Cardinals: Time For A Cool Change

I’m not breaking any news here, so I’ll just jump right in.

The Cardinals are making the long awaited move to promote their top hitting prospect, slugging 2B Nolan Gorman — with Derrick Goold reporting that he will be in the lineup Friday in Pittsburgh. And as a bonus, Goold also reported that the team will be promoting top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to start on Saturday. I won’t beat a dead horse — you’ll be reading/hearing this everywhere this weekend — but the two are childhood friends and teammates, so there is an interesting angle to the dual promotion.

What a flex by the Cardinals, rolling into Pittsburgh to face the eternally rebuilding Pirates and casually calling up two of baseball’s Top 100 prospects.

To get the players on the roster the Cardinals will have to clear both 2 spots on the 26-man roster and 2 spots on the 40-man roster. The Gorman promotion was pretty straightforward, with Tyler O’Neill heading to the IL to clear an active roster spot and Jack Flaherty being transferred to the 60-Day IL (he’s already missed nearly 50 days) to open a 40-man spot.

Adding Liberatore will be more interesting. There are candidates to be designated for assignment in Junior Fernandez, T.J. Zeuch, and Kramer Robertson to allow him to enter the 40-man roster. The move to get him on the 26-man roster is likely optioning Jake Walsh. Though this is something I will get into a little later, as Liberatore’s call-up could have impacts throughout the staff.

Gorman

The Gorman move is one that fans have been waiting for since the first week of the season. He opened the AAA season red hot and really hasn’t slowed down. It took some other dominos falling — DeJong struggling to the point of a demotion, O’Neill’s struggles and injury — but Gorman’s performance finally forced their hand. At this moment in time, he had to be the guy. Calling up anyone else to replace O’Neill on the roster would not have made sense.

The team is in need of offensive explosiveness, and Gorman has that potential.

Gorman’s numbers for Memphis are impressive.

G PA R HR RBI BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wRC+
34 147 31 15 23 8.2% 34% .368 .308 .367 .677 171

Now, I know you see that 34% strikeout rate. Yeah, he’s going to strikeout, its something to keep an eye on. But the potential gains in production elsewhere can outweigh that aspect of his game.

The Cardinals currently hold the lowest team strikeout rate in baseball (19.4%), while ranking 17th in HRs (36) and 15th in Isolated Power (.144). While they do rank 10th in SLG — thanks to guys that consistently leg out doubles — the trade of strikeouts for pure power is one that this team can safely make.

Ripple Effects

With Gorman manning 2B, it’s expected that Tommy Edman will shift to SS. Edman has shown the capability to play the position, in the minors and majors, but the team has always seemed reluctant to put him there. That reluctance goes back to his rookie year in 2019 — when they were willing to stick him in the OF, where he had never played — and it has never made sense. But alas, they finally have few enough options to avoid it. Now, we may still see Sosa or Donovan at SS and perhaps Edman in O’Neill’s vacated OF spot. Still, I fully expect Edman to get a chance to settle in at SS, as he is the most logical long-term option at the position if Gorman grabs hold of the 2B job.

I expect we will see Brendan Donovan become what Edman has been in years past, the super utility player, spending time in the outfield and around the infield. He has hit too well to restrict to the bench. He and Yepez both need to continue starting, and between LF, DH, and other regulars taking a day off, the at-bats are there to do so.

And just like that, with Gorman joining the fold, the Cardinals will have turned over 1/3 of their starting lineup in less than 3 weeks’ time.

Liberatore

This move was a little more unexpected. It is a bolder move for the Cardinals to go from outside the 40-man roster to fill in what is possibly a spot start — key word: possibly. More on that in a moment.

First, a quick look at his AAA numbers.

G IP ERA K% BB%
7 40 3.83 28.4% 7.4%

He has been very solid. It’s worth noting that he is only 22, which is young for AAA. Between last season and the start of this year, he has more than held his own.

So why Liberatore? (Other than the fact that he can help this team.)

Some circumstances led to this move. With the rainout on Monday forcing Miles Mikolas to Tuesday, the team suddenly needed an additional starter for this Saturday, after which the rotation will be back on turn. It was being discussed as a probable bullpen start, but with the bullpen being taxed on Wednesday and Thursday — following a Tuesday doubleheader — that wasn’t going to be the wisest of moves. Drew VerHagen likely would have drawn the start, but would have been unlikely to pitch more than 2 or 3 innings after recently returning from the IL. Other pitchers that would typically be involved in a bullpen game are Jake Woodford and Packy Naughton. Woodford was just sent to Memphis on the 15th, and Naughton on the 14th. They cannot be recalled yet. That is a case of bad timing. They optioned those guys right before the complicating factors arose.

An obvious pick on the 40-man roster to make a spot start would be Johan Oviedo. However, Oviedo threw 7 innings on Tuesday, which would have put him on short rest for Saturday. The Cardinals could have held him out of his Tuesday start, or limited his pitch count, and then assessed the need as the week played out. But they didn’t. They could have opted to add Connor Thomas to the 40-man. He was one of the last cuts made in spring training and last pitched on the 14th — though his AAA numbers are a mixed bag. They didn’t. They could be tagging in some other fresh arm on the 40-man like Rondon, Pacheco, Fernandez, or Zeuch to pick up innings behind VerHagen. They’re not.

They went for the top prospect, which isn’t always what they do.

All this to say — and to borrow Mike Shildt’s favorite word — the move feels intentional. Like I said, it’s normal for the Cardinals to bypass a top prospect in favor of a lesser player, if they feel that playing time may be sporadic or non-existent, or if it is a one-and-done situation. (See: Kramer Robertson’s 1-day call-up, instead of Gorman, because Sosa wasn’t quite ready to come off of the IL.) I think Liberatore has a real chance to stick around — should he pitch well — and that is why the team opted for him.

The implications

I think the call for Liberatore, and then machinations it requires to get him on the roster point towards other changes on the Cardinals pitching staff.

The Cardinals rotation has some leaks. The issues aren’t necessarily in pure run-preventing performance. As is, the team’s starting pitching ERA is 15th in baseball at 3.73. Toss out Packy Naughton’s spot start and Matz’s two giant clunkers — I’m not ignoring those, they are a problem — and in the other 35 games Cardinals starters have a 3.01 ERA, which would rank 3rd in baseball. I know that is cherry-picking, but it does emphasize that the unit is generally doing a good job of keeping runs off the board on a game-to-game basis. They are not, however, providing enough innings.

Matz has gone less than 5 innings in 3 of his 8 stars. Hudson has gone less than 5 innings in 4 of his 8 starts. Jordan Hicks — while building up on the fly — has only pitched 5 inning once in 6 starts. Those 3 starters have been pitching on consecutive days, which is a recipe for a worn out bullpen.

Hicks, who is an incredible talent, is reaching a point of not being a viable starter every 5th day. His already limited pitch count coupled with inconsistent command can put the team behind the 8-ball in a hurry. If Hudson or Matz throw a short start on either side of him, you end up with what we saw this week in New York. It may be time for Hicks to shift to a managed-rest role in the bullpen — replacing Walsh — and Liberatore may be the answer as his rotation replacement.

An order of Wainwright, Liberatore, Mikolas, Matz, and Hudson would improve the manageability of any short starts.

At the very least, taking this opportunity to alter Hicks’s schedule and slot him between Waino and Mikolas moving forward would be an improvement.

However, I think Liberatore deserves the chance to stick. He is an upside talent that has the potential to solidify a unit that has some vulnerabilities as currently constructed.

Now, going back to getting him on the roster, some of you are probably thinking “just (please) DFA McFarland.” I can’t say I disagree, but the Cardinals tend to wait out veterans until at least June before eating the money on their contract. They could surprise me and DFA him to simultaneously open a 26-man and 40-man roster spot, with Liberatore moving to bullpen and replacing TJ after this start, or staying in the rotation with Packy Naughton eventually returning as the 2nd LH reliever. Again, I would prefer Liberatore get his run as a SP, whether in St. Louis or Memphis. The Cardinals tend to relegate potential starters to relief duty and then they never escape from the bullpen, but I doubt that go that route with one of the better pitching prospects in baseball.

All-in-all, I’m excited to see the team make some bold moves.

The typical Cardinals move would have been recalling Nootbaar to play LF, rather than placing Gorman on the 40-man.

The typical Cardinals move would have been finding anyone but Liberatore to cover some innings on Saturday, rather than clearing a 40-man spot.

These aren’t the moves the Cardinals go for.

These are the types of moves that can spark a stagnant team.

Let ’em play.

Thanks for reading.

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals9066.577 -
Brewers8373.5327.0
Cubs7186.45219.5
Reds6097.38230.5
Pirates5997.37831.0

Last updated: 09/30/2022

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