2021 has shown the importance of pitching depth.
The St. Louis Cardinals depleted pitching staff has been carried by veterans in recent weeks. Adam Wainwright has been dependable all season, Kwang-Hyun Kim has been really good since returning from injury, and even Wade LeBlanc has helped hold down the fort. Additionally, Carlos Martinez looked to be turning his season around before his season-ending injury. While the pitching situation is far from ideal considering all the injuries to the staff, the veterans on the team have done a good job of stabilizing the rotation.
While this year’s team would certainly be worse without Wainwright and Kim, these two pitchers are on expiring contracts. There may not be a direct need for them next season when the pitching staff gets healthy as Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson will all be returning and Johan Oviedo, Matthew Liberatore, and Connor Thomas could all push for innings. Despite this, the Cardinals would be short-sighted if they did not bring back veteran depth.
After this season, the importance of pitching depth should be clear to the Cardinals. Injuries are going to happen throughout the season and the team needs to have options when these injuries happen. Also, veteran depth can be better than throwing a young pitcher into the fire, as we have seen in the case of Johan Oviedo. If any of the young pitchers prove ready to enter the rotation next season, then they can be given a pathway into the staff. However, it would be unwise to depend on them without quality starters like Wainwright and Kim, who could be solid back-end starters next season.
Even though Adam Wainwright is nearly 40 years old, he has still proven to be effective on the mound. It is unknown how long his effectiveness will remain, but he can always move to the bullpen next season if he cannot handle the starting rotation in his age 40/41 season. Waino’s 3.71 ERA and 4.07 FIP this season suggest that he still has quality innings left in the tank next year, and the right-hander’s nearly 6 1⁄3 innings pitched per start suggest that his arm can still handle a heavy workload.
These are strong signs that Wainwright still has a role to play next season, although the Cardinals should not be too dependent on him.
Similarly, Kwang-Hyun Kim is nearly 33 years old but has been plenty effective this season. He does not work as deep into games as Wainwright, but his career 2.45 ERA and 3.82 FIP are strong signs that he can still be effective next season.
Even if these pitchers are not in the rotation, they would help a bullpen that currently has the highest walk rate and highest xFIP in the league. They would also provide quality depth and stability as a reasonable cost, and that is always valuable.
Besides these two, Carlos Martinez is also an extension candidate. This decision is more difficult to make, but the Cardinals should still resign Martinez. The right-hander got injured after a pair of strong outings in the rotation that could have marked a turning point for him. Even if this strong stretch would not have lasted, Martinez could still perform well in the bullpen. He was a very good reliever in both 2018 and 2019 and has a strong history of success in the the rotation. Thus, it could be worth giving him another shot in the rotation. Even if the team decides against that, he could still be an improvement on a bullpen that has relied on waiver wire acquisitions to stay afloat.
Martinez’s value is also at an all-time low. This would likely make him an affordable option for the team. Again, the Cardinals should not have high expectations for Martinez in 2022, but he does have a high ceiling and he could be an important piece for the 2022 team if he can recover well from his injury and recapture his lost form. His recent struggles make this harder to predict, but the Cardinals should take the chance and add more depth.
Wade LeBlanc is another extension candidate in the offseason. He would likely be very cheap, but he has not yet shown enough to prove that he deserves a new contract. He does throw strikes which is important for the Cardinals, but his 2.92 ERA with St. Louis is much better than his 5.69 FIP.
With more time and good results, LeBlanc could make his way into the team’s plans next season. He is nearly 37, though, and may be forced to sign another minor league contract in the offseason.
The 2021 season has proven the importance of pitching depth, and the Cardinals have three reasonably priced extension candidates that could provide the team with quality depth next season. They should not overlook these players due to their age (Wainwright, Kim) or recent inconsistencies (Martinez). Instead, they should sign them to extensions and see how much they can contribute to a fully healthy pitching staff.