PItching Depth: What Does It Mean?

Much like the first blades of grass poking through your front yard or the green buds on your tree, Cardinals in Jupiter are a real strong indication that spring is on its way.  (Many of you have had a worse winter than I have, so that might be more of a relief to you.)  Of course, it’d be a rare year if you can get through the beginning of camp without some sort of injury issue and 2020 is no exception.

Like Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez, and many others before him, Miles Mikolas isn’t going to start the regular season with the club.  In Mikolas’s case, it’s forearm soreness which is a worrisome diagnosis that often leads to Tommy John surgery.  Mike Shildt and the club seem to be optimistic that TJ isn’t in the forecast for Mikolas, given his lack of deviation from his baseline, but it’s still in the back of people’s minds.  Even without the surgery, Mikolas’s best case scenario seems to have him in the big leagues at the beginning of May.  Mikolas had a second injection of platelet-rich plasma yesterday (a treatment which may not be as effective as they’d like to think–hat tip johnrabe) and will be out 3-4 weeks before resuming throwing activities.

Nobody wants anyone hurt, of course, but if you are going to have an injury, the pitching staff would seem to be the place for it.  However, that stirred up on my Twitter timeline a debate over what pitching depth really means.  Is it:

  • Arms to cover the innings without having to go find second-rate free agents, or
  • Arms that will cover those innings with a certain level of quality.

It’s an interesting discussion, to be sure.  Right now, assuming that Martinez is healthy enough to handle a spot, the Cardinals have six or more options for that last rotation role.  Kwang-Hyun Kim, John Gant, Ryan Helsley, Genesis Cabrera, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Austin Gomber are listed in this article, plus the manager mentioned Alex Reyes as being a potential possibility as well.  There are a lot of arms there, with Kim probably being the favorite, and out of all of those you could make the case that the odds are strong you can get better results than you would from a replacement-level pitcher picked up off of waivers or brought in on a minor league contract.

However, when you look at the rotation, it already had a lot of questions around it.  Jack Flaherty feels pretty solid (though we’ll see if he can blend his first and second halves from 2019) but without Mikolas, there’s not much reliability in the five guys starting games, no matter who gets that last spot.  We’ve talked a lot about how Dakota Hudson is going to have to make some adjustments because the numbers indicate he got fairly lucky not to be pounded last year.  Wainwright is 38 1/2 and might be able to give you what he gave you last year but might also slide closer to what he did the two years before.  As for Martinez, we all know he can be a guy that would be at the top of the rotation, even ahead of Flaherty, but it remains to be seen if he can still do that and stay healthy while doing it.  I continue to wonder about the innings increase and what that is going to look like for him after he spent 2019 in the bullpen.

Even Mikolas had his own questions after he seemed to take a small step back after his wonderful 2018.  However, you felt like you could get a handle on what he probably would give you.  Right now, it feels like this rotation could go a lot of different ways.

There’s no doubt that the quality of the Cardinals’ depth isn’t what it used to be.  Gone are the days when you had players like Reyes, Hudson, and Flaherty waiting in the wings.  Now perhaps you could look to Alvaro Seijas, though I don’t know that he has the shine that those guys did when they were coming up.  Helsley might be the closest thing to that in terms of potential, but there’s a really good chance they’ll move him to the bullpen this year, especially with Jordan Hicks out until mid-season and Martinez sliding into the rotation.  Kyle Reis is still working his way through his Dirty 35 over at Birds on the Black, but my guess is the top 10 is going to be dominated by hitters rather than pitchers in a reversal of how the last half of the 2010s went.  With promotions and trades of people like Luke Weaver and Sandy Alcantara, that depth isn’t what it used to be.

I’d still argue that depth is there, even if it is of lesser quality.  I feel like these guys, at least in the aggregate, can give you as a baseline replacement-level pitching and almost all of them have the potential for more than that.  If nothing else, it keeps the payroll down and doesn’t require you to go out and get Andrew Cashner or Clay Buchholz (though Aaron Sanchez would be intriguing) and pay them millions while also losing a player from your 40-man (assuming you don’t move Mikolas to the 60-day DL).  There is value there that some teams don’t have.

Given the option of losing a rotation arm or a cog in the offense, I think we’d take the arm (though with all the outfielders, maybe that would be the most insured spot).  The offense has enough troubles making up for last year’s terrible results and the loss of Marcell Ozuna to have to worry about covering even more ground.  As I said above, you don’t want to see anyone injured, but that’s not the way baseball works most of the time.  Having arms that can cover (and be somewhat interchangeable, allowing for the use of the hot hand) is a good place for the Cardinals to be in, or at least better than a lot of alternatives.

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