What happens if the Cards need their sixth starter immediately?
Coming into spring training, the Cardinals had a very defined starting rotation. Jack Flaherty was the team ace, and Kwang Hyun-Kim the steady #2. The returning Miles Mikolas was hopefully going to provide some stability, and Adam Wainwright was hopefully going to do a magic trick for at least one more season. If he weren’t already on the Cardinals, Carlos Martinez would be nearly a perfect one year rental bounceback candidate the Cards signed from free agency.
However well the season went, the Cardinals were always going to need a sixth starter and now it seems like it could be sooner than we like. Miles Mikolas start of spring being delayed has that unmistakable, inevitable feeling of a guy who will not start the season on time. And merely not starting the season on time is starting to feel like a best case scenario too. It is reportedly all precautionary, but are you really a fan if you don’t immediately jump to worst case scenario when a pitcher’s schedule is delayed?
All of which is to say: what is going to happen if Mikolas can’t start the season on time and the Cardinals need a starter? Pretty much the entire reason some of us, myself absolutely included, really wanted another starter was for this exact situation. The Cardinals have a lot of arms who might emerge as a viable option during the season, but for the beginning of the season, dare I say I don’t really like any of the internal options.
I’ve already made the case for Jake Odorizzi and Rick Porello. Both are still available. It seems clear the Cardinals are not going to spend beyond the budget they currently have however. So internal options seems to be what the Cardinals are relying on. So let’s review every potential starting option.
MLB starting career: 20 GS, 86.1 IP, 26.4 K%, 12.1 BB%, 4.17 ERA, 4.47 FIP, 4.76 xFIP
Projection: 40 G, 15 GS, 110 IP, 25.1 K%, 11.2 BB%, 4.48 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 0.7 WAR
Poncedeleon is what constitutes for the safe choice of the group. We pretty much know exactly what he is, for better and for worse. And what he is, unfortunately, is a guy who seems pretty clearly not cut out to be a starter. That projection up there, combining ZiPS and Steamer? It has at least 35 innings in the bullpen, which means his projection purely as a starter is worse than that. He’s not an especially good option for the rotation, unfortunately.
MLB starting career: 6 GS, 32.2 IP, 22.8 K%, 11 BB%, 1.93 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 4.60 xFIP
Projections (ZiPS): 21 G, 9 GS, 53.7 IP, 27.2 K%, 12.3 BB%, 4.02 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 0.9 WAR
Couple things: I did not include his “start” last year, where he was an opener. And I only used ZiPS because Steamer and Depth Charts both have him as a full-time reliever. The projections are pretty clear that Reyes is a good option to start. But there’s a reason his projection is only 53.7 IP too. If health weren’t a factor, he’d be the clear choice. It is both not clear how long Reyes would stay healthy as a starter and also not clear how many innings he would even be allowed to throw were he healthy. He hasn’t thrown more than 40 innings in a season since 2016.
MLB Starting career: 28 GS, 135.1 IP, 19.3 K%, 11.4 BB%, 3.99 ERA, 4.31 FIP, 4.60 xFIP
Projection (ZiPS): 42 G, 12 GS, 95.7 IP, 22.3 K%, 10.4 BB%, 4.14 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 1 WAR
I’d be very curious on how ZiPS projects pitchers who are projected to both start games and be in the bullpen, and if their stats at each role are about the same differential for every player or if it thinks certain players are especially better in the bullpen. The reason I say that is because: I feel like that good projection is mostly due to the bullpen. I don’t know, gut feeling here. Gant was elite there last year (in an admittedly small sample). Gant’s career as a starter is pretty unimpressive, especially if you believe in his xFIP. I’ve never been one to think a guy should go the bullpen if he has any chance at starting, but I’m not a big believer in Gant the starter and think he wouldn’t especially distance himself from this group, so might as well have the potentially elite reliever.
MLB Starting Career: 2 GS, 8.1 IP, 11.6 K%, 9.3 BB%, 6.48 ERA, 6.57 FIP, 6.80 xFIP
Projections (ZiPS): 39 G, 15 Gs, 106 IP, 25 K%, 10.7 BB%, 4.67 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 0.4 WAR
There’s not much reason to pay attention to his MLB starting career as he was thrust into the role when he was very evidently not ready for the big leagues and it was also in 2019 and maybe things changed. With that said, we have to imagine Cabrera took some great leap forward in the offseason and has gained some basic capability to throw a pitch where he wants to. The version we saw in 2020 could never be a starter. He walked 16.7% of batters! But he’s still 24 and stranger things have happened.
MLB Starting Career: 5 GS, 24.2 IP, 14.3 K%, 8.9 BB%, 5.47 ERA, 5.30 FIP, 5.83 xFIP
Projections: 14 G, 8 GS, 53 IP, 19 K%, 13.2 BB%, 5.18 ERA, 5.39 FIP, 0 WAR
Oviedo skipped a level and it showed last year. Judging by his projections, it’s admirable he was able to have a 8.9 BB% apparently, because holy hell do they think he’s Genesis Cabrera at starting with his control. Oviedo’s AA stats were not especially good in 2019, so it’s understandable why projection systems think Oviedo is what his 2020 was right now. It’s hard to believe he is ready for the MLB right now, but it’s not a hugely dissimilar leap than thinking Cabrera could start right now either.
Highest Level: AA
Projections: 3 GS, 19 IP, 18.8 K%, 10.1 BB%, 5.00 ERA, 5.21 FIP, 0.1 WAR
I honestly can’t remember if Rondon had COVID last year or not. I feel like there was a reason Oviedo leapfrogged him but I can’t remember why. Because Rondon certainly had the better case to be in the majors last year. He was even on the 40 man. Yeah there was definitely a reason he wasn’t, I just don’t remember. Unfortunately for him, the Cards are not in the same position that led them to promote Oviedo, so I doubt he gets the nod here.
Highest Level: A+
I’m not even going to bother with a projection with him, of which only Steamer has one. Based off what exactly, I have no idea. He’s thrown 15 total professional innings, all in the bullpen, and two of them are in rookie league ball. It’s going to take a lot of imagination to think he’s ready right now. I realize the draft report on him was “he might rise as fast as Wacha did” but there’s just nothing in the minors to work off of. He pitched quite well in the bullpen in Palm Beach, but still had a .457 BABIP against and a 4.05 ERA in a pitcher’s park. Assuming someone will rise to the majors like Wacha is already kind of a huge assumption, and it feels like late 2021 was always the most likely of the good outcomes for Thompson, not, like right now.
Highest Level: A
Speaking of big imaginations, the same applies to Liberatore really. He pitched good, not great, in A ball for the Rays as a 20-year-old. I mean it’s great considering his age. And he probably and reportedly took a step forward in last year’s camp. But let’s take a step back for a second. What would you imagine the best case last year was if there was a normal season? Start in High A, finish in AA right? We’d be assuming he’d start this year repeating AA (if the minors functioned as they normally do I should say), probably finishing the year in AAA and with an outside chance to make an MLB appearance late in the year. He doesn’t actually have to be added to the 40 man until December of 2022, so I don’t really think there would be a rush to add him. So while his timetable may be accelerated, I still don’t really think there’s any shot of him being in the MLB until he’s pitched well in AAA at the least.
(No, I did not forget Jake Woodford. He’s bullpen at best material if ever I’ve seen one)
Here are all the Cardinals options if they don’t sign a starter.
#1 Delay having a 5th starter until needed
This seems rather unlikely, only because I don’t think the Cardinals will want the increased workload on the other four guys. Could be wrong, I don’t think I am. Because of off-days, the Cardinals don’t actually need a 5th starter until April 20th. And then they have an off-day two days after that, so you could very easily make that a bullpen start if you want. After that, the next off-day isn’t until May 10th.
So hypothetically speaking, you could have a 4-man rotation until April 27th. Every starter goes every 5th day until April 20th. The candidates for the 5th starter spot could be utilized in multi-inning roles until a decision needs to be made, culminating in the bullpen start a week prior where maybe you have two guys throw 4 innings each or something. Or maybe, someone from the original 5 man rotation will be back by that point.
#2 The 5th rotation member is a glorified bullpen start
Since none of the options can really be expected to throw 5 innings consistently, just pick two guys who can throw 3-4 good innings and have them pitch every fifth day. In fact, let’s call this option Daniel Poncedeleon. Just make sure to have a second pitcher completely fresh for his starts who can throw 3 innings himself. It doesn’t have to be the same pitcher every time, because making one guy in the bullpen pitch every fifth day seems like it would be restrictive. I don’t actually mind Ponce as an option if we’re only relying on him for 3-4 innings.
#3 Start Alex Reyes
This is my favorite option, but it requires a certain specificity to how the season would need to play out to really be ideal. Let’s say Mikolas is out for April. Or whoever, but he’s the easy target. Alex Reyes is the 5th starter until Mikolas is ready to go again. Reyes gets moved back to the bullpen for the rest of the season no matter what. If the Cardinals need another starter beyond that, ideally someone emerges from AAA, as the season should be well underway since my plan has Reyes starting into May. A bit aggressive, but you can time it in such a way to get him around 100 innings. And if this went well, he could essentially be treated like a normal starter next year.
#4 Start John Gant
I’ll say this for Gant. He’s the only option that doesn’t involve a somewhat convoluted plan. Poncedeleon doesn’t throw enough innings on a consistent enough basis. You need to plan for a fresh bullpen behind him. Alex Reyes’ innings need to be managed. Genesis Cabrera walks far too many to think he can throw many innings either (consider picking him option #2 as well). The rest of the options, for April at least, just seem like wishful thinking to me. Which leaves Gant, who we have actually seen at starter for a mostly full season. He made 19 starts and threw 5.12 innings a start. Perfect. He’s literally the only option who we can be reasonably sure will throw 5 decent innings.
The Cardinals could get away with not signing another starter, but I think it would require some creativity in their approach. That’s why three of the four options are creative workarounds. So what do you think, with the assumption that the Cardinals will not sign another starter?