ST. LOUIS – If the St. Louis Cardinals hope to prove 2023 is an outlier from their recent track record, getting some improvement from the pitching staff is a must.
As a collective unit, the Cardinals pitching staff is up nearly one whole run in ERA from last year (3.79 to 4.53), only averaging around one quality start every three games, and remains near the record pace for most blown saves in a season.
One avenue toward fixing this is finding the right combination of hurlers to set the tone for the game. The Cardinals will enter the offseason with several uncertainties in their starting rotation for the first time in several years. Only Miles Mikolas, and presumably Steven Matz if healthy, are good bets to fill a traditional five-man starting rotation. Just about every other possibility is on the table.
This puts the Cardinals in a bit of a precarious situation: Do you promote from within the organization, try to lure some experienced arms to St. Louis or aim for a little of both?
There’s no clear-cut answer to this. But two interesting points to revisit once the offseason arrives, which could have implications on the Cardinals’ ultimate strategy, are Monday’s comments from lead executive John Mozeliak and the extended auditions for three new guys in the Cardinals rotation.
Now more than two weeks removed from the trade deadline, Mozeliak said one of the top priorities in selling pending free agents was to acquire, “Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.” He did that by acquiring seven pitchers in prospect-heavy deals, but at the expense of moving two established starters in Jack Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery. Add that to the reality of Adam Wainwright retiring in two months, the Cardinals suddenly see some gaps in the rotation.
On Monday, just after Mozeliak announced Matz would miss some time on the injured list, he doubled down on his comments to improve the pitching. He even went as far as to tell media members, “We know we have to add three starters this offseason,” and despite the depth, there’s a heightened need to be “very aggressive” in acquiring quality pitching.
What actions follow those comments, say 4-6 months from now during the peak of free agency, remain to be seen. The Cardinals’ largest free agent deal for a pitcher previously without experience in St. Louis is Mike Leake’s five-year, $80 million contract that began in 2016. Leake fell short of hopes, and was traded just the second year into his deal. The Cardinals have not really completed similar signings since then, so if Mozeliak is true to his recent comments, bringing in new pitchers outside the organization would break the mold.
On the other side of the coin, these final weeks will be important in evaluating if any of Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore or Zack Thompson could be relied upon in the rotation next year. All three will get lengthy looks after some recent departures and injuries to the starting cast.
In August, though somewhat of a small sample size, all three have offered promise. In a combined six starts and eight outings, Hudson, Liberatore and Thompson have covered 41.1 innings to the tune of a 3.28 ERA and 33 strikeouts. Early returns are good, but seeing how they stack up against postseason hopefuls down the stretch (Braves, Phillies, Orioles, Brewers) might be a stronger indicator of how they fit into the Cardinals’ long-term plans.
When it comes to building a rotation for next year, the Cardinals have lots of possibilities to keep in mind, both externally and internally. How much the team is willing to open their pockets and explore a new dynamic for the rotation are two developments worth following in rotation construction.
Who might be considered for the 2024 rotation?
Let’s preface this by saying that most of these options are far from guaranteed, but if Mozeliak embraces his comments on adding “three starters,” it doesn’t exactly close the book either.
Starting with probably the biggest longshot based on Cardinals history, but undoubtedly to be the best MLB free agent available: Shohei Ohtani. His hitting and pitching outputs alone are both MVP caliber, and he built quite a strong friendship with St. Louis outfielder Lars Nootbaar in the World Baseball Classic.
Many models are predicting he could earn MLB’s first half-billion contract based on his skillset. That would be at least three times higher than any deal ever completed for the Cardinals, and any hypothetical it happens might have the front office careful about allocating contracts elsewhere. Don’t get hopes up too much on this scenario, but it’s fun to imagine nonetheless.
Ohtani signed with the Angels after ample experience in Japanese professional baseball, and another talented arm overseas could follow suit. Yoshinobu Yamamoto is 24 years old with a fastball that peaks in the mid 90s, a strong arsenal of breaking pitches and many campaigns of 100-plus innings. If he pursues MLB free agency this winter, the Cardinals would be wise to at least see if they could entertain a multi-year contract.
In terms of upside, age and likeliness of signing a long-term deal, the next best tier of MLB free agent pitchers after Ohtani consists of Blake Snell, Aaron Nola and Julio Urias. All three have experience of being on World Series-bound rosters, none of them are older than 30 yet and they can pile up strikeouts and inning in a hurry. For the Cardinals standpoint, one good expectation of these three, if healthy, would be something north of what they offered Leake in 2015 in dollars, and possibly even years.
After that, any free agent pitcher the Cardinals might sign would be a matter of what role do they anticipate them having on the teams. Maybe the front office values someone that can eat up innings or build relationships with prospects or internal rotation hopefuls at a lower cost than the best of the big names. Former All-Stars Kyle Gibson, Michael Lorenzen and Sonny Gray seem like candidates who could fit the bill, though all are likely near or past their athletic primes and might be better on short-term deals.
One other possibility, though hard to evaluate how realistic this could be, is the return of Jack Flaherty or Jordan Montgomery in the offseason. Prior to being moved in trade deadline deals, both were finding momentum and trusted the Cardinals defense. The biggest caveat here is what type of deals they want vs. what the Cardinals might offer. Contract extension talks were not particularly close for either ahead of the 2023 season, so as pending free agents on an underperforming squad, they were moved.
Dozens of pitchers could test free agency this offseason, but if the Cardinals would prefer to be more aggressive on the trade front in adding a pitcher, one name that might be worth checking on is Cleveland’s Shane Bieber. A former Cy Young winner and two-time All-Star, Bieber has been durable for much of his MLB career, but he’s dealt with a few injury scares recently. The Cardinals reportedly showed some interest in Seattle Mariners pitchers before the recent deadline, including Logan Gilbert, but couldn’t get a deal done.
If Mozeliak cannot fulfill his hope for “three starters,” the Cardinals will need to look internally come next spring. Tink Hence, Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy are three core starting pitchers in the minors.
The Cardinals also acquired Sem Robberse, Drew Rom, Adam Kloffenstein and Tekoah Roby in deadline deals, and all could be closer to MLB territory after work in the Cardinals organization. MLB Pipeline projects most of that bunch to debut by 2024. Whether as a starter due to demand or a little more naturally is still to be determined.
In conclusion, don’t spend too much time thinking about who is in next year’s Cardinals rotation right now, but realize there are lots of possibilities to shape next year’s starting core from November to February.