The Cardinals have one of the most remarkable problems imaginable at spring training in Jupiter, FL. With Carlos Martinez out with an injured shoulder that will likely keep him out for the beginning of the season, there’s a competition for a rotation spot among at least four pitchers. Not many major league teams have that much depth. And we as fans can’t seem to agree on who should get that spot. Should it be John Gant, who was fourth among Cardinals starters with nineteen starts last year (third among remaining pitchers with Luke Weaver traded to Arizona) and posted a 3.47 ERA? Should it be Dakota Hudson, who was the Cardinals minor league pitcher of the year? What about Alex Reyes, who has been the franchise’s top prospect for years? Or Austin Gomber, the only lefty of the group who started eleven games last year?
Gant is the oldest of the group at 26 and has the most major league starting experience with 28 major league starts. In his nineteen starts last year, Gant was 5-6 with a 3.61 ERA. He struck out 7.5 per nine innings and walked 48 in 97 1/3 innings. He also received 4.11 runs of support per start, less than Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Martinez, Gomber and Weaver. And…this can’t be discounted…Gant is out of options. If he’s not on the Cardinals, he’s likely going to be with a different major league team.
Hudson was terrific out of the bullpen last year, but doesn’t really profile as a relief pitcher. On a Cardinal team that needs strikeouts out of the bullpen, last year in the majors he averaged 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, striking out nineteen and walking eighteen in 27 1/3 innings. Neither of those numbers are what you’re looking for from a reliever. However, he’s a four-pitch pitcher who last year in Triple A went 13-3 with a 2.50 ERA, 87 strikeouts and 38 walks in 111 2/3 innings in 19 starts. Even though he left Memphis in July, Hudson was named the PCL’s pitcher of the year. While Gant is in his ninth year of pro ball, Hudson is in his fourth. Despite his inexperience, Hudson’s slider might be the best in the organization. He also features a 96 mph two seam fastball and a very good cutter. His four seamer gets up there at 98. His ceiling is extremely high.
Reyes has the nastiest stuff of any of these guys, but also presents the greatest concern. He’s thrown four major league innings in the last two years, so he must be treated with kid gloves. How dominant can he be? Well, last year on a minor league rehab tour, he made four starts at four different levels. In 23 innings he didn’t allow a run, striking out 44 and walking seven. When he’s ready to go, he’ll get it up there at 96, but he features three other outstanding pitches with a slider, curve and changeup. The question about Reyes is how much can he be used? Would it be smart to start him at Memphis or in the bullpen? Or does he start the season in the rotation with the knowledge that he’ll have to be shut down at some point? The Cardinals will have to come up with an innings count for Reyes, and when they nail that down, they can decide how to use him out of the box.
Gomber, as noted, is the only lefthander among ten potential Cardinal starters. While he was good against lefty hitters, he wasn’t dominant against them, allowing a .744 OPS and a .333 OPB. Righthanded hitters hit Gomber for an .804 OPS. He had eighteen strikeouts in 99 plate appearances against lefties, and 49 in 235 plate appearances against righties. If Gomber is going to be in the rotation, it’s going to be due to the lefty hitters in the division…Christian Yelich and Travis Shaw in Milwaukee, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber in Chicago, Joey Votto and Scooter Gennett in Cincinnati, and Gregory Polanco and Corey Dickerson in Pittsburgh. Gomber got 6.73 runs of support per start last year, which was tops on the Cardinals.
So here are the pros and cons. For Gant, the pros are his experience, the fact that he was the best of this group last year, and that he can pitch with limited run support. The negative for Gant is that he doesn’t possess the upside that the other guys do. Keep in mind that Gant can’t be optioned to the minors either. Hudson’s pros include his youth, his amazing upside as a starter, and his array of good pitches. His cons are his relative lack of experience as a pro and the belief that he could use more seasoning in the rotation. Reyes is clearly the Cardinal…with all due respect to Jack Flaherty…that has the best chance to dominate every time he takes the mound. His biggest negative is his health history. How many starts can he be used for? And Gomber projects as a big league lefty starter, but isn’t dominant. Even though he’s lefthanded, will he be so much better against lefthanded hitters than any of the other three that he needs to be used?
Everything being reasonably equal in spring training, here’s the way I’d go. Gant would start the season in my rotation. What he’s done so far gives me every reason to believe he’ll be a solid fifth guy in the rotation until Martinez is back, and I can’t send him down. Hudson starts the season as my number one starter in Memphis, and in the event of injury to Wacha or Wainwright, he needs to be on standby. Reyes is in my major league bullpen, where I can track his innings every day. If Wacha, Wainwright or Gant are five inning starters or less, Reyes is a piggy back until I get to my bridge to the ninth inning. And Gomber joins Hudson in my Memphis rotation, on call just as he was last year. With off days in April and a twelve-man staff, my big league rotation, therefore, is Mikolas, Flaherty, Wacha, Wainwright and Gant. My bullpen has Jordan Hicks, Dominic Leone, John Brebbia, Mike Mayers, Reyes, Andrew Miller and either Brett Cecil or another lefty like Chasen Shreve, Tyler Webb or Genesis Cabrera. And after April, perhaps there’s an injury and/or Martinez is ready to go. Still 24 days to go before the opener and a lot can change, but that’s my plan right now.