The Cardinals have a gold-plated defense, an emerging offense, and savvy instincts when running the bases. But one area of the team is a source of considerable anxiety.
That, of course, would be pitching.
Before we look ahead to the 2022 season, let’s rewind to 2021. The rotation was torn down by injuries, leaving Adam Wainwright as the last horse standing. The team foundation cracked.
By June 27 the Cardinals (37-41) had the 11th-best winning percentage (.474) in the National League. Milwaukee was never challenged, let alone threatened, and cruised to the NL Central title. The front office eventually got around to patching the rotation by adding Wade LeBlanc, J.A. Happ and Jon Lester. The pitching improved, the offense muscled up, and a frenzied 17-game winning streak spurred St. Louis to 90 wins and an NL wild-card spot.
In fulfilling the goal to reach the postseason, the salvage job worked. Over the final two months Cards’ starters spun a 3.73 ERA that ranked 7th overall and 5th in the NL. But by at least one measure, the overall rotation performance was among the very worst in a season since Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners took over in 1996.
The Cardinals ranked 21st in the majors and 11th in the NL with 7.9 WAR by the starting pitchers. That WAR was 23rd among 25 St. Louis rotations over the last full 25 seasons. The 2006 rotation had a mere 6.6 WAR, and the ‘07 rotation was even worse (6.1).
Wait a minute: didn’t the Cardinals win the World Series in 2006? Why, yes they did. But that team won only 83 games during the regular season before taking off for the moon in October. The 2006 rotation ERA – 4.79 – ranked 24th on the list of 25 full-season teams during the DeWitt Era.
Yes, a team can overcome flawed starting pitching, or an injury-battered rotation. The 2006 and the 2021 Cardinals each proved that in their own way. But that’s a hazardous way to pursue the prize.
Pitching will shape the 2022 Cardinals. Pitching could leave them crooked and hunched over and in need of straightening. Pitching could be a surprisingly firm spine that enables the Cards to stand taller.
For what it’s worth, the projections are … troublesome.
Our friends at FanGraphs rated the 30 MLB rotations and bullpens by projected WAR.
The St. Louis rotation was ranked 23rd among the 30. By the way: the Reds ranked ahead of the Cardinals with a preseason rotation ranking of No. 18. This may seem harsh, but the STL rotation has more questions than certainties. To borrow a phrase from the late and great Joe Strauss, you can’t have a balloon party when Jack Flaherty (shoulder) is out of action for an indeterminate period of time.
The St. Louis bullpen was rated 21st. But as FanGraphs analyst Paul Sporer correctly observed, the Cardinals have plenty of capable arms … and plenty of upside.
“There’s talent and volatility to the extreme in this group,” Sporer wrote. “I would not be surprised if it was one of the best five bullpens in baseball when the year concludes. All of Ryan Helsley, Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, Génesis Cabrera, and even a healthy, in-shape Kodi Whitley have closer-quality stuff, but all of them have dealt with injury or fluctuations in that stuff. If this entire group is banging on all cylinders, it will be a contender-quality bullpen, though it has already taken a hit, as Reyes has a frayed labrum and was just put on the 60-day IL.”
I really agree with that assessment, and “volatile” is the right word. The front office retained lefty T.J. McFarland. And brought in Drew VerHagen, Aaron Brooks and Nick Wittgren. And is giving an early-season look to prospect Andre Pallante. Jake Woodford (like VerHagen) is a hybrid that can start or relieve.
I like the versatility. This bullpen can give a lot of different looks and angles to opposing hitters. The creativity of rookie manager Oli Marmol should be a plus. Marmol won’t be afraid to bypass the norms.
Am I confident in this bullpen? I’m not there yet. I’m more optimistic … and intrigued … but I see no reason to cast a vote now. There are 162 games to play, and we’re about to find out a lot about this crew and gain a deeper understanding of the manager’s planned strategies.
As for the rotation:
–Wainwright must be Waino again. Never mind his age. Mick Jagger has nothing on this dude.
– Steven Matz is an important piece, which is why the Cardinals gave him an extra year to close a four-season, $44 million free-agent contract. The analytics staff loves him. Matz should be solid enough, but can he be more than that?
– Miles Mikolas had a healthy, sharp spring training. That hadn’t happened for a while. This is a positive development, among the best in camp. Mikolas – only 44.2 innings since the end of the 2019 season – may now proceed to the regular season without interruption.
– Dakota Hudson? I’m curious to see if he’ll be a different version of himself. Hudson’s only full big-league season was 2019, and did he use the time off (elbow surgery) to modify his pitching style in some way?
– Flaherty? Definitely a wild-card entry here. Since the end of the 2020 season, 140 MLB pitchers have thrown more innings than Flaherty. He must get healthy and reestablish himself. If he can’t do that, there’s nothing to talk about. If he can do that, the rotation becomes more imposing.
(Prospect Matthew Liberatore may factor in at some point, but there’s no point in talking about him until he joins the big club.)
Marmol is a factor here. We’ll see how he’ll go about the distribution of innings – or, more precisely, how soon he’ll turn to the bullpen during games?
We can’t talk about STL starting pitching without acknowledging a built-in strength: the defense. This should be one helluva ground-ball rotation. And as long as the boys can get the ball rolling and skimming in the grass and the dirt, Cards infielders will take it from there. This defense can turn mediocre pitchers into above-average pitchers into very good pitchers.
Excluding Flaherty, here is each starter’s ground-ball rate since the beginning of the 2018 season, and I’ve included their MLB ranking among 158 pitchers that have worked at least 200 innings over that time:
– Hudson: 57.2%, No. 2
– Mikolas, 48.5%, No. 32
– Wainwright: 47.5%, No. 37
– Matz: 46.1%, 50th
“If two of these four substantially beat their projections and the Cardinals get at least the 121 projected innings from Flaherty, the Red Birds could find themselves back in the playoffs without needing a late-season 17-game win streak to get there,” analyst Eric Logenhagen wrote at FanGraphs.
Usually we have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Well, I don’t know what to expect from the St. Louis rotation this season. And the bullpen is like a band that powers up and plays loud – but will they record a hit, or just make annoying noise?
Here’s what I do expect: if the rotation gets pulverized by injuries again, the front office must acquire help. And it has to be done early. No dawdling. No excuses.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.