As of now, the Cardinals’ probable starting rotation for 2023 consists of Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Montgomery and Steven Matz.
Of the five, only Matz is under contract beyond next season. So what about 2024? Well, there’s Dakota Hudson. And two young lefties, Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson. Andre Pallante could become a rotation piece. And the Cardinals have loaded up on pitching in recent drafts, stockpiling 16 arms that are ranked among the organization’s top 24 prospects by MLB Pipeline.
You’ve heard of some of the names … and are getting to know the names of others. So here’s how it looks, and I’ll include their prospect ranking within the St. Louis system: Matthew Liberatore (4), Tink Hence (6), Cooper Hjerpe (8), Michael McGreevy (9), Bryce Mautz (12), Inohan Paniagua (13), Max Rajcic (15), Alec Willis (16), Austin Love (17), Dionys Rodriguez (19), Jake Walsh (21), Freddy Pacheco (22), Ian Bedell (23) and Connor Thomas (24.)
Quick Notes: I don’t know when and if Liberatore will click in at the big-league level and become a fixture of sorts. We’re still waiting … Hence, loaded with velocity and imposing swing-miss stuff, is clearly the most exciting pitching prospect in the Cardinals’ possession … Hjerpe, drafted in the first round this past summer, is seen as a quick-trip arrival to the majors … And Mautz, drafted in the second round, has the velocity to pile up strikeouts … Graceffo has potential strikeout punch and could profile as a reliever. Graceffo seems closer to the big leagues than McGreevy, Thomas: he has a low ranking right now but presumably will be on the rise after leading the Arizona Fall League in strikeouts and being chosen to participate in the league’s All-Star Game.
The Cardinals have done a nice job of replenishing their pitching supply in the system, and that should pay off over the next few seasons. But here’s the thing: we don’t know how many will make the leap to the majors and develop into an above-average or elite starting pitcher.
It’s difficult for me to envision a rotation plan that features Matz and several young and unproven arms. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense for a franchise that proclaims to be a World Series contender.
The Cardinals have first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, age 35, under contract for two more seasons to partner with third baseman Nolan Arenado, who turns 32 in April 2023. How can the Cardinals maximize their opportunity to make the most of the Goldschmidt-Arenado combo? It won’t happen with an inexperienced rotation.
As is, the rotation is in need of upgrading for 2023. It needs more muscle. This past season the Cardinal starting pitchers ranked 16th in MLB in WAR, the second-worst among the 12 postseason qualifiers.
We don’t know the specific timetable for these prospects reaching St. Louis and staying here. We don’t know if some of the kids can emerge as a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 type of starter – or destined to be rotation filler at the back end.
We don’t know if the STL front office will modernize the organizational philosophy and put a premium on strikeout zap instead of continuing to rely on ground balls.
We don’t know how many of the starting-pitching prospects will be assigned to a relief role. There’s nothing wrong with that of course; if they have imposing strikeout pop, that will benefit the Cardinals and a front office that still struggles to assemble a deep and powerful bullpen. In 2022, St. Louis relievers ranked 17th among the 30 MLB bullpens in WAR, the poorest among the 12 teams that made it to the postseason.
The bullpen’s strikeout rate ranked 27th in 2022.
The starters weren’t much better, ranking 24th in strikeout percentage.
You see, this is the area of the team that doesn’t get nearly enough attention from media and a percentage of the fans. In terms of overall pitching WAR, the Cardinals haven’t ranked among the top 10 teams in a season since 2015. And the starting pitching has posted a top-10 performance in WAR only twice in the last eight seasons.
For all of the talk about the St. Louis offense sputtering over the last four postseason, there have been plenty of issues with the pitching. And the Cardinals should be more proactive about making impactful renovations.
Over their last four postseasons the Cardinals (entire staff) have a 3.99 ERA in 15 games; that earned-run average may not look too bad but it ranks 8th among the 9 teams that have played a minimum 15 playoff games. The Cardinal pitchers are 7th among the nine teams in strikeout rate, 9th in walks-hits per inning, 8th in hits allowed per nine innings, and 8th in strikeout-walk ratio.
In their last four postseasons St. Louis relievers have a 5.10 ERA in 54.2 innings, walking 11.8 percent of batters faced (ugh!) and allowing a homer in 4% of the plate appearances against them. (Too high.)
The St. Louis starters have pitched solidly, with an overall 3.19 ERA in their last 15 postseason games. And to their credit, the STL starters gave up no more than one run in the seven starts in which they worked at least five innings. But the consistency hasn’t been there; in five of the 15 postseason contests the starters got knocked around for a combined 15 runs in 15.2 innings.
When that happens in one-third of your postseason games, it speaks to a lack of rotation depth and strength. That’s been a regular-season issue as well, with the front office scrambling to make trade-deadline deals to save the rotation from cracking in each of the last two seasons.
Sure, there’s a chance of having two or three of the prospects develop into front-rotation starters. That’s what the Cardinals are hoping for. The Cardinals are sort of caught in the middle here, with 2024 looming as a much bigger issue for their rotation because of the four guys who can leave after next season. (One of the four, Adam Wainwright, plans to retire at the end of the 2023 season.)
President of baseball ops John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch are in a tricky spot. How do they bridge the gap between 2023 and 2024? One way to do it: be very aggressive about building the best possible bullpen that you can have in 2023, and rely on the relievers to compensate for the average quality of the starting pitchers.
That doesn’t mean the Cardinals should punt on the idea of improving the rotation for ‘23. They don’t have a No. 1 starter. They should pursue one, and I’m sure room can be made for that guy. Remember: the Cardinals almost always overrate, and overestimate, the caliber of their starting pitching. And the same is true of the bullpen.
Injuries happen each season. Meaningful reinforcements are necessary every season. And if the Cardinals fortify their rotation by adding a No. 1 starter, it should make the them better in 2023 and give them a jump in filling rotation openings in advance of 2024. If management doesn’t have the proper urgency to enhance the pitching, then we can expect more in-season emergencies going forward.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.