St. Louis Cardinals: Will the Cardinals have the best rotation in the NL Central?

Aug 22, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) points to his infielders during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 22, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) points to his infielders during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals had one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball last season. Will it stand above the rest of the NL Central in 2016?

The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t get to 100 wins last season because of an offense that ranked 24th in runs scored and 23rd in slugging — they did it on the shoulders of a stellar starting rotation that consistently stifled opposing batters.

It’s no secret that the Cardinals had one of the best rotations in all of baseball in 2015. They have the numbers to prove it. Cardinals starters had an MLB-best 2.99 ERA and brought home 72 wins last season. The rotation also led Major League Baseball in quality starts with 106. The New York Mets weren’t far behind at 101 and both teams were the only ones to crack 100 total quality starts last year.

So, the Cardinals have to be primed to have the best rotation in the National League Central Division this season, right? Not so fast.

A closer look at last year’s numbers show that both the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t far behind the Cardinals starters at all, and the Cubs rotation may have even been slightly better.

More from Adam Wainwright

The Cubs starters ERA sat at 3.36 — good for third in the National League last season. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that the Cubs’ starters ranked first in the NL with a 3.26 FIP. The Pirates ranked second with a 3.34 FIP and the Cardinals were fifth at 3.47. For those who are a bit unfamiliar with the Fielding Independent Pitching stat, according to FanGraphs, “FIP is a measurement of a pitcher’s performance that strips out the role of defense, luck, and sequencing, making it a more stable indicator of how a pitcher actually performed over a given period of time.” Some consider FIP as a better measurement of a pitcher’s ability than ERA.

The Cubs starters also ranked first in the NL in fWAR in 2015 at 19.2, while the Cardinals were right behind the Pirates in the sixth spot with a 16.6 fWAR. What might have helped Cubs starters out a bit more was a league-low .285 BABIP (the Cardinals ranked sixth with a .297 BABIP). So, opposing hitters had a little less batted ball luck against Chicago last season.

The biggest edge the Cardinals had on any rotation last season was their ability to pitch out of situations with runners on base. St. Louis starters posted an MLB-best 78.9 Left On Base percentage. The Cubs and Pirates weren’t quite as successful at leaving runners on posting 73.1 and 72.6 LOB percentages, which ranked 9th and 13th respectively. Still, that is nothing to look down on. Both staffs pitched well with runners on, and I’d be surprised if the Cardinals are able to post another 75+ LOB% in 2016.

But what does all this mean for this season? Do the Cardinals have the best rotation in the NL Central moving forward? I believe the answer is yes and will be yes by the end of 2016, but not by a landslide.

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates all had turnover to their rotations in the offseason with free agent signings and trades. But there’s really one name you need to know that will boost the Cardinals above the rest — Adam Wainwright.

The Cardinals best “offseason acquisition” is the return of Wainwright from an achilles injury that sidelined him for virtually all of last year. Think about it, the Cardinals had one of the best rotations in all of baseball and were missing their ace who averages 16 wins a season, 210 IP, a 2.98 ERA, a 3.11 FIP, and a 1.16 WHIP. Not too mention, Wainwright has been a Cy Young finalist four times since 2009. More importantly, his injury wasn’t arm related and he saved a ton of mileage being out last season which means he should have plenty of gas in the tank to crank out innings and quality starts for the Cardinals in 2016. Wainwright’s contributions to this team can’t be overstated, and as I’ve recently written, I expect the 34-year old to be in the NL Cy Young conversation at the end of 2016.

Still, the Cardinals rotation has taken hits with the loss of Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery and last season’s staff ace, John Lackey, heading to the Windy City to sign with the Cubs. The Cubs rotation definitely got better adding Lackey, but I’d temper expectations if I were Cubs fans.

Lackey will certainly help stabilize Chicago’s rotation as an innings eater, but the fact is he had a career-year with the Cardinals in 2015. Lackey posted a career-best 2.77 ERA with St. Louis and tossed 218 innings, which is his highest total since throwing 224 innings with the Angels way back in 2007 when he finished third in the AL Cy Young voting. His 1.21 WHIP was also the third lowest of any season in his career. The 37-year old is bound for a regression at some point, and 2016 might be the year. Lackey sports a career 3.92 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and a 3.86 FIP.

Baseball-reference projections for Lackey in 2016 look like this:


Provided by View Original Table

I could see these projections playing out with maybe a bit higher ERA for Lackey. Still, I’m sure the Cubs would be happy with that return. With Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta also leading the way, the Cubs rotation should once again give the Cardinals a run for their money in 2016.

However, the returns of young guns Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha for another full season of experience should give the Cardinals even more of an edge. Both Martinez and Wacha have yet to put it all together for an entire season, and if they can, the NL Central will be in trouble. The addition of Mike Leake as a replacement for Lackey should be just fine as the 28-year old holds a 3.88 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP — both a bit lower than Lackey’s career totals.

The Pirates shouldn’t be forgotten in this conversation either. After being traded from Seattle, J.A. Happ finished 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA, a 2.19 FIP and a 1.03 WHIP for Pittsburgh. I believe that Pittsburgh did take a bit of a step back losing him to free agency, but honestly Happ wasn’t likely to post numbers close to that again with a career ERA and WHIP of 4.13 and 1.37. Instead, the Pirates added Jon Niese. While Niese had a down year last season with the Mets, he is still a solid left-handed addition to the Pirates rotation. And with Gerrit Cole only getting better, the Pirates will be right behind the Cardinals and Cubs on the mound.

As for the rest of the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers finished 26th and 28th respectively with starters ERAs well over 4.50 last season. Not too mention, both teams are in rebuilding mode, so it will likely be a while before they are major contenders in the division.

Despite the Reds and Brewers, the NL Central still provided three of the best teams in all of baseball last season as well as one of the tightest and hard fought division races down the stretch. I expect more of the same in 2016.

Next: Cardinals Against the National League: Diamondbacks

How do you think the Cardinals’ rotation stacks up against the rest of the NL Central this season? Let me know on Twitter.