Cardinals: Identifying Offseason Needs – Starting Pitching

Apr 28, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty (22) throws the ball against the Cincinnati Reds during the second inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

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With the conclusion of the World Series comes the beginning of the offseason. Luckily for Cardinals fans, the layoff between Cardinals games and offseason activty was a couple weeks shorter this year.

So what is the next step for the team? How do they improve on a roster that won the NL Central and advanced to the NLCS? Clearly, there were flaws, but the baseline for this team should be solid. The key is identifying and addressing the needs.

On Tuesday, I broke down my thoughts on how the Cardinals may juggle the crunch on the 40-man roster in the coming weeks. Over the next few days, I will review all aspects of the roster that the team will be carrying into the offseason — who is leaving, who is returning, who is ascending from the minor leagues — and try to identify the true needs that the team faces. Of course, my takeaway will just be my own opinion, but hopefully the breakdowns will be informative and allow you to form your own.

We will start with the Starting Rotation.

2019 Summary

The Cardinals rotation ended 2019 ranked 3rd in the NL in starter’s ERA, and 5th overall in baseball with a 3.78 mark. They didn’t fare as well in the advanced FIP (fielding independent pitching) posting a 4.44 mark — 8th in the NL — due mostly to a reliance on contact from pretty much everyone besides Flaherty. They led baseball with a 48% groundball-rate. That was ok, because they had the most sure-handed infield in the NL. Given that, their strikeout-rate was unsurprisingly lower at 21.2%, ranking 12th in the NL.

However, the overall product was effective and every regular member of the rotation had a lower ERA in the 2nd half than they had in the 1st half, showing that there was overall improvement from the staff and the numbers weren’t just fueled — though they were helped — by Jack Flaherty’s historic run.

Moving into 2020

Returning: Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson

Free Agents: Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha

Other Internal Options: Carlos Martinez, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Jake Woodford, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes, John Gant

May 1, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas (39) delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Assessment:

Briefly, I’m 99.9% sure that the Michael Wacha Era has ended.

The Cardinals bring back a budding #1 in Jack Flaherty, a solid #3, at worst — and All-Star, at best — in Miles Mikolas, and a grounball machine that profiles as a perfect, innings eating 4th or 5th starter in Dakota Hudson. And I’m underselling Hudson. My main point is that the Cardinals have well cast 1, 3, and 4 starters, at worst.

What that leaves is the need for another #2/3 type starter to pair with Mikolas, and a 5th starter to round it out. That 5th starter could be a returning Adam Wainwright — I’m sure we will have clarity on his status for 2020 within the next few days — or the winner of an open competition between any of Ponce, Woodford, Cabrera, Helsley, Gomber, of Gant. One of the latter would likely give you what you need out of a 5th starter. At the very least a ‘hot hand’ revolving door in the 5th spot buys you time until one pitcher stakes his claim or the need for a trade is evident. The 5th starter isn’t a true need.

The #2/3 starter is a need. Internally, only 2 pitchers have the upside to fill that role, Carlos Martinez or Alex Reyes. I don’t have to explain why neither can be considered as a lock for a rotation spots.

What I Think They SHOULD Do:

Because of the uncertainty with those two gifted arms, I believe the Cardinals need to acquire, at least, a #3-type starting pitcher. A #2 would be better, obviously.

Now, I highly doubt we will see the Cardinals linked in any way to Gerritt Cole or Stephen Strasburg this winter. The team has a self-imposed budget that they hold pretty firm to, and they have already committed most of that budget to the present roster. Any additions will be more moderately priced, I believe. They are more than welcome to surprise me, though.

The next tier would include veteran pitchers such as, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rick Porcello, Cole Hamels, Dallas Kuechel, Madison Bumgarner, Jake Odorizzi, and Zack Wheeler. Of those, Odorizzi and Wheeler would be my targets. Both may demand more years (and money) than the Cardinals are willing to give, but they are both 30 years old — making them among the younger FA starters — and profile well in the middle of the rotation, with upside.

That would open up the potential for a rotation of Flaherty, Martinez, Mikolas, Odorizzi/Wheeler, Wainwright/Hudson. If Hudson is no better than the 5th starter, or pushed into relief, then the rotation is really, really good.

What I Think They WILL Do:

Enough with the dream scenarios, here’s the cold take.

I think the way they approach the rotation will be dependent on the decision of Adam Wainwright. If Wainwright wishes to return, the Cardinals will bring him back. They will then consider the 4 returning SP’s from 2018 to be locked into their role, and open up the 5th spot to competition among the internal options listed above. Ideally, they will want Martinez to arrive to spring healthy and strong and ready to resume his career as a starting pitcher. At worst, they will express confidence in Ponce, Woodford, or Gomber as the most likely trio to seize the 5th rotation spot.

Now, the gap in upside between a rotation including Martinez — a top 15 starting pitcher in the NL from 2015-2017 —  and a rotation with any of the others in his place is pretty vast. That’s why I endorse signing a legit SP regardless.

Now, if Wainwright doesn’t return, then we may see the team look to solidify a rotation spot with an outside acquisition. I don’t believe they want to head to Spring Training with 2 rotation spots at-large. If they do sign a pitcher, I believe it will be in the Odorizzi/Wheeler ballpark. I don’t envision them signing a Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark type. All are solid pitchers, but the team would push their belief that the internal options can replicate the same, generally league-average, results as that type of veteran.

Wrap-Up

Offseason Need: Mid-Rotation Starter (or better)

To summarize. The Cardinals have the baseline for a good rotation heading into 2020. A good free agent signing and good health from Carlos Martinez could make it one of the best 1-5 in the league. Or it could end up, more or less, in the same area as the 2019 model — which, again, had the 5th best ERA in baseball. It’s a team strength, but one I would like to see them double-down on with a moderately aggressive move. However, I think a lot is riding on the Waino decision, probably more than there should be.

Hopefully we will know that decision soon and can fire this conversation up in earnest at that time.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to FanGraphs for the stats, Spotrac for the free agent tracker.

Stay Tuned For The Rest of this Series:
Relief Pitching – November 1st
Catchers – November 2nd
Infielders – November 3rd
Outfielders – November 4th

Series NavigationCardinals: Identifying Offseason Needs – Relief Pitching >>

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals9171.562 -
Brewers8973.5492.0
Cubs8478.5197.0
Reds7587.46316.0
Pirates6993.42622.0

Last updated: 09/30/2019

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