far more importantly, beyond the market-rate salary is the cost in prospects it would require to pry him from the Phillies' cold, dead fingers. As the one and only silver bullet Ruben Amaro has to try and retool the Philadelphia farm system on the fly, the cost of acquiring Hamels is going to be steep. Like Matterhorn steep, most likely, particularly if the acquiring team tries to get the Phils to phoot part of the bill for his salary. Given the Red Sox and Dodgers also being in the pitching market, I'm not sure the Cardinals could outbid the competition for Hamels anyway, and I'm not sure they would want to, or should, even if they could.
Pros: One of the biggest breakout stars of 2014, He Who Gets Traded was sent to the Oakland Athletics in a trade I curse nearly every day, and then in the offseason back to Chicago, this time to the Southsiders, who may have confused activity with progress in a pretty serious way. The White Sox are pretty bad, the AL Central is pretty good, and it's possible they move Samardzija this season if they don't see him as part of their long-term future. He's a rental, so the cost would be lower, has been a perennial breakout pick since forever, and made huge strides last season by apparently deciding he just wasn't going to walk opposing hitters anymore, which would play well in front of a high-quality defensive team, such as the one our boys in red run out most days. He also still has a relatively low numbers of miles on his pitching arm, the result of dual-sport stardom in college and relief work for much of his big league career.
Cons: The downside of Samardzija being a rental is that Samardzija is a rental, meaning he would be a fix in only the shortest-term way possible. He's also been flat-out brutal this season, and while there's probably some bad luck in there, along with an elevated home run rate brought on by pitching in U.S. Cellular Field, The Shark's K rate is down significantly this year, and when I've seen him pitch he doesn't look nearly as sharp as in years past. Even at his very best last year, while he was a very, very good pitcher, I think he was a bit overhyped, and not the sort of pitcher I'm giving up premium assets to acquire, personally. If I'm being honest, I think there's a chance what we saw from Samardzija in 2014 is the best we'll ever see from him, and possibly by a pretty decent margin. Even as a rental, he won't be cheap to acquire, and I probably would pass.
Pros: One of the most fascinating stories of recent years, Kazmir's reestablishment as a viable major league starting pitcher (and a pretty good one, too), has been both heartwarming and, frankly, bizarre. Pitchers in the 1920s might occasionally be terrible, disappear for two years, and then miraculously reappear as quality contributors, but in the modern game? Those sorts of inexplicable happenings just aren't the norm. Nonetheless, Kazmir has done it, and has returned to be a comfortably above-average major league starter over the past two years and change. He's a free agent after the season, meaning the price tag should be a bit more modest than someone like Hamels, although the added cost of the compensatory pick would have to be figured in. His strikeouts are up from last season, and appears to be throwing very well. He would also give the Cardinals a left-handed rotation option, which probably doesn't matter, but feels more balanced, in a completely unscientific way.
Cons: Kazmir has never been the most durable guy in his career, and while he hasn't missed any time the last two seasons, at 31 he is, somewhat unbelievably, approaching the downslope of his career. He's walking more hitters than the last two seasons, though not to a worrisome degree as of yet, and the shiny sub-3.00 ERA belies an FIP closer to 4.00, which in the current climate isn't all that impressive. It's also unclear if Oakland considers itself a seller, or if it even should, and so any offer for Kazmir might have to be of the knock-your-socks-off variety to make it worth their while.
Pros: Hamels is the pitcher who has made the most headlines this season with trade speculation, but Cueto is the real prize of this potential class, a pure elite arm with an absolutely beautiful delivery and numbers that put most other pitchers to shame. He's maintained an elite strikeout rate this season while cutting his walk rate even further, consistently generates some of the weakest contact in the game, and has never had a major arm issue I'm aware of in his entire career. Johnny Cueto is going to be in the Cy Young conversation this season, and should be. And probably will be for awhile unless something changes markedly in his profile.
Cons: That thing I wrote before, about Cole Hamels and how some of the other teams on the market would likely outbid the Cardinals if it came to a bidding war? That all goes double for Cueto, who will engender some crazy offers if he goes on the market. (And he should, considering where the Reds find themselves in the standings this year.) I know the Red Sox are loathe to give out long term deals to pitchers, but be honest: doesn't Johnny Cueto look like he should be wearing a Red Sox uniform? I honestly can't see the Cardinals winning a trade war for him. Also, he's Johnny Cueto, and even after all these years I'm not sure I would be willing to cheer for him. Loudly, anyway.
The B Tier
This is where the more likely candidates for the Cardinals live, seeing as how they've been loathe to give up top-end talent the last few years for in-season upgrades, Colby Rasmus being the notable exception. This would also probably be my choice for shopping options, honestly.
Pros: Leake is a borderline guy, one I could see bumping up into the A tier, and would be one of my two choices from this category. (The other I'll get to in a bit.) Then again, looking at his WAR totals, Leake is probably a clear step down from those guys up there, so he belongs right where he is in all likelihood. Leake has been very durable, making at least 30 starts each of the past three seasons, and I'm a big believer in his ability to continue that trend going forward, mechanically speaking. He's also a pitcher who rarely beats himself, basing much of his success on an ability to avoid walks, and might very well take another step forward outside the bandbox of Great American Ballpark. You want a dependable, every fifth day bulk innings-eater? Mike Leake fits the bill pretty much to a tee.
Cons: The ceiling is probably pretty low here, as for all his qualities, Mike Leake has never really developed a way to put hitters away and push his strikeout rate up high enough to really elevate his performance. There's also the question of how willing Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak would be to deal with each other; not because they're division rivals, but because of the lingering bad blood on Jocketty's side from the time when he was forced out of the organisation. I have no idea if that's real or not, but Mo and Jo have never done business, so far as I know, and there has been plenty of speculation over the years that Jocketty is still sore.
Pros: Ah, Kyle Lohse. The familiar, comforting sight of his needlessly handsome self bestriding the mound, executing pitches down in the zone and getting quick outs and pitching to contact and whatever other Dave Duncan/Chris Carpentery sort of cliche you want to trot out. The fact is, Kyle Lohse has been one of the most durable, consistent performers in all of baseball for most of his career, the long stretch of time he missed due to a freak forearm injury the notable exception. He pitches to contact, which would play well in front of the Cardinal defense, and very rarely gets himself into trouble. Kyle Lohse is a metronome of performance, and while he's had a rough patch to open the season, I would be willing to ascribe that to the general malaise surrounding the Brewers in 2015, and expect him to rebound nicely to something approaching his normal numbers. I don't know how the Brewers and Cardinals would feel dealing within the division, or if that sort of thing even matters, really, but Lohse should be affordable to pick up.
Cons: There's a very low ceiling on this move, which isn't a huge problem, but still. There's also the concern, in light of Lohse's rough start and age (36 years, 7 months), that he's just taken a turn for the worse. Then again, his xFIP is almost identical to where it's been since the Cardinals picked him up back in '08, so that should all even out. Should.
Pros: If the White Sox do indeed decide to throw in the towel on this season and move some of their assets for future considerations, then Danks will likely follow Samardzija out the door. Plus, with Shark taking the majority of the attention, it's possible Danks would come on the cheap. It seems like so, so long ago that Danks was a hotshot member of the Rangers' infamous DVD trio of pitching prospects, and then, briefly, an honest to go elite starting pitcher for the White Sox, but truth is he's still just now 30 years old. The majority of his problems in recent years have been home run-related, as well, and getting out of the confines of The Cell might benefit Danks more than a lot of other pitchers.
Cons: On the other hand, John Danks is kind of a terrible pitcher nowadays. The guy who accumulated better than 11.0 WAR in a three year span from 2008 to 2010 isn't walking through that door anytime soon. The stuff simply isn't there anymore for him to be around the strike zone as much as he usually is, leading to plenty of hard hit balls all over the yard that no amount of defense is necessarily going to mitigate. He should come cheap, but there's a reason for that: he's probably just not worth all that much.
Pros: Dan Haren, along with Mike Leake, would be my pick of the litter here, were the Cardinals to venture onto the trade market for an innings-muncher. In 2006, I predicted to my friend Travis that Dan Haren was going to end up in the Hall of Fame. He's going to fall short of that, unfortunately, barring some sort of Fountain of Youth situation, as his performances over the past few years have been extremely uneven, as he went from a 6 win pitcher in 2011 to a 2 win pitcher in 2012, and has been at that level and below ever since. However, I still feel damned good about that prediction, made while we were watching him pitch in the ALCS for Oakland against the Tigers, as Haren has lived up to nearly every expectation I bitterly held in my heart for him after he was traded away. He's been an absolute marvel of durability, making at least 30 starts a season for the past ten years. You want innings? You want games started? Dan Haren is your man, in a way very few other pitchers can dream of being. The Marlins are in danger of falling completely out of the race in a very weak NL East, and if they do, Haren would be exactly the sort of asset they would likely be looking to move.
Cons: Dan Haren's biggest bugaboo, throughout his career and especially the last few seasons, has been a vulnerability to the long ball. He's always had elite K:BB numbers, but the home runs have popped up again and again as the one thing he's always been fairly terrible at limiting. It's reached nearly absurd levels the past few seasons, and home run rates approaching 1.50 per nine innings is the chief reason he isn't still a consistent mid-rotation anchor, rather than a fringy back-end guy. Perhaps coming to Busch Stadium would help ameliorate that somewhat, but he's pitching in Miami this season, and that's not exactly a bandbox down there. Perhaps the Cardinals could find some approach change or pitch to help him, but perhaps not. Most likely, we would simply have to live with a pitcher who still strikes out nearly four batters for every one he walks, but gives up the long ball at a rate that's honestly hard to believe. Still, there are innings needed. Dan Haren gives innings, if nothing else, like very few other pitchers in baseball. And, really, let's face it: the karmic rebalancing of bringing Haren back after all these years would have to be worth at least a few wins, right? Maybe doubly so if we sacrifice Mark Mulder on an altar made of human shoulders. Although I don't advocate that. Loudly, anyway.
You know, I had a whole third tier of pitchers, guys who would be marginal upgrades at best, but this is approaching 4000 words, so I think I'd better stop here. Who would be your choices to come in and fill in some of the innings gap the Cardinals are likely to face as the season wears on? If you've a particular favourite I didn't cover here, leave the name in the comments. Or maybe you prefer an internal-only solution, with a fast-tracking of Alex Reyes not out of the question? I would tend to disagree with your optimism, but I have to admire it a bit all the same. Anyhow, that's enough out of me.