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Questions linger around the Cardinals rotation

On Sunday afternoon, Adam Wainwright took the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals for the first time in about a month. He proceeded to endure a painful 2.1 innings before revealing afterwards that he, again, felt discomfort in his elbow during warmups.

We could say a lot about how poorly Wainwright performed on Sunday afternoon. In short, though, Adam Wainwright simply didn’t look like a Major League pitcher. In my opinion, he hasn’t looked like a Major League pitcher for most of the past few seasons since rupturing his Achilles in 2015.

Pitchers get old. Pitchers really start showing their age around 35 years old. Injuries enhance the aging process. For Adam Wainwright, it was a perfect storm which led to the second-most valuable pitcher in Cardinals history to seemingly fall off a cliff.

I don’t want to bash or discredit Adam Wainwright - I respect his efforts and production for St. Louis. He’s been donning a Cardinals uniform for over half of my life, and his dazzling performance out of the bullpen in the 2006 playoffs represent some of the best baseball memories of my childhood.

Over on Viva El Birdos, Andy Schrag wrote a terrific piece to on Wainwright’s decline, and the likelihood that the end of his tenure in St. Louis is at an end. And with Uncle Charlie’s vice grip on a rotation spot a thing of the past, I’ve started to wonder what the rotation will look like in the near-future. Not the 2019 or 2020 future, as Bernie Miklasz has detailed for the Athletic. But the June/July 2018 future.

Assuming that Carlos Martinez lat strain isn’t too significant, we’re expecting him to miss only a start or two. Both he and Miles Mikolas have been terrific so far this year. Those two, assuming good health, are locks in the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Our view into the final three rotation spots isn’t so clear. Michael Wacha has performed well, but can he stay healthy and effective? Luke Weaver has gotten off to a slow start with a 4.91 ERA, but also holds a rotation-best 3.27 FIP. What should we expect going forward? John Gant has been serviceable in his limited opportunities thus far.

A couple familiar faces are making some noise down in the farm. Jack Flaherty is breaking through the door with a 2.27 ERA and nearly six strikeouts for every one walk in AAA, in addition to two solid performances totaling 10 innings for the MLB club. Alex Reyes is working his way through a series of rehab starts with hopes of joining the Cardinals in as little as a month.

Dakota Hudson built upon a strong April in Memphis with eight shutout innings in his first start of May. And while Hudson hasn’t produced eye-popping strikeout numbers in the minor leagues, his ground ball rate of 58.6% in 2017 ranked among the best in the Cardinals system and above our favorite 2018 starter-turned-reliever revelation, Jordan Hicks.

After a slow start to the season, Ryan Helsley has three quality starts in his last four outings with a 2.92 ERA over that time. He’s racked up 38 strikeouts in his last 30.2 innings and may have one of the more live fastballs in the organization. Austin Gomber is off to his own slow start, but has the track record and prospect pedigree to think he’s nearly ready for the next jump.

All told, that leaves eight possible pitchers for three spots in the rotation. We can probably leave out Hudson, Helsley, and Gomber in the immediate near-term, as their most likely impact at this stage of their careers would be as late-season bullpen additions.

Still, that leaves us Wacha, Weaver, Flaherty, Gant, and Reyes for only three spots. None project to be much better than the others, although the possible outcomes for each might range from looking like a potential all star to looking overmatched.

While this is undoubtedly a good problem to have, it's still a problem. The Cardinals expect to be in a tight playoff race. To find themselves on the right side of that race come October, they’ll need whatever decisions they make regarding the rotation to work out. Choosing to ride Weaver while he struggles minimizing the damage of contact or turning to Reyes when he’s not quite ready can quickly lead to losses that aren’t easily made up.

Coming into the year, one of the Cardinals biggest questions was the uncertainty of the rotation. Is Wainwright cooked? How would Mikolas handle the transition back to the MLB? Will Wacha stay healthy? Would Weaver take a step forward? Was there enough depth to handle the inevitable injuries?

The season is about 50 days old, and nearly a quarter of the season is in the books. What we see on the field is starting to have meaning beyond small-sample-size noise. You can’t win a division in April or May, but you might be able to lose one - just ask Dodgers fans.

To date, the Cardinals have done very little to answer the questions we had leading into the year. In fact, despite a 22-16 record, they’ve raised more.

The offense, supposed to be an elite unit, has scuffled. The bullpen has largely gotten along fine (if that’s a compliment), but exactly none of Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, or Tyler Lyons have an ERA under 4.00. The team’s best reliever by ERA has almost twice as many walks as strikeouts, a FIP near 5.00 and an xFIP above 6.00. We’ve added concerns over Carlos Martinez health and essentially subtracted Adam Wainwright from the equation completely.

The Cardinals may be entering a crucial period over the next month with must-win series against Minnesota, Kansas City, Miami, Cincinnati, and San Diego. After dropping 4 of the previous 6 to Minnesota and San Diego, the Cardinals are entering that stretch with more questions than answers.


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