Cardinals: Setting Up the Rotation for a Stretch Run

It’s been a few years since we’ve had any reason to analyze the way in which the starting rotation would line up for the final month of the regular season. For the last 2 years the Cardinals have sat on the fringes of contention, putting them in a “take your best shots now and figure it out later” situation. This season, they look much more like a contender, rather than the pretenders that they were in ’16 and ’17. They still aren’t in a luxurious situation where they can simply line up their starters to be rested and aligned for an NLDS, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make small adjustments to better their situation.

With the news on Sunday that Luke Weaver would be pitching out of the bullpen for the time being — and with Michael Wacha officially starting his rehab assignment — it’s a good opportunity to look at what the schedule holds and how things can set up going forward.

It has already been announced that Daniel Poncedeleon will be taking Weaver’s spot in the rotation on Tuesday night in Los Angeles. I believe this will be a one-and-done situation. Due to off-days on Thursday and Monday, the Cardinals will not need a 5th starter again until Saturday, September 1st. Poncedeleon will likely be optioned to Memphis following the start on Tuesday.

Other than the lack of a need for a 5th starter during the final week of August, they also need to make room for the return of Carlos Martinez, who is eligible to return on Tuesday, but could easily be activated Wednesday following the Poncedeleon option.

Ponce would then be able to stay on schedule by pitching Monday in Memphis and be on turn again on September 1st. That happens to be the next opening for a 5th starter in St. Louis and conveniently lines up with expanded rosters, meaning there won’t be any more tough roster decisions.

Michael Wacha’s current schedule lines him up to return either on September 2nd against Cincinnati (3 rehab starts) or Sept. 7th in Detroit (4 rehab starts). Again, because he won’t be back until September, no one gets squeezed off the 25-man to make room.

He would essentially push Poncedeleon back to the bullpen following his September 1st start.

So let’s make two assumptions. 1) Wacha returns on September 2nd. 2) Gant is bumped from rotation by Wacha while Gomber stays, in September. The 5th starter in September could be any one of Weaver, Gant, Poncedeleon, or Ross.

Playoff race dependent, look at September 22nd for a possible ceremonial Adam Wainwright start at home against San Francisco in what could be a last look for the St. Louis crowd.

Let’s get to it, here’s how things would line up.

20-Aug @ LAD Gomber 10-Sep vs. PIT Gomber
21-Aug @ LAD Poncedeleon 11-Sep vs. PIT 5th
22-Aug @ LAD Flaherty 12-Sep vs. PIT Wacha
23-Aug OFF DAY 13-Sep vs. LAD Flaherty
24-Aug @ COL Mikolas 14-Sep vs. LAD Mikolas
25-Aug @ COL Gant 15-Sep vs. LAD Gomber
26-Aug @ COL Gomber 16-Sep vs. LAD 5th
27-Aug OFF DAY (Skip 5th) 17-Sep @ ATL Wacha
28-Aug vs. PIT Flaherty 18-Sep @ ATL Flaherty
29-Aug vs. PIT Mikolas 19-Sep @ ATL Mikolas
30-Aug vs. PIT Gant 20-Sep OFF DAY
31-Aug vs. CIN Gomber 21-Sep vs. SF Gomber
1-Sep vs. CIN Poncedeleon 22-Sep vs. SF 5th
2-Sep vs. CIN Wacha 23-Sep vs. SF Wacha
3-Sep @ WAS Flaherty 24-Sep vs. MIL Flaherty
4-Sep @ WAS Mikolas 25-Sep vs. MIL Mikolas
5-Sep @ WAS Gomber 26-Sep vs. MIL Gomber
6-Sep OFF DAY (Skip 5th) 27-Sep OFF DAY (Skip 5th)
7-Sep @ DET Wacha 28-Sep @ CHC Wacha
8-Sep @ DET Flaherty 29-Sep @ CHC Flaherty
9-Sep @ DET Mikolas 30-Sep @ CHC Mikolas

A couple of key points.

1) This alignment gets Jack Flaherty into the final Milwaukee series, a matchup the team likes. This is evidence by them pushing Flaherty back a day to get him into last Friday’s Milwaukee game.

2) This alignment sets up two tough road series to feature their best 3 pitchers — Wacha, Flaherty, and Mikolas — first in Atlanta and again in Chicago. They would feature the same trio in Detroit, giving them their best possible pitching matchups in their final 12 road games.

3) 3 of Wacha’s 6 starts would come at home, where he has pitched extremely well in his career. One of his road starts would come against a bad Detroit team. Additionally, Wacha’s return date does not affect the alignment for the rest of the month. If he return on the 2nd, they skip the 5th and he pitches again on the 7th. If he returns on the 7th, then they keep everyone on turn during the previous rotation and use a 5th starter on 9/5.

4) Yes, you could not skip the 5th starter on 9/6, pushing everyone back and Wacha into the Dodgers series, but it would push a Miles Mikolas start to after the 9/20 off-day and thus make him a non-option for the season finale against the Cubs. With the Wild Card being hotly contested, you want to have Mikolas available for that last game.

Mikolas in the season finale is perfect if the division is on the line on the final day. If it isn’t, then you can hold him out for the Wild Card game (or NLDS Game 1, if they do the right thing and overtake the Cubs) and use your 5th starter in his place. It builds in an option depending on the situation.

5) The biggest concern here is Wacha’s career struggles against the Cubs. I sliced up this schedule as many ways as I could and Wacha always ends up in the Cubs series. Here’s the thing though, at least it’s game 1 with Flaherty and Mikolas trailing him. Also, this manager won’t hang him out to dry like we’ve seen done in the past.

If all goes well, the Cardinals have Wacha and Flaherty in position for Games 1 & 2 of a Division Series. The worst case scenario is having the Wild Card come down to the final game and having to use Mikolas on that Sunday, leaving you with one of Gomber or a 5th starter option for the Wild Card game. If that happened, don’t rule out Martinez in an “opener” role for 2-3 innings, piggybacked by the rest of the cast.

But that is worst case scenario, other than — you know — missing the playoffs completely.

This is all subject to change, but the Cardinals are poised to take their best shot.

Thanks for reading!

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