While imperfect, the St. Louis starting rotation had an encouraging first month of the season. No, this group wasn’t dominant. But for the most part the Cardinal starters provided stability early on and gave the team a more solid foundation after a brutal 2023.

Last year the starter ERA of 5.08 was the worst by the Cardinals in a full season in franchise history. The 2023 Redbirds had no chance. This improved 2024 rotation would, if nothing else, give the Cardinals a better chance for a winning season and a return to the playoffs. But could the starters hold up and pitch reasonably well for the entire regular season?

Doubts have surfaced and shouldn’t be minimized. As of Thursday morning the Cardinals’ starting pitchers ranked 25th overall and 13th in the NL with a 4.72 ERA. The fielding independent ERA (4.34) is 22nd overall and 11th in the NL.

Let’s check on a few of the diagnostics.

1. St. Louis starting pitchers had a 6.23 ERA on the seven-game road trip to Milwaukee and Anaheim. The Cardinals were outscored 30-14 in the first five innings of the seven games, and that was a factor in their 3-4 record.

2. In 13 May starts, the STL rotation has the worst ERA in the majors at 5.94. The blow is softened, somewhat, by a 3.98 fielding independent ERA that ranks 15th. The difference can be explained by a .335 batting average against Cardinal starters on balls in play this month. That’s one reason for the ERA inflation. So far this month the St. Louis starters have been cudgeled for a .285 average, .345 OBP and .465 slug. Their innings share has gone down from March-April, and that means more work and stress for the bullpen. Cardinal starters are 27th in innings so far this month.

3. This month Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, Miles Mikolas and Matthew Liberatore have been plundered for 40 earned runs in 55 and ⅔ innings over 11 assignments. That’s a 6.46 ERA. If you’re wondering why I didn’t mention Kyle Gibson, it’s because he has a 3.27 ERA in two May starts and is scheduled to go again Friday against the Red Sox.

4. Gray should be fine going forward but was ripped for four homers and 11 earned runs in 11 innings over his last two starts. His 32 percent strikeout rate is fifth best among MLB starters that have thrown at least 40 innings. Gray had an 0.89 ERA in his first five starts, but that’s unfeasible. Sonny’s ERA was due to spike but his last two starts were jarring. The Cardinals need Gray to be an ace.

5. Steven Matz had a 6.18 ERA in six starts before succumbing to back pain that put him on the IL. Matz being unavailable to pitch is hardly a seismic event – it’s absolutely normal – but the Cardinals had no immediate or obvious option to move up from the minors to fill the vacancy. A relatively minor setback somehow became an absurd crisis because the front office was unprepared to account for a Matz injury … even though Matz is a frequent guest on the IL.

6. Someone had to take over the Matz spot. But who? The choice was Matthew Liberatore, who has a 6.43 ERA in two starts. In 20 career starts Liberatore has a 5.78 ERA and doesn’t provide enough innings. He is a problematic choice for the rotation. The 24-year old lefty is extremely vulnerable against right-handed hitters and is an easy target when facing a lineup for the third time in a game. Liberatore’s stuff seemingly plays better in a relief role. That said, he has an unimpressive strikeout rate and walks too many hitters.

7. Lance Lynn was hired to chew up innings and spit ’em out. But he’s lasted more than five innings only once in nine starts. Lynn has averaged 4.8 innings and gotten smacked for a 7.36 ERA in his last three outings. He still has a pretty good strikeout punch and his FIP for the season is 4.39. His fastball variations should help, but Lynn has only one quality start and the Cardinals need more innings from him.

8. Miles Mikolas has a 6.19 ERA in nine starts this season. His ERA over the last two seasons (5.05) is the third-worst in the majors behind Jordan Lyles and Patrick Corbin. And among 93 starters that have pitched at least 150 innings since the start of 2023, Mikolas ranks 90th with a yield of 10.4 hits per nine innings and 87th with an average of 6.2 strikeouts per nine.

9. I liked the Gibson signing. I like it even more now. He’s gone 6+ innings in seven of eight starts. He’s tied for fifth among NL starters with an average of 6.1 innings per assignment. He leads the Cardinals with five quality starts – which matches Aaron Nola, Shota Imanaga and Jared Jones and is more than Chris Sale, Max Fried, Zac Gallen and Freddy Peralta. Gibson has a solid 3.67 ERA, but that’s puffed up in FIP (4.42) in part because of an average strikeout rate and a walk total that’s on the high side. But if you just watch Gibson pitch, I don’t think you’ll be brooding over his FIP. And except for his bad start against Miami early in the season, Gibson has a 2.72 ERA.

10. Rotation issues and worries and anguish are the new normal in Cardinals baseball. We have to accept this. I didn’t say we have to like it. Hardly. But even after aggressively signing three free-agent starters last winter, the front office went into the usual denial mode about the rotation depth. Here we go again. Same as it ever was, to quote David Byrne. But this isn’t once in a lifetime. The glaring shortage of starting-pitching depth is an annual emergency. Here comes the twister. Same as it ever was.

OK, I’ll stop with the Talking Heads stuff. But there are danger signs. It might be a phase that will level off. But even with Gray and Lynn in there, this isn’t a dynamic whiff-swing rotation overall. There is an underlying vulnerability. To what degree that can be repeatedly exploited by hitters remains to be seen. But the preseason concerns about the St. Louis rotation have come into play.

If the Cardinals continue to wheeze on offense, I don’t see how this team can survive a collapse of their starting pitching. For a reference point, all we have to do is remember the 71-91 catastrophe of 2023.

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.