After another disappointing start on Monday, let’s head on over to Baseball Reference and review the ledger of lefty pitcher Matthew Liberatore, the latest starter to fill the rotation void left by the predictable injury to Steven Matz.

I would like to see Liberatore do well. Really I would. But in 20 career MLB starts Libby has a ballooning 5.78 ERA in 85 and ⅔ innings. We don’t see any signs that tell us something big and grand is about to happen with him. I’m not picking up any young Randy Johnson or Cliff Lee vibes here. When utilized as a starter, Liberatore has been combusted for a .301 average, .378 OBP, and .497 slugging percentage. Bruising.

The lengthy Liberatore is more imposing as a reliever, having pitched to a 3.37 ERA in 29 and ⅓ innings out of the bullpen. No, he’s not Billy Wagner or Sparky Lyle. But he looks pretty good and has upside.

I’m not sure what the Cardinals are doing here, but it’s sad that the organization can’t turn to a major-league ready starting-pitching prospect or come up with a solid back-end veteran starter to take the ball when Matz is on one of his multiple injury holidays. Instead they have Liberatore as a yo-yo, pulling the string. Reliever. Starter. Reliever. Starter.

Meanwhile there’s a huge gap in quality in this St. Louis rotation.

Even with a couple of recent off-form starts by Sonny Gray, the Cardinals have gotten a combined 3.51 ERA from Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn in 23 starts.

In the 19 starts made by Miles Mikolas, Matz, Liberatore and Zack Thompson they’ve combined for a 6.29 ERA. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals are 6-13 in games started by Mikolas, Matz, Thompson and Liberatore.

Because of the weakness at the 4th and 5th spots of the rotation, the Cardinals rank 25th in the majors in starting-pitching ERA (4.67) and are just a little better (4.34) in starter FIP.

Could someone please let the St. Louis front office know about this?

And what about making an early-season trade for starting pitching? Why wait until late July when current problems are festering and posing a threat to any chance of a meaningful comeback?

What we’re seeing are the repercussions of the organizational breakdown in the crucial area of drafting and developing young starting pitchers. As the years go by, the competitive price being paid by the Cardinals grows larger and larger. Good luck trying to win consistently with starting pitching that’s 27th with a 4.99 ERA since the beginning of 2023.

That isn’t about new additions Gray, Gibson and Lynn. It’s all about organizational dereliction. The Cardinals have somehow managed to turn a long-term foundational strength into an egregious liability.

From 2011 through 2019, the Cardinals ranked third among the 30 organizations in Wins Above Replacement for starters age 26 or younger. The young St. Louis starters also ranked third in with a 3.63 ERA.

From 2020 through the early part of the 2024 season, the Cardinals rank 26th in WAR from starting pitchers age 26 or younger, and the ERA with this group (4.82) ranks 23rd.

Once upon a time, the Cardinals had a cache of talented young arms capable of taking rotation spots as needed. And to ensure payroll efficiency. And more of these prospects were coming attractions, on the way to the majors.

Lance Lynn.

Michael Wacha.

Joe Kelly.

Jaime Garcia.

Carlos Martinez.

Jack Flaherty.

Shelby Miller.

Luke Weaver.

Marco Gonzales.

Dakota Hudson.

Austin Gomber.

Sandy Alcantara.

Zac Gallen.

I’m not saying all of these guys were great. And even though the Cardinals traded Alcantara and Gallen to Miami for left fielder Marcell Ozuna, I list them here because they were St. Louis system offspring. The two righthanders were examples of the bountiful young-starter harvest that made them expendable. In hindsight the trade was regrettable but that isn’t the point.

The Cardinals used a few other young starters as trade chips. They put Weaver in the trade for Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, placed Gomber in the package for Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado, sent Miller to Atlanta for outfielder Jason Heyward, and flipped Gonzales to Seattle for outfielder Tyler O’Neill.

With the STL pitching pipeline flowing with prime talent, the Cardinals had no problem tapping into the system for a young pitcher to cover an opening. There were a lot of them in the procession that led to St. Louis and many did well. Several had a major impact on winning teams that made deep postseason runs. The extensive list includes Wacha, Lynn, Kelly, Garcia, Flaherty and Martinez.

The Cardinals had so many attractive starting-pitching prospects they could convert high-impact relievers to address bullpen needs. Martinez was one. The young-gun relievers also featured Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Kelly, Seth Maness, Ryan Helsley, Fernando Salas, Alex Reyes, etc.

Look back to 2013. Take note of the pitching staff of the last Cardinals team to win the National League pennant.

Lynn, Miller, Wacha, Kelly and Garcia combined to make 97 starts that season. When needing to plug temporary rotation spaces the 2013 Cardinals gave a combined 12 starts to Tyler Lyons, Martinez and John Gast.

Wacha was epic in the 2013 postseason. He conceded one run in 21 innings in three winning starts against the Pirates and Dodgers in the NL playoffs, then beat Boston in World Series Game 2.

Rosenthal, Siegrist, Kelly and Martinez were immensely important figures in the 2013 bullpen. Heck, Kelly was an effective starter and just as good in relief. Except for the usual spot-starter usage and injury issues that are normal in any team’s season, the 2013 Cardinals didn’t suffer from any real pitching shortfalls.

As we know, the Cardinals gradually lost their touch over the ensuing years, leaving them scrambling to make in-season rental trades for Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana.

After the 2023 disaster, the front office had to dive into free agency to bring back Lynn and sign Gibson and Gray. Before that, they spent $44 million on a free-agency purchase for Matz, who can’t stay healthy. They also extended an aging Miles Mikolas with a three-year deal for $55.7 million.

When Matz went out with a back strain following his April 30 start at Detroit, the Cardinals weren’t sure what to do. That’s because their options were extremely limited and unappealing. The farm system that once provided instant solutions had nothing ready for the big club.

I was looking at some of the earned-run averages for starting pitchers down below. And it’s unsettling. I don’t want to catalogue names, so let’s just leave it at this: for immediate help, there isn’t much to choose from. It’s scary. There’s some talent that could blossom down the line. We know about Tink Hence, Sem Robberse, Tekoah Roby, and Quinn Mathews. Perhaps the Cardinals will have something there. But too many starting pitching prospects aren’t elite, aren’t ready for the big leagues and have eyesore earned-run averages. There’s too much mediocrity. There aren’t enough panaceas.

In this piece I’m focusing on starting-pitcher types in the system instead of relievers, and I’m sure the Cardinals have some fine bullpen candidates coming through the channels. But is there another Trevor Rosenthal? Is there a lefty reminiscent of Siegrist? And how many of them will break down physically?

Unless the Cardinals can get the talent pipeline pumping again, a substantial part of their major-league rotation will consist of stopgap measures, hurried signings, ill-advised extensions, and coin-flip gambles on so-so prospects. And, as always, ownership will stay away from the most expensive aisle of the starting-pitching free agent market. This is what happens when you fail to develop starting pitching. The consequences are real.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.