The Cardinals’ Potential Rotation Problem

The Cardinals don’t have a rotation problem. Which is to say, they don’t have a rotation problem right now. What they do have — as the title of this post suggests — is a potential problem in the first few months of the season if the current members of the rotation underachieve. For most teams with fine rotations — like the Cardinals — the cause for concern is a lack of depth. That is not, however, the Cardinals’ issue at the moment. The Cardinals’ potential issue is that their current sixth and seventh starter might be significantly better than the pitchers in their starting five.

While the Cardinals do not have an endless supply of starters ready to take the ball every fifth day, the team does have seven pitchers projected for at least league-average performance this season. The evidence supporting such a claim is below, taken from our Depth Charts.

Cardinals Starting Rotation Projections
Carlos Martinez 204 9.1 3.1 0.9 3.55 3.63 4.2
Adam Wainwright 142 6.8 2.8 1.0 4.27 4.17 2.0
Michael Wacha 165 8.3 3.0 1.1 4.00 3.91 2.8
Luke Weaver 147 8.6 2.5 1.1 3.79 3.79 2.7
Miles Mikolas 120 8.0 2.5 1.3 4.15 4.16 1.7
Alex Reyes 94 10.3 4.6 0.9 3.81 3.89 1.6
Jack Flaherty 46 8.1 3.1 1.2 4.23 4.32 0.6

It should be pretty easy to see why the Cardinals don’t appear to have a rotation problem. The first five guys in the rotation all project as average to above-average pitchers, and the Cardinals possess two more pitchers waiting in the wings who should be able to do the same. Now, let’s take the numbers above, and scale them to 180 innings.

Cardinals Starting Rotation Projections
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR WAR/180
Carlos Martinez 204 9.1 3.1 0.9 3.55 3.63 4.2 3.7
Luke Weaver 147 8.6 2.5 1.1 3.79 3.79 2.7 3.3
Alex Reyes 94 10.3 4.6 0.9 3.81 3.89 1.6 3.1
Michael Wacha 165 8.3 3.0 1.1 4.00 3.91 2.8 3.1
Miles Mikolas 120 8.0 2.5 1.3 4.15 4.16 1.7 2.6
Adam Wainwright 142 6.8 2.8 1 4.27 4.17 2 2.5
Jack Flaherty 46 8.1 3.1 1.2 4.23 4.32 0.6 2.3

Even here, there still isn’t a noticeable problem. In fact, the quality of rotation arms the Cardinals can roll out this season is near the best in baseball. I scaled all of our Depth Chart Projections for starting pitchers to 180 innings — for starters projected to make at least three starts — and looked at the number of decent starters per team. The graph below shows the number of starters on each team with a projected WAR/180 IP of at at least 2.0 this season.

More than half of the teams in the league lack five starters who project as average. The poor White Sox only have one, Carlos Rodon, and he’s set to start the season on the disabled list. The Los Angeles Dodgers top the list, though one of their highly projected pitchers is Julio Urias, who is out until at least the summer. The Arizona Diamondbacks face a similar situation with Shelby Miller, who is likely out until July after Tommy John surgery last May. The Cardinals have a slight caveat here, as well: Alex Reyes is coming back from Tommy John surgery, too. He had his procedure performed last February. He’s already pitching to batters, but the Cardinals have set a target date of May 1 to return. Regardless, the Cardinals have enviable starting pitching depth.

The potential problem lies in the Cardinals’s choice to start potentially mediocre pitchers ahead of more talented pitchers available in the minor leagues. If the projections above are correct, Alex Reyes is the Cardinals’ third-best starter, and he’s not too far off from second. Reyes pitched brilliantly in his debut in 2016, posting a combined 2.67 FIP and a 1.57 ERA between his starting and relief work; he had a 2.48 FIP in his five starts. He entered 2017 as one of the top-10 prospects in baseball — sixth at FanGraphs — before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Missing a season still put him at 16th this year. He’s got top-of-the-rotation stuff, and right now the question is how long the Cardinals will wait to call on him.

Any decision on Reyes can be put off at least a month, but a potential Jack Flaherty issue could rear its head a little sooner. Flaherty doesn’t have the prospect cachet Reyes does, ranking a solid 65th this year. In the 22-year-old righty’s debut last season, his results were mixed, with walks and homers hurting his numbers in a small, 21.1-inning sample. This spring, Flaherty came to camp with an improved sinker to complement his slider, and he’s struck out 20 of the 54 (37%) batters he’s faced, surrendering five walks. In his last two starts, he struck out 15 batters in nine innings against just three walks. We don’t want to factor spring performance into our expectations too much, but Flaherty’s projection right now says he is a slightly above-average starter. If his strikeout rates in Triple-A this year move up from the 25% he put up in the minors last year, his projections might be on the low side.

As the projections stand now, Flaherty is still No. 7 on the depth chart and not deserving of a rotation spot. But that position is not set in stone, due both to Flaherty’s own performance and that of the Cardinals pitchers ahead of him. The starters ahead of Flaherty have some risk and downside. Some poor batted-ball luck in the first half of 2017 ruined an otherwise decent 3.81 FIP, but Adam Wainwright acknowledges he pitched poorly in the second half of last season. The tall righty walked more players than he struck out, had an ugly 6.08 FIP, and managed to pitch just 26.1 innings. His velocity was way down and his curve suffered.

Wainwright had surgery in the offseason on his right elbow that was meant to clean up his arm and fix the velocity issue. He has gotten outs in spring training, but the real test will come in a little over a week when he is asked to turn over a lineup multiple times. It’s possible Wainwright will pitch to his projections or match his production from the first half of last season. If that’s the case, Flaherty and Reyes aren’t going to be big improvements over what Wainwright has to offer. If Wainwright’s less than average, though, the the issue of if or when to replace him comes into play. One bad start won’t do it. What about two? What if it is three out of four, but he showed signs of getting it together in that one good start? How long the team sticks with a struggling starter could make a big difference in the standings at the end of the year.

Decisions made in March shouldn’t be so easily changed in April, but if Wainwright struggles, the Cardinals organization is going to be faced with a tough question regarding their former ace, who is one of the better pitchers in franchise history. The problem might not be limited to Wainwright. Miles Mikolas is coming over from three years of pitching in Japan, and his adjustment could come with some hurdles. Michael Wacha has battled injuries in the past. Luke Weaver could be the team’s second-best starter, but he has fewer than 100 major-league innings and had a rough finish to last year.

Generally, these problems work themselves out. Unfortunately, somebody will probably get hurt or be so ineffective that they lose their spot. Even still, being forced to constantly evaluate the rotation could potentially create a problem, especially if the Cardinals get off to a slow start. The team landed Marcell Ozuna in the offseason, but there were calls to do more. The team has lowered their payroll despite incredible attendance and a new local TV deal that kicks in this season.

A year ago, seven starters made 159 of 162 starts for St. Louis. Of those seven, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake are gone, but Mikolas and Reyes should replace them nicely. If the Cardinals can have their seven-best starters take the ball for nearly every game, they should be in very good shape. How to distribute those starts could pose a problem, albeit one many teams would envy.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

I am sure he doesn’t factor in this season, but do you make anything of Dakota Hudson? I can’t help but thinking that as soon as next year the Cardinals could have a full homegrown rotation of Martinez, Reyes, Weaver, Flarhety and Hudson. Not that they probably would, but they could.

6 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

I think Hudson’s in a group with Gomber, Helsley, Gant and maybe Poncedeleon of guys who will have to wait their turn for the 6th starter role.

6 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

Why would they start Hudson over Wacha (who don’t forget is also homegrown)? Also, if Mikolas is good, he’ll be under contract for one more year. The rest is certainly accurate, though

6 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I don’t think Wacha’s health is safe enough to trust long term, but that’s a lot of doom and gloom. I also wonder if his stuff wouldn’t just play better in the bullpen sometimes.