We haven’t talked about starting pitching for a little while, so let’s revisit the Cardinals’ plans for their rotation and take a look at the projections from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

This won’t surprise you, but the outlook isn’t encouraging. Many Cardinals fans already are concerned about the vulnerable state of the team’s starting pitching for 2023. II wouldn’t say there’s a lot of confidence out there; it’s more along the lines of fingers-crossed hope.

Based on projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) FanGraphs ranks the St. Louis rotation at No. 20 in the majors, ahead of only the Reds, Cubs, Pirates, Tigers, Diamondbacks, A’s, Royals, Nationals, Orioles and Rockies. FanGraphs has the Cardinal starting pitching coming in with 9.9 WAR in 2023; last season the Cardinals starters were 16th in the majors with 12.0 WAR. So the forecast arrow is pointing downward.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, the PECOTA system cranked out these forecasts, based on the site’s -DRA metric. Easy explanation: a score of 100 is the dividing line. If a pitcher is above 100, that’s below average. The higher the number, the worse the projection. And any number under 100 is above average. Here’s how PECOTA projects the Cardinals’ five planned starters, listed from best to poorest:

Jack Flaherty, 94
Jordan Montgomery, 95
Miles Mikolas, 97
Steven Matz, 97
Adam Wainwright, 106

Hey, it could be worse. The projections show the Cardinals with four above-average starters – but only slightly above average. So that isn’t exactly what you want to see.

This is where we remind the readers that the Cardinals have consistently defied and outperformed preseason projections – especially PECOTA.

I had a conversation with Bill DeWitt Jr. on Monday and asked him about the rotation. He said he likes the depth. He’s hopeful for a return to full pitching health by Jack Flaherty. He’s looking to forward to a full season of lefty Jordan Montgomery, who pitched to a 3.11 ERA in 11 starts after being acquired from the Yankees last Aug. 2.

I didn’t ask DeWitt about the other starters, but I think I can accurately summarize the positive feelings within he organization during the offseason. Steven Matz is coming back, at 100 percent health, after a weird, injury-fractured first season with the Cardinals. Miles Mikolas is a quality starter who chews up innings. Adam Wainwright experienced some erosion of his stuff last season and could be challenged by age-related realities. No one knows if the new pitch clock will help Wainwright or be a hindrance. But he’s an innings provider and usually finds a way to out-think the hitters.

Most of all, DeWitt and his baseball people are basing their hopes on a return to form by Flaherty, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2019. But Jack has made only 32 starts, total, over the past three seasons.

“It’s about being healthy,” DeWitt said. “When Flaherty is healthy, he’s been superb. The key for him is to not have any setbacks, and we’re hopeful that occurs. We saw how dominant he was when he was able to pitch without any injuries.”

I asked DeWitt if he thought the top of the rotation is as strong as it should be.

“I think we have an effective group of starters,” he said. “Do we have a Cy Young candidate? I don’t know. Maybe. Who knows? Flaherty was one of the top three or four starters in the National League when he was healthy. It’s hard to say. But we’ve obviously got some young guys coming (through the system.) Tink Hence, Gordon Graceffo, and others.

“The question is, what’s available, what’s the cost in terms of players or long-term (financial) commitments that you may hate later on. You know, I feel good about our rotation. I think we have a good pen, and a lot of (young) talent underneath.

“Can we improve? We can always improve. But (in trades) you add talent by sacrificing talent. We’re prepared to spend. We’re available to add what we need if the need is there. We’ll just see how it plays out.”

DeWitt mentioned that the Cardinals have multiple starters that can become free agents after the 2023 season: Flaherty, Mikolas and Montgomery. That was his way of suggesting that it will be costly to re-sign two, or even all three, starters. That also must be accounted for. (My words, not DeWitt’s.)

“The door is open,” DeWitt said, referring to the possibility of adding starting pitching by going outside the organization if necessary. “We have solid starters. We’ll see what’s available, and if it makes sense, if it fits, and it’s going to make us better, we’ll look at it and try to make it happen.”

Over the past two seasons, STL starting pitchers had a 46 percent ground-ball rate that ranked third in MLB. According to Fielding Bible, the formidable St. Louis infield defense saved 50 runs last season and a total of 79 runs combined in 2021-2022.

One potential problem: MLB has banned defensive shifts, and that leaves the St. Louis starters more vulnerable. At least in theory, anyway. It wouldn’t matter all that much if Cardinal starting pitchers pumped a bunch of strikeouts to decrease the dependency on infield defense. But that isn’t a strength.

Over the last two seasons STL starting pitchers ranked 28th in the majors with an 18.4 percent strikeout rate. And accordingly, Cards starters had MLB’s fourth-highest total of batted balls in play against them during the last two seasons.

Opponents batted .313 against the Cardinals when putting the ball in play. That said, opponents batted a MLB-low .206 when hitting grounders against Cardinal starters over the last two years. That just reaffirms the value of their infield defense.

But with the shift gone from the competition, the infield should be busier. More grounders will get through. That could be a problem – or a relatively minor negative. We know this much: Hitters can’t take full advantage of the new anti-shift action if they’re striking out a lot. In that context we’ll probably see an increase in hits allowed, and a higher batting average, against St. Louis starting pitching.

I should point out – again – that the Cardinals defense had the 10th-lowest shift frequency (27.9%) in the majors last season. The elimination of the shift probably won’t impact the Cardinals as much as does other teams. And if physically fit, Flaherty and Matz have the kind of pop that can improve the rotation’s strikeout punch.

MLB.com did a story on 10 teams that can turn weaknesses into strengths this season. Writer Thomas Harrigan – citing starting pitching – had the Cardinals on the list. Much of his optimism is based on potential comebacks by Flaherty and Matz and a solid final season from the 41-year old Wainwright.

That makes sense. Injuries limited Matz and Flaherty to 18 combined starts, and Wainwright largely fought off the aging curve to make 32 starts, work 191.2 innings and cast his spell on hitters. Can all three of these gents come through? If so, the rotation would be fine. Not ideal, but fine.

Other than the ban on shifts, there are five other wild-card factors:

1. Will the Cardinals benefit from having three pending free-agent starters? Does that provide extra fire and motivation? Flaherty, Montgomery and Mikolas will be pitching for the Cardinals – but also for themselves and the next contract. There’s a lot of money on the line.

2. What will new pitching coach Dusty Blake come up with to make his pitchers better? He’s more open-minded than his predecessor, Mike Maddux. He’s enthusiastic about using technology and advanced metrics to enhance a pitcher’s performance. The pitchers should benefit, but we can’t assume that.

3. Will the new pitch clock lead to a more intense exhaustion for starting pitchers who no longer can take a few deep breaths and a break by stalling for time on the mound?

4. How quickly can catcher Willson Contreras and the starting pitchers get comfortable with each other and establish chemistry? Contreras will upgrade the catcher position offensively. But if the team’s earned-run average spikes and the pitching unravels, Twitter will be ablaze with hot takes. Contreras could be singled out and maligned for his game management and the handling of pitchers. And the former Cub will be informed, through a million tweets, that he’s no Yadier Molina. I hope none of that happens, but …

5. If the rotation collapses because of injuries and other vulnerabilities, can Matthew Liberatore, Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford and other depth starters step up and limit the damage? Is there a magical solution to be curated from their minor-league system?

Or will president of baseball ops John Mozeliak be scrambling to acquire starting pitching for the third consecutive summer? Will DeWitt approve of a major and trade for an established and elite major-league starter?

So many questions.

Make sure to buckle up on opening day. The rotation will be spinning. And one way or another, I think we’re in for a wild and adventurous ride in 2023.

Thanks for reading …


Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.