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A Farewell to Arms: The Future of the Cardinals Starting Rotation

Carlos Martinez will anchor the starting rotation for years to come

Though it has had its share of ups and downs, the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation has been arguably the most consistent part of the team this season. While their success has not been reflected in the standings, thanks to a combination of inconsistent offense and numerous late-inning bullpen meltdowns, the overall numbers are impressive. Here’s how the unit ranks league wide as of July 23rd: 3.79 ERA (4th), 569 IP (5th), .248 BAA (7th), and the team has dealt 9 shutouts (T-2nd) which obviously begin with a strong performance from the starter. Another impressive aspect of the rotation has been that, other than Marco Gonazles making a spot-start during a double-header, the Cardinals have only used 5 starting pitchers this season.

However, changes are on the horizon. It appears that Lance Lynn‘s time in St. Louis is drawing to a close, Adam Wainwright is into his mid-30’s, and the farm system boasts one of the more impressive pitching pipelines in all of baseball. While there are two pitchers on long-term contracts (Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake) the other three spots are subject to turnover during the next 3 years. Despite the new faces, the rotation should continue to be the strength of this franchise.

The Fixtures

Carlos Martinez needs little explanation. Already knocking on the door of super-stardom, Martinez is primed to be a Top 10 starter in the MLB, likely Top 5 in the NL, over the life of his contract which runs through 2021 with team options for ’22 & ’23. He is the Ace.

On the other end of the rotation is the steady presence of Mike Leake. Still just 29 years old, Leake is signed through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021. Not a top of the rotation starter, Leake can be counted on to take the ball every 5th day and generally keep the team in the game. While some may think he is being overpaid to be a 4/5 starter, there is tremendous value in a pitcher that gives you 33 starts, 180+ IP and an ERA around 4.00 annually. With the team preparing to graduate a string of young pitchers, this value only grows. Just ask the New York Mets. Perhaps Leake is traded in the final 2 years of his current deal, but I project him to be the bookend to Martinez for the next 3-4 years, allowing the Cardinals to build the 2, 3, and 4 spots from within.

The Flight of Lance Lynn

Lance Lynn has been a remarkably consistent performer during his career. A rock solid innings eater with strikeouts and ERA to match, he has quietly been one of the best #2 or #3 starters in baseball. That production has set him up for a nice payday in free agency following the 2017 season. The anticipation is that he can command a ballpark figure of 5-years/$100M. This is a total the Cardinals are unlikely to pay for a mid-rotation arm and a length that does not make sense with so many pitching prospects on the rise.

Though Lynn expressed interest in staying here, the next wave is pushing the Cardinals to make a business decision and move on. This could occur in the coming days as playoff contenders desperately search for pitching. On the surface his trade value seems limited, considering he is a 2-month (maybe 3) rental. However, it only takes one desperate team to overpay and give the Cardinals a nice prospect return. The team was able to move Marco Gonzales, a pitcher that no longer fit in the organization, for a Top 50 prospect in Tyler O’Neill. Team control added value to Gonzales, but they should be able to fetch at least that level of prospect for the talent of Lance Lynn.

The exit of Lynn, either now or in the offseason, creates an opening for Luke Weaver. The Cardinals #2 pitching prospect behind Alex Reyes has absolutely nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Go ahead and pencil him into the 2018 rotation.

The Waning Wainwright

Adam Wainwright has had an impressive career. When all is said and done, he will go down as one of the best Cardinals pitchers of all-time. While he may not be on the level of Bob Gibson, he is at worst the Bob Forsch of his era. Incredibly consistent, one can’t help but wonder what his numbers would look like without 2 missing seasons (Tommy John in 2011 & Achilles in 2015). He has shown the ability to turn back the clock this year, battling his way to several very good starts. However, with 7 starts in which he has allowed 4 ER or more (including two 9 ER affairs), he is no longer the consistent force from start to start. Signed through his age 36 season of 2018, I believe his Cardinals career may be coming to an end. He may choose to hang it up at the end of his contract, depending on how he performs in 2018, or he may choose to go year-to-year. Either way, I don’t see him in the 2019 rotation for St. Louis.

As strange as it will be not to see Waino in the rotation (or in another uniform), much like Lynn, it is the ascension of highly-touted pitching prospects that will lead the Cardinals to bring his era to a close. Alex Reyes is currently on the mend from Tommy John surgery, set to return to game action early in 2018. In a Q&A with bloggers earlier this season, John Mozeliak revealed that going into 2017 the intention was for Reyes to pitch exclusively out of the bullpen. I imagine that this plan will simply be pushed back a year. When Reyes is ready to return to the big leagues in 2018, it will be in the bullpen. They likely will build up a solid innings total during his rehab and then use the bullpen assignment to limit/control his innings for the season. (See: Matt Morris returning from TJ in 2000. Joined team May 30th, 31 relief appearances, 53 IP). They probably push him to around 100-120 IP combined. Then, when Wainwright has vacated his spot, Reyes will step into the rotation for 2019.

The Curious Case of Michael Wacha

Michael Wacha has had an interesting 2017. After an injury plagued 2016 he entered the year will little expectations from fans. As I wrote in Spring Training, his new offseason training program held hope that he could put his stress reaction issues behind him. He started the season very strong, then appeared to be hitting a wall in May and June. He has since returned to a dominant form. It’s hard to say what he will be going forward. He may prove to be a 30-start pitcher after all, or injury concerns may return and push him to a bullpen role (I believe his stuff would play well there). Fingers crossed, Wacha is a rotation fixture from now until he reaches free agency following 2019.

Should a major injury occur or fatigue issues push him to the pen, the next man in line is Jack Flaherty. The former first round pick has hit his stride this season, 2.14 ERA in 105 IP, and his stock has skyrocketed both in the organization and around the league. Likely to push for a bullpen role in 2018 or fall into the Luke Weaver, 6th starter role while pitching in Memphis, Flaherty could create options with Wacha. Should Wacha continue to pitch well as a starter, and being under control through 2019, he could hold tremendous trade value as the 2018 trade deadline approaches. With so many pitchers on the way, selling Wacha at the peak of his value would be a wise move for the Cardinals. At the very least, project Flaherty or perhaps Jordan Hicks to replace him in the rotation for 2020.

Prospects Abound

The Cardinals are loaded with pitching prospects. Though many will fizzle out and several will ultimately project as bullpen arms, the sheer volume lends to the idea that at least a handful become very good Major Leaguers. With one spot projected to open following each of the next 3 years, the Cardinals are set up nicely to graduate deserving pitchers into the big league rotation. Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara, Jordan Hicks, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson are all candidates. Hudson may break into the Cardinals’ bullpen before 2017 ends and it may be where he sticks long-term. Alcantara’s 100 MPH fastball also seems like a potential bullpen weapon down the road. Of course, one or two of these young men may be traded over the next 6-9 months as the Cardinals search for a lineup cornerstone. I’m not even mentioning guys like Zac Gallen, Mike O’Reilly, and Ryan Helsley, all pitchers showing very well this year. (Be sure to check out Kyle Reis’s prospect rankings here at the Redbird Daily).

What It Looks Like

Here are some simple projections for the Starting Rotation over the next 3 years.

Carlos Martinez
Adam Wainwright
Michael Wacha
Luke Weaver
Mike Leake
Carlos Martinez
Alex Reyes
Michael Wacha
Luke Weaver
Mike Leake
Carlos Martinez
Alex Reyes
Luke Weaver
Jack Flaherty (or other)
Mike Leake

Overall the Cardinals are in position to maintain the starting rotation as the strength of the team. Also, with several young pitchers, they project to have a strong 5 going forward at an affordable cost. Pitching development has been the bread and butter of this organization for nearly 10 years, and that is unlikely to change. Some of the young arms will be leveraged to fix other weaknesses, but the Cardinals are not afraid to stockpile pitching talent. Two old adages come to mind: “You can never have too much pitching” and “These things tend to work themselves out.” Well, going forward, the pitching is poised to work out nicely for the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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