The No-Rush, No-Worries Cardinals Lead MLB In Offseason Pondering.

The Cardinals are slow-playing the starting-pitching market, and I guess my reaction would best be described as a shrug.

Why? Because the Cards don’t profile as a big spender in this market. And that’s especially true with a rotation that became a team strength in 2019.

I wasn’t expecting much.

We’ll see.

The St. Louis starters ranked fifth in the majors last season with a 3.78 ERA. After the All-Star break the Cardinals went 47-27, and the rotation led the way by clicking for a 3.15 ERA.

Only the Mets had a better second-half ERA than the Cardinals, who surged to the top of the NL Central in a 91-win season capped by the first trip to the playoffs since 2015 … and the first postseason-round triumph since ‘14.

But the Cardinals hope to reinforce the rotation this winter, and that makes sense. Last season the Cards used strict run prevention to overcome an offense that finished 10th among 15 NL teams in runs per game, 12th in slugging, and 11th in OPS.

If the Cardinals struggle offensively again in 2020 they’ll need to be just as stingy — or even more miserly — about giving up runs.

In 2015 the Cardinals won 100 games on the shoulders of a rotation that delivered the No. 1 ERA in the majors at 2.99. The ‘15 Cardinals also scuffled offensively, ranking 11th in the league in runs per game. But the rotation kept the foundation sturdy.

In 2016 the Cardinals tailed off to 86 victories and failed to make the postseason despite having an improved offense that ranked third in the NL with 4.81 runs per game. That’s because the rotation weakened, ranking 13th overall nd seventh in the NL with a 4.33 ERA.

It’s been said many times before: starting pitching is the great equalizer. The Cardinals would be silly to go into the 2020 campaign with a thin rotation.

With Michael Wacha signing a one-year contract (for $3 million) with the Mets this week, the Cardinals officially have an opening in their 2020 rotation.

There are a number of ways to fill the void.

— Hope for Carlos Martinez to return to pitching health and happiness.

— Hope for a miracle vision on the mound: a healthy and dominating Alex Reyes.

— Stay within the organization and give an opportunity to a younger — or less established — starter.

— Sign a free agent.

— Trade for a starting pitcher.

Here’s a brief look at each category:

1. Carlos Martinez, time to roll … by rolling back the clock.

If he’s truly over the shoulder troubles, then the Cardinals have their starter. It’s important to remember his outstanding work over his first three years in the STL rotation before the injuries set Martinez back and relegated him to bullpen-closer duties late in 2018, and for much of 2019.

But from 2015 through 2017, among 55 MLB pitchers that worked at least 450 innings over that time, Martinez was tied for 12th with a 3.24 ERA; ranked 11th for most innings; was tied for 10th with 42 wins; had the 12th-highest strikeout total; yielded the sixth-lowest rate of homers allowed per nine innings; got enough ground balls to rank third in double plays.

Using the Baseball Reference version of Wins Above Replacement, Martinez ranked 12th among MLB starters in bWAR over the three seasons.

That was a helluva pitcher. And if Martinez can get back to that level, the Cards’ rotation can be even more effective in 2020.

2. Dear baseball gods: please be kind to Alex Reyes.

It’s so sad. So cruel. So unfair. Injuries have essentially wiped out three consecutive seasons of a potentially brilliant career. In 2016, Reyes was the top pitching prospect in baseball. He graduated to the big club in August of ‘16, and powered to a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 46 innings.

And as we all know too well, a sequence of debilitating injuries limited Reyes to seven innings — total — over the last three years. He’s healthy for now. He’s on a normal throwing program. There are no restrictions. Now it’s just a question of having good pitching health, and good luck. The immensely talented Reyes is a live-wire candidate, and still young at 25. But there is absolutely no reason to make lofty predictions for 2020. His task is really this simple: one pitch at a time, one batter at a time, one inning at a time …and so on.

3. Open the competition and give a crack at the rotation to a developing Cardinal arm.

The most pertinent names: lefties Austin Gomber and Genesis Cabrera. Right-handers Ryan Helsley and Daniel Ponce de Leon. And maybe RH Jake Woodford.

I don’t have much to add … except a couple of opinions:

The two left-handers are the most intriguing because the Cardinals could use a lefty in the rotation. Cabrera has the wicked stuff, and the heat. Gomber has a more subtle assortment highlighted by a curve which befuddled MLB hitters into a .229 average and .314 slug. But hitters pounded Gomber’s four-seam fastball in 2018, and that must change. And this: will Gomber rebound from an injury-marred 2019?

As for Cabrera: can he throw strikes and establish consistency? Does he have enough variety of pitches in his toolbox?

Helsley has the 98 mph fastball, and the edgy competitiveness and primarily worked as a starter in the minors. As a reliever for the Cardinals last season, Helsley sliced his way to outs with a nasty slider. But his high-speed fastball was crushed for a .310 average and .540 slug last season; four of the 87 at-bats that ended with the four-seam went over the wall for a home run.

Ponce de Leon and Woodford have talent. But to be an asset at the MLB level, both will have to cut down on the walks.

4. Do something about the ridiculous outfield surplus and make a trade.

Move one of the 500 outfielders for a back-rotation starting pitcher. I don’t make Fantasy GM trades; waste of time. But what will happen if the Cardinals try and swap a young outfielder — and perhaps an additional second-tier prospect — for a respectable starter? Do other teams think much of the Cards’ young outfielders? The value assessment would be revealing.

5. Spend some money. It doesn’t have to be stupid money. But sign a free-agent starter.

As I type this at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, 13 starting pitchers had signed free-agent contracts. That leaves another 49 still available for signing. But only some of the names at the bottom of that list are damaged by injuries or just plain burned out.

Only four of the 49 starters have a projected FanGraphs WAR of 2.0 or higher for 2020. And one of those fellows, lefty Rich Hill, is rehabbing an elbow injury. Another 13 free-agent starters have a projected WAR between 1.0 and 1.9 for next season.

As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals could use a left-handed starter. As of Thursday afternoon, the seven of the top eight available free-agent starters based on projected fWAR are all lefties: Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.9), Dallas Keuchel (2.6), Rich Hill (2.1), Madison Bumgarner (2.1), Martin Perez (1.9), Brett Anderson (1.7) and Gio Gonzalez (1.5).

The only RH starter spotted in the top-eight ranking is Homer Bailey at 1.5 projected fWAR. Rounding out the top 10 are lefty Wade Miley (1.4) and RH Ivan Nova (1.3).

I offer no recommendations here. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the best-available assortment. And I also realize that the Cardinals are a long shot to jump in with an aggressive offer to the most coveted remaining free-agent starters.

As of now, 26 of the 30 MLB teams have made a trade and/or signed a free agent so far this offseason. Only four teams, including the Cardinals, have stayed out of the market. But it’s early. At least until it’s late.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie