The Cardinals on Sunday began the first phase of their two-part plan to revitalize their starting pitching.
The second phase will take place next offseason in the build-up for 2024. That’s when the St. Louis front office – if properly motivated, which certainly is questionable – can ambitiously add an established starting pitcher or two via free agency and/or trade.
As I’ve written and said many times in recent weeks, the MLB trading deadline wouldn’t deliver the quick-fix rotation solutions at the major-league level because teams don’t give up talented, contract-controlled MLB starting pitchers for devalued late-season rentals.
It’s been that way for about five or six years, and there was no sane reason to believe this would suddenly change in 2023 … with St. Louis trading partners breaking from the established norm to overpay for impending free-agent starters Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty and relievers Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton.
I advised Cardinal fans to adjust their expectations to a more prudent setting instead of making the mistake of anticipating a windfall return for pitchers on expiring contracts. It wasn’t going to happen. And anyone who is mad about the truth should blame themselves for being detached from reality.
But the opening phase wasn’t meaningless. Not at all. The process offered the Cardinals a valuable chance to restock the starting-pitching supply at the highest two levels of their farm system.
And that was important because the Cardinals were doing a mediocre job of drafting-and-developing starting pitchers to be on standby, ready to plug into the big club’s rotation as needed.
Because of that, the Cardinals had to go outside of the organization to make deadline deals for starting pitchers in 2021 and 2022. And the absence of MLB-ready starters at Triple A was paramount in the team’s disastrous 2023 season. When the grotesque ‘23 rotation collapsed during the season’s opening month, the Cardinals had nowhere to turn for viable internal remedies.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak and his entourage targeted the weakness with two deals consummated Sunday.
First, the Cardinals flipped Hicks to Toronto for starting-pitching prospects Sem Robberse and Adam Kloffenstein.
Next, the front office bundled Montgomery and Stratton in a package that got them starting-pitching prospect Tekoah Roby, bat-first infield prospect Thomas Saggese, and marginal big-league lefty reliever John King.
Here is a sampling of the prospect-ranking info for each of the four prospects acquired by the Cardinals in Sunday’s shopping expedition. It gives you an idea of their potential quality, but it’s also important to note that prospect rankings tend to be a crapshoot once you move beyond the most heralded elite-level talents:
Tekoah Roby: FanGraphs had him as the Rangers’ No. 3 overall prospect which is noteworthy because Texas is loaded with young talent on the farm. Baseball America had him at No. 13. It should be noted that multiple prospect sites have Roby rated ahead of fellow Texas prospect Jack Leiter, the second overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft.
Thomas Saggese: FanGraphs had him at No. 10 on the Texas prospect list, and Baseball America spotted him at No. 15 among Rangers prospects. This dude can really hit.
Sem Robberse: FanGraphs had him No. 6 on Toronto’s prospect list and he was No. 7 on Baseball America’s ratings.
Adam Kloffenstein: Baseball America put him No. 18 on Toronto’s list at midseason. Unless I missed it, Baseball America didn’t include him on the Blue Jays’ best prospects list before the 2023 season but FanGraphs has him at No. 16 on the revised list of Cardinals’ prospects.
If we trust the rankings, we can see the immediate impact of these additions just by looking at MLB Pipeline’s newly updated Top 30 prospects for the Cardinals.
* Tekoah Roby is No. 4 overall among Cardinal prospects, and the No. 3 pitching prospect behind Tink Hence and Gordon Graceffo.
* Sem Robberse is No. 6 overall, just behind starting pitchers Roby and Cooper Hjerpe and just ahead of starting pitcher Michael McGreevy.
* Thomas Saggese is No. 8 overall – and is the second-highest infield prospect behind Masyn Winn.
* Adam Kloffenstein: No. 23 overall on the MLB Pipeline Top 30 for St. Louis. But as I noted earlier, FanGraphs has him at No. 16 on its updated St. Louis prospects board.
That’s three new prospects in their Top 10. I see no reason to complain; the aqueduct contains more talent now. The Cardinals generally received positive reviews for their work Sunday. And reviewers believe the three pitching prospects are on track for the majors – perhaps sooner than later.
— Headline over Keith Law’s assessment at The Athletic: “Cardinals capitalize on trades with Rangers, Blue Jays in rare turn as sellers.”
— More from Law: “It’s a big deal for a team that rarely finds itself in the position of seller on deadline day, and (St. Louis) did well in both trades, especially the Montgomery swap.”
— Headline at FanGraphs: “The Cardinals’ Taste In Prospects Indicates Hope For A Quick Rebuild.”
— Eric Longenhagen, FanGraphs: “Each of these players could suit up for the Cardinals in the big leagues within the next 12 months.”
— Longenhagen thinks highly of Roby, putting the right-handed starter at No. 64 on his revised Top 100 MLB prospects earlier this month.
“And he would have been even higher if not for his current shoulder injury, which shelved him in early June,” Longenhagen wrote. “Before he was shut down, Roby was consistently working with four plus pitches. He was sitting 94–95 mph with riding life, bending in one of the nastier curveballs in the minors, tilting in a similarly shaped slider in the mid-80s, and turning over a tailing low-80s changeup, all of which were capable of missing bats. He looked like a contender’s four-pitch, mid-rotation starter.”
— R.J. Anderson, CBS Sports, on Roby: “He’s drawn acclaim for his competitive nature on the mound dating back to his amateur days. Provided he makes a full recovery from what ails him, he profiles as a mid-rotation starter.”
— Before being shut down as a precaution in June, Roby demonstrated a strikeout punch (27.6%) and a strong ground-ball element (51.3%) in Double A. But the full recovery from the shoulder strain is essential to his long-term success in the majors. He’s making progress; Mozeliak said Roby should be pitching in the Cards system before the end of the season.
— Longenhagen on Robberse: “He is a high-probability back-end starter on a contender, and his command makes him feel like a relatively stable prospect even though he’s the age of a college prospect. Robberse will likely be added to the Cardinals 40-man roster after the 2023 season and debut next season.”
— Longenhagen on Saggese, the Texas infield prospect: “One scout source of mine who has top-to-bottom Rangers coverage considers him one of the best five prospects in the system. Saggese is hitting .314/.380/.514 in 2023 and has performed comfortably above the league average at each minor league stop, with a wRC+ hovering around 130 at each level … and while he’s not necessarily a player the Cardinals are going to win because of, he’s definitely a player they can win with as part of a multi-player platoon across a couple of positions.”
— Law on Saggese: “I wrote this winter that I thought he’d peak around 45/50 power, but it looks like I was wrong as he’s already there and should get to at least 55 power. I think he’s a solid regular with a chance to be something like a 4-WAR guy in his best years.” (Note: 55 power is on a scale that peaks with 70 power and is considered very good.)
— Baseball Prospectus analyst Grant Schiller on Saggese: “He wouldn’t stand out at your local 24/7 Fitness, but the scouting report here is very simple: He hits the ball hard, with regularity. He gets lift, he stays mostly in the strike zone, and he just seems to have a knack for barreling pitches, both heat and off-speed. You won’t find a prospect who enjoys hitting more than he does, either, or surpasses the way people around him discuss his makeup.”
— The 6-5 Kloffenstein appears to be the “sleeper” prospect in this group. Longenhagen offered this detailed explanation:
“The gigantic 22-year-old righty and 2018 third-rounder who has had an uptick in performance this year after plateauing for several prior seasons. He looked like a potential sinker/slider workhorse when he was drafted out of high school, but he was an unexceptional strike-thrower and overall performer through the 2022 season, sliding into the honorable mentions section of the Blue Jays list as a result.
“But Toronto altered the pace of his delivery and lowered his arm slot this year, and he began to show superior results as a 22-year-old repeating Double-A, posting a 28% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate with a 3.24 ERA before the trade.
“I buy that the mechanical changes here have made a real difference; he is a likely postseason 40-man add and projects as an inning-eating backend starter, and is probably the prospect from these trades most likely to debut first.”
— Here’s Mike Axisa (CBS Sports) on Kloffenstein: “He has a deep six-pitch arsenal and has seen a velocity uptick this season. Kloffenstein has a 3.24 ERA with 105 strikeouts in 89 Double-A innings this season. St. Louis is said to be seeking young starters who can miss bats and Kloffenstein fits.”
There seems to be some good stuff to like about the minor-league prospects reeled in by the Cardinals on Sunday. They all have their share of questions and perceived flaws as well. But the Cardinals traded a couple of months of additional work from the departing Montgomery, Hicks and Stratton to secure long-term years of contract control of young players. And the influx was necessary to strengthen an increasingly thin farm system.
If the Cardinals want to have Montgomery, Hicks and perhaps Jack Flaherty in place for their 2024 pitching staff — OK, then pony up the free-agent money to get it done. Other than that, nothing is stopping them.
No one is predicting stardom for these kids, but each of the prospects possess qualities that have impressed scouts. I don’t understand the concept of instant trade grades when the deals include a bevy of prospects. Prospects tend to be volatile – turning out much better or worse than expected – and injuries can change everything. So what’s the point of issuing snap-judgment grades?
We’ll know a heck of a lot more about Roby, Saggese, Robberse and Kloffenstein a year from now. But their trajectories, to this point, are encouraging – but Roby’s injury risk is a concern … until there are no reasons for concern.
Mozeliak still has Jack Flaherty to put in play as a trade piece. And he could deal outfielder Dylan Carlson, shortstop Paul DeJong. So the first phase of the save-the-pitching operation isn’t over.
And the offseason phase will be critically important to Mozeliak’s stated goal of restoring the Cardinals to contender status in 2024. That won’t happen if he leaves a rotation gap. And that will be a problem if Mozeliak is overconfident about the pitching prospects he just onboarded.
The first phase, the prospect gathering, has been positive so far. The Cardinals now are positioned to lean on their system for internal solutions.
But Mozeliak won’t be judged until we see what he does next offseason, and his job at that stage becomes more difficult. To land a proven No. 1 or No. 2 starting pitcher, the Cardinals will have to leave their cocoon – their safe space – to make a risky trade or greatly increase their free-agent spending. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. can’t be an obstacle, or the Cardinals will fail the credibility test.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.