The 2022 St. Louis Cardinals have just begun to form their team for the upcoming season. The Cardinals are currently linked to many of the starting pitchers on the market, by many different journalists and fans alike. I've heard Max Scherzer's, Steven Matz's, and Nick Martinez's names the most often but have also heard them linked to Marcus Stroman and Jon Gray as well. Other big name starters are out there in Robbie Ray, Kevin Gasuman, Alex Wood, and Yusei Kikuchi (among even more others, I'm sure).
Today I will not be looking so much at that gaggle of names above, but why the Cardinals have this hole - and it is a gaping one. The Cardinals currently have a 40-year old Adam Wainwright who has been healthy enough to have thrown 270+ innings in the last two seasons (remembering that the 2020 season was only 58 games for the Cardinals and 60 games for most everyone else). They also have three more guys locked in to SP roles, assuming health. Assuming health is the first risk when talking about the Cardinals' crop of 2022 starters. Jack Flaherty has only been able to throw just under 120 innings in 2020-21, Miles Mikolas has been limited to just under 45 innings for 2020-21, and Dakota Hudson has been limited to just under 50 innings for 2020-21. That means that while Adam Wainwright has been healthy enough to take the ball for 270+ innings over the last two years, the only other THREE men that the Cardinals currently slate into the FIVE man rotation have combined to throw just under 215 innings in that time. Again, that's combined*!
*adding in minor league rehab starts, they still are just under 245 innings combined in the last two seasons.
The Cardinals depth beyond those 4 is there, but not great at this point. Jake Woodford is likely the listed #5 at this point. Woodford has thrown around 125 innings the last two years, but has pitched to nearly a 4.5 ERA between Memphis and St. Louis in that time, with a WHIP over 1.35 and a FIP over 5. Johan Oviedo is further depth that the Cardinals have had to rely on in their two COVID seasons. He's thrown around 140 innings in those two seasons combined between Memphis and St. Louis, but with an ERA over 5, FIP over 5, and WHIP over 1.5. Beyond those 6, the Cardinals have AAA starters Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, TJ Zeuch, and Angel Rondon while also bringing into the mix Ljay Newsome this offseason. They also have pieces that, in recent years, have been relegated to bullpen roles. Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, Genesis Cabrera, and Ryan Helsley are all guys who are former starters in the minor leagues that have only seen time as relief pitchers at the major league level in the last few seasons. Beyond that, while I find Connor Lunn and intriguing arm, I don't know that he'll be ready just yet after last season.
Why do the Cardinals find themselves in this situation where they have a lot of names and not much that is probably going to be a huge help for the 2022 season? Partly because of trades and partly because of squandering opportunities over the last few years. Let's cover those separately:
In order to bring in Marcell Ozuna (who I didn't want and immediately called this a very poor deal), the Cardinals had to trade starters Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen. Those are two guys they would desperately want back if given the opportunity to do so. The next offseason, Luke Weaver had to go as part of a deal to bring in Paul Goldschmidt. That's a fantastic deal - while Weaver's been okay, he hasn't been on the field a lot, and Goldy is Goldy. You also trade Austin Gomber as part of a deal for Nolan Arenado 10 times out of 10. However, Gomber was the best depth that the Cardinals probably had on their roster at that moment. Another lefty that they've traded recently is Marco Gonzales. That's a deal you have to make as well to get yourselves a Tyler O'Neill. That's an entire rotation of starters that the Cardinals have traded in the past 4 years or so that would have been good depth.
Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote about maximizing the Cardinals roster for the 2020 season. Linked above is how I would have maximized the pitchers. There were four choices there and the one that I said I would have chosen would have been the 4th option. It involved piggybacking. Yes, you've heard me bring this up before. Prior to the 2020 season especially, but many times in the last few years, I thought that the Cardinals could have used piggybacking, especially in the minors, to keep the number of good starting pitchers in the system afloat.
In fact, prior to the 2019 season I wrote that that Cardinals team in particular was uniquely set up to benefit greatly from using a piggybacking system. 1) I think that due to both the third time through the order penalty that starting pitchers typically suffer due to fatigue and the fact that your best pitchers are the ones that are starters thus lessening the innings given to the fringe players on the roster out of relief, the team would have benefited in general from having used the piggybacking system. 2) The Cardinals had plenty of depth on their pitching staff that at the time had shown that they were ready for the majors and not all of them were going to fit into starting pitching roles. Piggybacking would have kept them on a regular(ish) schedule for starting and would have allowed the Cardinals to pitch their best pitchers more often. They would have needed less bullpen innings because of it and would have been set up better for the future when some of those pieces moved on their way.
Alex Reyes was a guy that could be more stretched out by having piggybacked in the past. Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera are two more arms that could be stretched out. John Gant and Daniel Poncedeleon might have both been a bit more ready this year had this occurred. Austin Gomber was an arm we still had at the time that could have been used as part of a platoon situation. Those were all thought of as guys who were able to pitch in the majors and had been starters in the recent past (besides Reyes coming off numerous injuries - but he had been a dominant top prospect as a starter in the past).
The predicament that the Cardinals find themselves in now is that they may not have the arms to cover the innings they need to cover in 2022 with either 1) adding quality starting pitching - maybe two arms even, 2) piggybacking some of their arms, or 3) even both of those might be necessary for this team to be as good as it should be moving forward. They have completely put themselves in this spot. Why do I think this?
Adam Wainwright has thrown over 270 innings over the last two years (really 1 1/3 seasons). After him, here are the amount of innings thrown (majors and minors) by any and all arms the Cardinals might consider starters in 2022, currently in the organization:
Jack Flaherty - 127 2/3 (ended the season in partial role)
Miles Mikolas - 44 2/3
Dakota Hudson - 66 2/3
Johan Oviedo - 141 1/3 (ended the season in the minors because of ineffectiveness)
Jake Woodford - 122 2/3
Matthew Liberatore - 124 2/3 (all minor league innings)
Connor Thomas - 122 (all minor league innings)
Zack Thompson - 101 (all minor league innings)
TJ Zeuch - 122 1/3 (mostly minor league innings - DFA'd by another organization)
Connor Lunn - 120 1/3 (all minor league innings)
Alex Reyes - 92 (all out of relief)
Ryan Helsley - 59 1/3 (all out of relief)
Genesis Cabrera - 92 1/3 (nearly all out of relief)
Angel Rondon - 78 2/3 (nearly all minor league innings)
Jordan Hicks - 17 2/3 (all out of relief and some of which were in the minors)
Ljay Newsome - 30 1/3 (DFA'd by another organization)
That list above is not terribly inspiring even if you look at it as how many pitches were thrown over one full season, much less the last TWO seasons combined. An organization just a couple of years ago known as one that prided itself on it's never-ending homegrown cadre of starting pitching, the Cardinals have put themselves in quite a bind entering 2022. They must go out and get a starter or two that can not only eat innings, but do it quite well.
The organization has said as much to Derrick Goold who reports the Cardinals' current construction of their pitching staff as such:
This says exactly what I was thinking - and while it's not coming directly from the source, it's pretty darn close. The Cardinals need TWO guys in their top 7. If we do look at my system's projections, we can see below on the green chart that there are plenty of guys available via Free Agency. This isn't the entire list, but the guys I have heard linked to the Cardinals in some capacity or another and an extra 2-3 guys that I happened to have already entered into my system. As you can see in the third column, innings pitched per game started, only 7 of these guys are projected to complete 5 innings per start. Of those 7, my system projects only 5 to best last year's 4.22 National League average starting pitcher ERA. Those 5 are Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman, Robbie Ray, Alex Cobb (projected to beat last year's NL SP ERA by just 0.03 and only throwing a projected 102.5 innings) and Nick Martinez (coming back from Japan and only projected for 97 innings total).
One encouraging note on this front is that I believe the Cardinals are back to doing a bit of that at the minor league levels this year. There are only four levels of minors at the moment, state-side, and thus 20-24 open spots in minor league rotations. The Cardinals had 31 pitchers get at least 10 games started on the season, and 79 pitchers make at least one start on the season. Not only that, but with their dismissing of former manager Mike Shildt (up for Manager of the Year) by the front office this offseason and their hiring of Oli Marmol, I believe they're going to look at platoon advantages all over the field. That would include on the mound. I don't see anyone but maybe Adam Wainwright (but probably not even him) that is going to sniff 180 innings, much less 200+. And it will be by design. It's the way baseball is moving and I believe it's the way the Cardinals should have moved in the past. I don't know that they have much of a choice to do so at this point.
Thank you to Nick Childress for the cover art of Genesis Cabrera (left) and Sandy Alcantara (right)!!!