As you probably know, the Cardinals' starting rotation has been incredible so far this season. As a team, the Cardinals' starting pitchers rank first in the majors in ERA, third in FIP and fWAR, fifth in xFIP, and sixth in SIERA. The Cardinals' have miraculously made up for the loss of Adam Wainwright, in large part due to the reemergence of Jaime Garcia. We have also seen the exciting growth of the Cardinals' youngest starters, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, who are both under team control for another four years.
There are certainly legitimate concerns about this group, so much so that the Cardinals will probably need to acquire another starting pitcher at the trade deadline. Given what has already been written about this topic (and what will certainly be written in the coming weeks), I thought I'd take this opportunity to look even further ahead to see what the Cardinals' rotation could look like going into next season. While the Cardinals are still months away from having to make decisions about specific players, we can get a general framework of the types of decisions they will be facing in the coming offseason. And who knows? Perhaps the Cardinals acquire a starting pitcher at the deadline who has team control beyond this season. (Personally, I don't think this is very likely, but crazier things have happened.)
At this point in time, it seems safe to say that Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez will be a part of the starting rotation in 2016. (Yes, there are injury concerns with some of these pitchers, and a serious injury could very easily change the outlook for 2016.) That leaves one open spot in the rotation, and the Cardinals have a number of routes they could take to fill that spot.
First, the Cardinals have solid internal options in Marco Gonzales, Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney. Going into this season, the ZiPS projections for each of these three pitchers suggested that they could all be adequate back-end starters.
So far this season, we don't have reason to expect these projections to change significantly going into next season. Tyler Lyons has continued to be solid at AAA, and he has shown flashes of success in his brief stints at the major league level (3.57 xFIP in 112 2/3 innings, including 2.84 xFIP this season.) Tim Cooney has only made two starts in the major leagues, but he has continued to pitch reasonably well in his second season at AAA. And Marco Gonzales, perhaps the most talented of the three lefties, has barely pitched this year, as he is still working his way back from a shoulder injury. He had a legitimate chance to win the fifth starter spot out of Spring Training this season, and if he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cardinals give him another shot at the rotation.
Given the talent level of the other starters in the Cardinals' rotation, I actually think that this approach is a realistic option. A rotation of Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha, Martinez, and a replacement level starter would probably still above league average, and Gonzales, Lyons, and Cooney all have a good chance of being better than replacement level. With that being said, the Cardinals would probably need another fifth starter type in the fold if they were to take this route, due to the frequency of pitcher injuries.
Another option would be to bring back either John Lackey or Jaime Garcia for another season. A few months ago, I wrote about whether the Cardinals should extend John Lackey, and my conclusion at the time was that they should wait and see. So far, Lackey has pitched pretty much exactly as we expected him to (if not slightly better), posting a 3.44 FIP and 1.8 fWAR in 103 2/3 innings. As long as he stays healthy, I wouldn't be too opposed to the Cardinals bringing him back on a one year deal. Of course, he might want more than a one-year deal, especially if he keeps pitching like this.
That brings us to Jaime Garcia. Going into the season, it was nearly unthinkable to imagine the Cardinals bringing Garcia back for another season. Because of his injury history, the team was not counting on Garcia for anything this season, preferring to see any contributions from him as a bonus. Of course, Garcia has pitched brilliantly since returning, perhaps better than at any point in his career. In seven starts (48 innings), he has posted a 1.69 ERA, a 3.00 FIP, and a 2.95 xFIP.
The Cardinals have an $11.5 million club option for Garcia next season with a $0.5 million buyout. While that is a lot of money to give to a pitcher with an injury past like Garcia's, keep in mind that his 1.0 fWAR this season equates to approximately $7.6 million in value, according to Fangraphs. If Garcia somehow makes it through this season healthy, his option next year could look very reasonable. While I'm sure that the Cardinals would probably feel better investing that amount of money in a pitcher who is less of an injury risk, any such pitcher would probably demand a multi-year contract.
There is a possibility that the Cardinals could give a multi-year deal to one of the many excellent starting pitchers in this year's free agent class, but this type of move doesn't seem to fit the organization's philosophy. Typically, the Cardinals develop young, cheap pitching talent through the farm system and choose to spend their money on position players (Holliday, Molina, Peralta, Carpenter), who are less of an injury risk. While the Cardinals may have the "payroll muscle" to add a top-flight starting pitcher, I think that they would be better off using that money on position players, such as Jason Heyward. The team's position player core of Holliday, Molina, and Peralta is aging, and with little position player help on the way from the minor leagues, it is likely that the Cardinals will have to spend on the free agent market if they hope to maintain a strong core of position players.
The Cardinals are stocked with pitching talent in the minor leagues, and by 2017, there's a good chance that we'll see some of these players (Reyes, Kaminsky, etc.) reaching the major leagues. For this reason, a one-year stopgap for 2016 might be what the Cardinals are looking for, and as crazy as this may sound, Jaime Garcia may have the highest upside of any pitcher that fits this description. Even with his injury risk, the overall risk of keeping Garcia wouldn't be all that high, since he would only be under contract for one year.
At this point in the year, it is still probably too early to be thinking about these upcoming decisions. The chances of the Cardinals picking up Garcia's option for next year are probably still pretty low. Even so, a well-run organization must always have its eye toward the future, and there's a good chance that the Cardinals will be thinking about 2016 and beyond as they consider trades in the weeks ahead.