You Don’t Have to Like It, but the Cardinals Have a Plan for Pitching

I’ve repeatedly expressed my concerns about the strength and depth of the Cardinals’ starting rotation for 2018. The word I keep coming back to is “vulnerable.”

There’s no need to rehash the reasons.

We’ve gone through it a hundred times … or so it seems.

Except for recruiting RH Miles Mikolas to come back to the states after three seasons in Japan, the Cardinals stayed out of the free-agent market this winter. At the time I’m typing this, three notable FA starters remain unsigned: Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. If you’re waiting for a late surprise signing to thicken the rotation, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Is this the part where I’m supposed to say “anything is possible?” OK, I suppose anything is possible. We have to go back to 2008 when the Cardinals pulled in the unsigned Kyle Lohse during spring training. He got a one-year deal for $4.25 million and gave the Cardinals 200 innings, 33 starts, 3.2 WAR, 15 wins and a 3.78 ERA. Lohse signed a four-year extension for $41 million late in the season. Lohshe’s 2009 and 2010 seasons were pretty much ruined by a forearm injury, but he healed and pitched very well in 2011 and 2012 before cashing in on a free-agent deal with Milwaukee.

The Cardinals were in a different position when they took a one-year flyer on Lohse and extended his stay for another four years. Other than Jaime Garcia — who went into the rotation in 2010 at the age of 23 — the organization wasn’t developing young starters. For a time the only young arms that made it through the system to start a minor number of games were Mitchell Boggs, Mike Parisi, P.J. Walters and Adam Ottavino.

Between 2008 and 2011, GM John Mozeliak had to fill in the team’s rotation by bringing in veterans via trade or moderate free-agent signings. That list includes Lohse, Jake Westbrook, Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper, Joel Piniero, Todd Wellemeyer and Edwin Jackson. It was pretty much a low-cost endeavor, with Lohse ($45 million as a Cardinal) and Westbrook ($24 million) getting the only contracts of note. Suppan, for example, was a tremendous bargain at three-years, $9 million.

Eventually player development director Jeff Luhnow got the pipeline pumping, and we began to see good young starters arrive, some of whom put in some prep time in the bullpen before moving into the big club’s rotation: Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Others (Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzalez) provided depth.

The Cardinals had so much young starting pitching, Mozeliak didn’t hesitate to flip Joe Kelly in a superb 2014 deadline trade that brought John Lackey to St. Louis. After the shocking death of No. 1 prospect Oscar Taveras following the 2014 season Mozeliak tried to fill the void by trading Miller to Atlanta for right fielder Jason Heyward. With Heyward entering his walk year, the Cardinals were OK with taking the risk of losing him to free agency following their 100-win 2015 season. Heyward rejected the Cards’ offer (approaching $200 million) to sign with the Cubs. The Cardinals were fortunate to avoid a costly mistake.

When Lance Lynn’s elbow blew out, the Cardinals were short of a starter for 2016 and signed Mike Leake to a five-year deal for $80 million. It wasn’t a smooth fit, Leake lasted less than two seasons. Mozeliak dumped a sizable portion of Leake’s contract by trading him to Seattle last Aug. 30.

In a separate deal, the Cardinals flipped Marco Gonzales to Seattle for power-hitting outfield prospect Tyler O’Neill. With superior pitching prospects on the rise, it wasn’t difficult for the Cardinals to move on from Gonzales.

The same principle was a factor in the Leake trade because the Cardinals eased a potential rotation logjam that likely would have blocked a young starter’s route to a spot in St.Louis. Leake’s guaranteed contract won’t expire until after the 2021 season.

This is also partially why the Cardinals traded Jaime Garcia to Atlanta before the 2017 season. With Garcia due to become a free agent after ‘17, and the Cardinals got something for him (RH pitcher John Gant) instead.

And after graduating Lynn, Martinez, Kelly, Miller and Wacha (and others) to the big leagues, the Cardinals are developing another collection of young arms. That’s among the reasons why the team made no effort to sign Lynn to a new contract. Lynn is still waiting for another team to make him an acceptable free-agent offer.

The Cardinals’ strategy is obvious. It explains why they’ve declined to bid on other free-agent starters. They’re leaving room at the inn. I’m not necessarily defending their strategy, but I do understand it.

Let’s walk through this:

2018 Season: Scheduled five-man rotation: Martinez, Mikolas, Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver. The sixth starter figures to be rookie Jack Flaherty or Gant. Wainwright’s five-year contract contract expires after the season. If the Cardinals decline to offer another contract to Wainwright, that opens a spot for a young starter …

2019 season: The rotation would feature five pitchers from this group of six: Martinez, Mikolas, Weaver, Wacha, Alex Reyes, Flaherty. Other young arms could be part of the mix by then. (Perhaps Dakota Hudson and lefty Austin Gomber for example.) Mikolas can become a free agent after the 2019 campaign; same with Wacha. But suppose the Cardinals trade Wacha before 2019 to open a slot for a younger starter? Assuming that Wacha’s final season in St. Louis would be no later than 2019, and Mikolas would leave after ‘19, that means …

2020 and beyond:  In theory the Cardinals would have four pieces in the rotation: Martinez, Weaver, Reyes and Flaherty. And the Cards could also have the same four starters in place for 2021, 2022, and 2023.  Keep in mind that Martinez will be under team control through 2023 as long as the Cardinals exercise option years in ‘22 and ‘23. And the other three are a long way from their free-agent years. OK, what about the fifth spot for 2020 and subsequent years?

There’s no clear answer. But given that last season we saw Hudson advanced to Triple A Memphis and Gomber make it to Class AA Springfield, they’re prime candidates beginning late this season or 2019.  But the Cardinals should have plenty to choose from.

They can always use pitching prospects, young arms, as trade chips to acquire a more established starter.  And it’s possible to find a veteran starter on a short-team deal — as they did with Lackey in 2014. The key here is to be careful about throwing long-term, big-money deals to veteran starters. That’s how payrolls get top heavy and untenable.

The Houston Astros went into 2017 with a youngish rotation but still needed a lift from Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton to win the World Series.

And if the STL organization has a load of promising young pitching, opportunities must be available at the major-league level.

As the Astros proved, veteran starters can be added later.

In the opening 2018 review of top 30 prospects in every organization, the Pipeline lists 14 pitchers among the Cards’ top 30. Five of the top eight are pitchers. Seven of the top 15 are pitchers.

1-Alex Reyes

2-Jack Flaherty

6-Dakota Hudson

7-Jordan Hicks

8-Ryan Helsley

14-Austin Gomber

15-Junior Fernandez

20-Alvaro Seijas

21-Conner Greene

22-Jake Woodford

23-Connor Jones

24-Johan Oviedo

25-Derian Gonzalez

29-Ryan Sherriff

Several names on the list project as relievers — especially Hicks and Helsley. And Sherriff did a solid job as a lefty reliever for the Cardinals late last season. But the Cardinals have a large pool of potential starting-pitching candidates for future use.

Sure, young pitchers can break down at any time. Reyes, the top prospect, missed all of 2017 while rehabbing from elbow surgery. As we know, elbow and shoulder injuries are a chronic problem within the industry.

Veteran pitchers break down too.

I’ve already referenced Lohse’s forearm issues that rendered him ineffective in 2009 and 2010.

After signing the five-year contract for just under $100 million Wainwright had an exceptional 2014 season. But he made only four starts before rupturing an Achilles’ tendon in 2015, and has struggled in each of the last two seasons. Wainwright had an elbow procedure following the 2017 season. After posting 4.9 WAR in 2014, Wainwright has 5.3 WAR over the past three seasons combined. (An average of just under 1.8 WAR per season. Waino also missed all of 2011 after undergoing elbow surgery.

Between 2007 and 2013 — seven seasons — Chris Carpenter was paid nearly $84 million. Injuries wiped out his 2007 and 2008 seasons, kept him sidelined through most of 2012, and Carp couldn’t pitch at all in 2013. But his amazing performance in the 2011 postseason made it all worth it.

Jaime Garcia missed all of 2009 (elbow) and most of 2013 (shoulder) and 2014 (thoracic outlet syndrome). As mentioned, Lynn (elbow) missed all of 2016.

Young arms need surgeries. Old arms need surgeries.

One difference: older arms tend to make a helluva lot more money than the young arms.

If the Cardinals want to go ahead and buy low on, say, Arrieta … if indeed that’s possible … there will be no objections here. But I understand that there’s a plan in place. And isn’t exactly stupid or irrational.

Thanks for reading …


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