(KMOV.com) — Changes are coming for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Currently, Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong linger as potential departures from last season’s regular starting lineup. If St. Louis is unwilling to meet the market to retain the players, the Cardinals must grapple with the possibility of filling those holes with internal options.
The pitching side of the club’s roster isn’t immune from turnover, either.
Adam Wainwright may have thrown his last pitch wearing the birds on the bat. Bright young starter Dakota Hudson will miss the 2021 season following Tommy John surgery. That combination leaves the Cardinals with vacancies in the starting rotation.
If they didn’t know it before, the Cardinals discovered in 2020 the true value of pitching depth to a Major League organization. Let’s take a look at the starting rotation depth chart prior to any additional moves this winter.
1.) Jack Flaherty
Jack Flaherty is your ace. It’s as easy and obvious as it gets. Look past his raw numbers in a wonky 2020 season and you’ll realize that Flaherty was by and large the same elite pitcher that he was the previous year. Flaherty spent the season under glass as the organization looked to manage his reps to keep him healthy—the environment was far from ideal for establishing a rhythm. Though he finished with a mediocre 4.91 ERA for the season, that number isn’t reflective of the value Flaherty provided the team in the bulk of his other games.
You can attribute most of the damage to the maddening and exhausting 18-3 loss to the Brewers on September 15, the worst outing of Flaherty’s career. Outside of that night, Flaherty’s ERA for 2020 was in the same low 3.00s territory that you’ve come to expect from the 25-year-old. His health provided, Flaherty will be a legitimate Cy Young candidate on a yearly basis.
2.) Kwang Hyun Kim
How about Kwang Hyun Kim, folks? The under-the-radar signing out of Korea began 2020 as the St. Louis closer, but ultimately turned in the most impressive season among the starting pitchers that remain on the roster as possibilities for next year’s rotation. Kim started seven games and made one relief appearance, finishing with a 3-0 record and a 1.62 ERA on the campaign.
Whether his early MLB success is sustainable is a fair question given his high contact rate and the notion that opposing hitters will adjust to the deception in Kim’s delivery the more they see of him. When you look at the question marks surrounding others in the St. Louis rotation mix, though, KK might be as sure of a bet as any in the non-Flaherty category. It’s reasonable to expect that Kim’s numbers come back down to earth while simultaneously penciling him in for consistency and quality innings as a mid-rotation arm in 2021.
3.) Miles Mikolas
Where will Miles Mikolas be physically when he arrives at spring training in a few months? That’s the primary question surrounding expectations for his 2021 season. Mikolas exhausted every possible avenue for recovery from a forearm strain that has plagued him dating back to October 2019, but the injury eventually required a surgical repair over the summer. Though there hasn’t been much in the way of an update on Mikolas’ recovery recently, the expectation shared by the team has always been that the 32-year-old starter would be ready to go when the team treks to his hometown of Jupiter, Florida for spring training in February (or March, or April, or whenever the pandemic permits MLB to begin spring training for 2021).
If Mikolas emerges from his rehab without any unusual setbacks, the Cardinals should be able to count on him as another innings-eater in the middle of their rotation. His two full seasons in the Cardinals rotation feature an interesting juxtaposition in that Mikolas led the league in wins in 2018 with 18, but led the league in losses in 2019 with 14. What he managed to do during both those years, though, is log innings—200.2 and 184, respectively.
Even if his output lands closer to the 4.16 ERA he posted in 2019 than the stellar 2.83 mark of his debut season in St. Louis the year prior, Mikolas figures to provide a stable presence every fifth day—if he’s healthy, anyway. That last caveat is why he lands narrowly below Kim on this list.
4.) Austin Gomber
Is it time for the Cardinals to make the conscious decision to sink or swim with Austin Gomber? Though an injury-plagued 2019 essentially amounted to a lost season for the 27-year-old lefty, Gomber returned to form this past season and thrived no matter the role for St. Louis. Outside of one forgettable relief appearance against the Pirates on September 17, Gomber permitted just two runs in 27.1 innings the entire rest of his season. After pitching in as a spot starter during doubleheaders, Gomber finished the regular season in the rotation, and overall logged 15.2 sterling innings across four appearances in the role.
In limited opportunities, Gomber has done everything the team could hope for out of a starter. Given attrition elsewhere in the group, 2021 could be the year that Gomber enters the season as more than just a depth-option for the Cardinals rotation.
5.) Daniel Ponce de Leon
Daniel Ponce de Leon has the benefit of MLB starting experience over some of the names listed below, but the consistency of his production in that span has been a concern. Ponce de Leon has regularly flashed swing-and-miss stuff—he collected strikeouts even while struggling with the rest of his game in 2020, finishing with 45 Ks in 32.2 innings—but spent a good chunk of the season off the active roster based on inconsistency along the way. While the arrow is undeniably pointing up based on the way Ponce finished the 2020 campaign, it’s fair to wonder how much stock the Cardinals will place in his strong September when planning the pitching staff for next season.
Gomber and Ponce de Leon have served as valuable depth in recent seasons, but never have the Cardinals entered spring camp with either tabbed for one of the five starting spots. The team’s level of internal comfort with that prospect for 2021 could influence how aggressively it pursues Adam Wainwright or other alternatives in free agency this winter.
6.) Alex Reyes
Now we’re delving into the ‘A Boy Can Dream’ realm, a little bit. The Cardinals have several less experienced talents with pure electricity coursing through their pitching arms. Any of them could conceivably make the leap from the Major League bullpen to the rotation heading into a new season, but there will be numerous factors that determine which of them will get the longest look by the organization for such a transition. Alex Reyes is certainly a candidate in this category, but how seriously will the club consider him for a move back to starter?
Following years of trials and tribulations as he attempted to make good on some of the promise he held as a top prospect back in 2016, finally delivered as a key member of the St. Louis bullpen in 2020. One school of thought on the 26-year-old flamethrower might be to avoid tempting fate. He thrived as a high-leverage reliever last season; more importantly, he stayed healthy as a high-leverage reliever last season. If his body can handle the workload, Reyes possesses undeniable upside as a starting pitcher. For a player that has endured so many injuries throughout his professional career, though, the Cardinals will have to decide their level of comfort with that path for Reyes in 2021.
7.) Genesis Cabrera
The Cardinals went several years without a left-hander as a regular in their starting rotation, but with the names currently on the roster heading into 2021, the club is suddenly teeming with quality southpaws that could potentially fill those roles. We’ve talked about Kim and Gomber, two more experienced pitchers from whom the team has seen at least some sample of success as big-league starters to this point. Though you can’t quite say the same for Genesis Cabrera as of yet, it’s arguable his upside is as great as any of the three.
Cabrera was considered a key acquisition by the Cardinals in the trade that sent Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay in July 2018. This summer, Cabrera offered a glimpse as to why St. Louis was so high on the now 24-year-old. In a relief role that increased in significance as the season evolved, Cabrera posted a 2.42 ERA with a notable 32 strikeouts in 22.1 innings. His opposing exit velocity and whiff rates were both in the 98th-percentile among MLB pitchers in 2020, according to Statcast. The talent is undeniable. The question is whether Cabrera is ready to harness it into a role as a starter for St. Louis. As they do annually with their up-and-coming pitchers, the Cardinals will likely tell Cabrera to prepare to enter spring training as a starter. How far into the spring he remains as a legitimate option in that role should be among the more intriguing storylines of camp.
8.) Carlos Martinez
When plotting the possibilities for the 2021 starting rotation, the Cardinals can’t consider Carlos Martinez as anything more than an emergency option. Though the reasons and explanations for disappointing outcomes have never been lacking when discussing the talented right-hander, 2020 might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For 2018 and 2019, the disappointment wasn’t that Martinez was performing poorly—if you simply look at stats like ERA, K/9 and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Martinez continued to perform as a quality pitcher during those seasons. The concern then was his reliability. Constant questions about his physical health and his willingness to properly manage the rigors of life as a starter relegated him to the bullpen from the middle of 2018 through the end of 2019. Through it all, Martinez maintained his desire to return to the starting rotation, where from 2015 to 2017, his numbers resided comfortably among the game’s elite.
With that in mind, the Cardinals gave him a chance to return to the rotation in 2020. It was an unmitigated disaster. Yes, he got COVID. Yes, he battled symptoms more severe than any of his teammates. Yes, 2020 was a difficult season to perform even letting alone the above facts. But it’s been years at this point since Martinez was effective and reliable as a starter for a full season. Martinez is a candidate to be traded before the spring. Even if he isn’t, that won’t mean the Cardinals are penciling him in for one of the five starting jobs to open the season.
–John Oviedo held his own under difficult circumstances as a fill-in starter for the Cardinals in 2020. Though he still holds a bright future, the 22-year-old would benefit from more seasoning in the minors, and perhaps eventually a lesser role out of the bullpen later in the 2021 season.
–Ryan Helsley arguably has the talent to stick in the rotation, and the Cardinals will likely give him the chance to open the spring as part of that competition once again. Ultimately, however, I expect the team to pivot Helsley to a relief role long-term, as they did with Jordan Hicks.
–John Gant is another name who has competed as a starter before shifting to relief in past seasons. Though he could follow the same trajectory once again in 2021, his name does bear mentioning as a long-shot possibility if he is given the chance to start in spring training and impresses in the process.
-After serving in a long-relief role last season, Jake Woodford seems unlikely to earn regular work in the rotation barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. Still, he’ll conceivably enter spring competing for a job.
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