The 2023 season is almost upon us and the 2023 rotation is basically set, so I'm going to talk to you about the 2024 rotation (so no, you didn't read that title of the article incorrectly - nor is it a mistype) for your St. Louis Cardinals! Completely logical, right?
Ugh. Completely...logical for me of all writers?
In 2024, the St. Louis Cardinals rotation will lose future Cardinals Hall of Famer Adam Wainwright to retirement. Their contract with Miles Mikolas ends when the 2023 season is over. So does their contract with Jack Flaherty. So does their contract with Jordan Montgomery. So does their contract with Drew VerHagen. So does their contract with Jordan Hicks (that one is hard for me to believe, but Cot's says it's true - with the <40 innings we got from him in 2019-2021, it's just crazy to me). Now, any and all of those things could change. The Cardinals could legitimately try to re-sign all of those players and the Cardinals could legitimately allow all of them to leave after the season. That's why this article is so fun right now, before any extensions happen!
This article is going to go under the assumption that those players listed above all leave. What is left for the Cardinals to do in 2024 in their rotation? Over at Viva El Birdos, they don't believe this to be a problem. However, we'll start with the internal options. Who in the world is even left?
Steven Matz. Steven Matz is the only current St. Louis Cardinal rotation member remaining of their 2023 group. They have Steven Matz signed through the 2025 season. They also have a former rotation member in Dakota Hudson signed through the 2024 season. Those, scary or not, would be your top two remaining starters as of this writing, months before even spring training begins.
The Cardinals also have 5 more players who have made at least one start at the major league level who are still going to be under contract after the 2023 season. Those five are as follows:
Jake Woodford 10 starts, signed through 2026.
Andre Pallante 10 starts, signed through 2027.
Packy Naughton 8 starts, signed through 2027.
Matthew Liberatore 7 starts, signed through at least 2028.
Zack Thompson 1 start, signed through at least 2028.
However, we've already seen Hudson (just in 2022), Woodford, Pallante, Naughton, and Thompson relegated to bullpen roles. In the last few years, not many players have made it off of the bullpen pitcher role onto the starting rotation role successfully as we saw throughout the TLR/Matheny eras. So we might have to look deeper than those guys.
Down on the farm, their top SP prospects likely to start the season at AAA according to the roster resource at Fangraphs are:
Connor Thomas (on the 40 man)
their top prospect likely to start at AA is:
and their top prospects likely to start at High A are:
Markevian "Tink" Hence
That's a whole lot of names, 15 of them in fact, to consider for the St. Louis Cardinals rotation in 16 months. How many of those strike fear into the hearts of opponents currently? Okay, let's scale that back a bit. How many of those names even give you a sliver of hope for the 2024 season?
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I haven't brought this idea up in a couple of years. Could the Cardinals be in a good position to actually use more of a piggyback system or some other modified rotation that they kind of began to use a bit more last year?
Now, I have absolutely no clue what my projections will say for innings pitched per start (IP/GS) for the 2024 season yet. I'm still nailing down projections for the 2023 season. However, here's what I have so far for 10 of these 15 names for this year in terms of IP/GS. (I have not even projected the last five - those below AAA - for this season.)
That's an average of 4.35 innings per game in that top group and an average of 2.55 innings per game in that bottom group.
If you figure the Cardinals roll with five of the top group every fifth game, giving you 4 1/3 innings a game and the roll with three of the bottom group giving you 2 2/3 innings every third game, that would be a total of eight pitchers on your staff giving you 7 innings per game on a regular basis. That would allow you to cover the 8th and 9th innings with the five remaining pitchers from your 13-man pitching staff that are in your bullpen.
Could that be the best way that the Cardinals could fill innings in 2024, internally? Maybe. I'm sure that some of these guys listed above will take steps forward this season. I'm also sure that if pitchers knew that they were going every fifth day and got more into their rhythm, they'd be able to pitch more effectively and deeper into games...so this is likely a worst case scenario listed above, even allowing for one player in each group to be injured at a time.
So let's say that the Cardinals could internally at least cover the innings just fine. That's the assumption above. The question then turns to how good will those innings be?
Here are those 10 players again, with 1) the projected innings pitched above, 2) their career ERAs by level and then 3) my projected ERA totals for the 2023 season only.
I think if those numbers prove true, your clear number one is Dakota Hudson...who is your 6th starter entering 2023 due to his difficulty in 2022. That's nowhere near ideal. I think the logical number one is Steven Matz, but with these numbers looking like they are, that is also nowhere near ideal.
There has to be a better solution...and that solution is going to have to be external. Of course, attempting to extend any/all of Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and/or Jordan Montgomery could and should happen. However, the Cardinals could turn towards a completely new direction attempting to grab as many high strikeout pitchers pitchers as possible (I'll look at the statistic K%-BB%) and really turn this rotation around in a way where maybe it can match its' offense a little better in terms of talent level (more on that this week from me coming as well). THAT would be exciting.
K%-BB% is literally just what it looks like. It is the percent of batters a pitcher strikes out minus the percent of batters a hitter walks. It has been statistically proven to stabilize more quickly as a future ERA estimator than any other ERA estimator in use today (FIP, xFIP, xERA, SIERA). To put the following numbers into context, league average from 2020-22 K%-BB% for starting pitchers was 21.6%-7.5% (14.1%). That's a 21.6% K rate, a 7.5% BB rate, and a difference of 14.1%.
Without further ado, here is a list of selected potential free agent starting pitchers after 2023 and their K%-BB% from 2020-22:
Trevor Bauer: 33.4%-7.6% (25.8%) - well above average
Clayton Kershaw: 28.5%-4.3% (24.2%) - well above average
Shohei Ohtani: 31.3%-7.9% (23.3%) - well above average
Yu Darvish: 28.0%-5.4% (22.6%) - well above average
Julio Urias: 24.5%-5.8% (18.7%) - above aveage
Hyun-Jin Ryu: 21.2%-5.3% (15.9%) - above average
Noah Syndergaard: 16.8%-5.5% (11.3%) - below average
Martin Perez: 19.6%-8.5% (11.1%) - below average
A handful of others can join that list either through opting out with a player option or getting bought out rather than their team picking up a club option.
Max Scherzer (opt out): 32.5%-5.3% (27.2%) - well above average
Charlie Morton (club option): 28.0%-7.9% (20.1%) - above average
Lance Lynn (club option): 26.0%-5.9% (20.1%) - above average
Sean Manaea (opt out): 24.0%-6.1% (17.9%) - above average
Eduardo Rodriguez (opt out): 24.1%-7.6% (16.5%) - above average
Marcus Stroman (opt out): 21.3%-6.2% (15.2%) - essentially average
Of course, looking for free agents comes with another set of problems. One of those problems is payroll. Cardinals payroll, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts is currently ~$172M. Opening day payroll for 2024 is currently listed at ~$94M. That does NOT account for arbitration raises to Tyler O'Neill, Tommy Edman, Ryan Helsley, Dakota Hudson, Genesis Cabrera, Andrew Knizner, Dylan Carlson, Jojo Romero, or Jake Woodford, nor does it account for any pre-arbitration players. However, it accounts for a $2M buyout of Paul DeJong's contract. $21.5M in arbitration raises is a good estimated amount plus an additional $10M in pre-arb contracts assuming no other signings/extensions.
That puts payroll for 2024 already at ~$125M. If Derrick Goold's reporting is right and the Cardinals are prepared for a $180M to $185M payroll this season, then I would imagine a $190M payroll next year should be the expectation - at the low end since Wainwright's going to bring fans in during his final season.
Imagining a $190M payroll gives us $65M to make this rotation respectable. Let's attempt to do so:
Scherzer would be opting out of a $43.3M contract. He's out as that'd be 2/3 of the money remaining under the team's assumed self-imposed cap.
Manaea would be opting out of a $15M contract, so he'd probably be worth 1/3 of the money, most likely looking for $20M or more.
Rodriguez would be opting out of $18M in 2024, $16M in 20215, and $15M in 2026, so he'd probably be worth 1/3 of the money as well, likely looking for $20M or more.
Stroman would be opting out of $21M-$25M and likely would not be worth the price any higher than that.
If Charlie Morton isn't picked up as a 40 year old by the Braves on his $20M club option, then he could potentially be grabbed for 1/4 to 1/5 of the cost of the remaining cap ($12M - $15M) if the Cardinals deem him worthy. But if we're trying to beat the Braves out in the NL and they're dropping him, would he be worth it?
Same with Lance Lynn at age 36 and the White Sox not picking up a simple $9.3M contract. If they won't pay for 1 win of WAR from Lynn, then why would the Cardinals want to pick him up.
So maybe Sean Manaea and Eduardo Rodriguez would both be worth the gamble at their age and potential production levels as of 2024, were they to opt out. So let's look at the true free agents to be, assuming they are not extended or re-signed before the free agency period begins.
First of all, Noah Syndergaard and Martin Perez have a below league average K%-BB%, so no thanks. As for the rest:
Trevor Bauer has issues of his own and is out for top dollar he can get at all turns. Other issues aside so that doesn't become a debate over this topic, no thanks to Bauer at a free agent price tag.
I think personally that there is about as much of a chance of Clayton Kershaw leaving the Dodgers as there was Adam Wainwright leaving the Cardinals after any given season.
Shohei Ohtani will be out of the Cardinals price range, period. I just read an article in which nine agents spoke under anonymity and the consensus was $450M to $550M in FA next year for him.
Yu Darvish's contract the last four seasons has dropped from $22M to $19M to $19M to $18M. I think there's a good chance the Cardinals could get him for 3 years at $51-60M. That's about 1/3 of the remaining money.
Julio Urias might very well be one of the top 5 prizes of next year's class, although I haven't looked very closely at the class as a whole. He'll be making more than Carlos Rodon after next year.
Hyun-Jin Ryu is not a guy I would go after, unless father time turns backwards for him.
That leaves us basically with needing to get all 3 of Sean Manaea, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Yu Darvish. Yes. ALL OF THEM. That includes two of them pitching well enough in 2023 that they feel like they can opt out of a currently pretty decent contract and that the Cardinals would want them to join.
What are the odds of that?
Where does that leave us in our search? I think it leads back to what the Cardinals have as their modus operandi the last couple of seasons.
In 2021, the St. Louis Cardinals added two starting pitchers at the trade deadline. In 2022, the St. Louis Cardinals added two starting pitchers at the trade deadline. In 2022, this second season of doing the same thing, the Cardinals did add one guy who was signed beyond the season and is an extension candidate if he shows he's the same guy this season.
I would expect two trades at some point in 2023 (or in the week leading up to it still) to grab starting pitchers who are signed for at least 2024 as well and are possible extension candidates. Why? It's what they've done the last couple of years and it's completely and utterly necessary to field a competitive starting rotation to go along with the hitting that your team has begun to produce.
Who might those be? I'll leave that open for a potential second article on a 2024 rotation...probably closer to the trade deadline.
Happy New Year and thanks for reading,