St. Louis Cardinals: Lack of starter depth impacts options


The St. Louis Cardinals have made excellent use of their starter depth to improve the organization over the last year. But now with injury and experience limiting their major-league options, the team must be cautious in dangling proven or near-ready starters as trade chips.

There was a time when this was not so. Unlike their northern rivals, the (hopefully soon-sidelined) Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals have devoted a huge portion of their draft and development resources to cultivating starters.

The Cubs, through draft and trade, have seen the likes of Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell power their way to the Bigs. The Cards’ hitting prospects have for the most part gingerly crept their way up the ladder.

It’s not that the position players haven’t had impact. Tommy Pham was utterly brilliant last year; Kolten Wong has seen much of his promise finally realized; and we saw strong promise from Paul DeJong in 2017 (but don’t get too thrilled yet; remember Aledmys Diaz?).

But it’s in the prospect of excellent starting pitching where the Cards have shined.  Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, neither any longer prospects, look like solid staples; Luke Weaver shone through this year; and Alex Reyes surely would have absent season-ending injury.

Jack Flaherty got his first taste of the Bigs too. Though very uneven in his short 2017 stint, Flaherty’s next iteration should be more like Weaver’s 2016.

That’s all well and good, and there’s no question that others lurk behind those described above. But Dakota Hudson was the only other pitcher in the Cards’ 2017 midseason Top-10 prospects on Baseball America’s list, and expecting Hudson or others to step into starting roles in 2018 is a big stretch.

And the Cards also chose to ditch some arms and salaries for opportune deals. Mike Leake‘s salary was mercifully wiped off the books to Seattle, Marco Gonzales was also shipped northwest in a startling deal that landed slugging phenom Tyler O’Neill, and and Jaime Garcia was shipped to Atlanta.

Where does this all leave us? Well, assuming that CMart, Wacha, and Weaver are presumably ensconced in the starting five for 2018 (with no promises for Reyes til we better know his recovery and arm strength), there are choices, but there is hardly promise of needed depth.

There’s an outside, maybe ten percent, chance that Lance Lynn accepts a QO tender (assuming the team actually makes it) or cuts a long-term deal with the Cards. That looks unlikely given the rhetoric on both sides during the season.

I suppose Adam Wainwright could figure in, and believe me, I’d love it, but reality suggests otherwise. While Matheny was touting Waino’s presence in the 2018 rotation in a recent interview, one only need look at the former ace’s stats over the last three seasons to see little consistency or predictability there.

Tyler Lyons has been a spot starter and he is a valuable part of this team’s pitching staff, but query if management will give him his long-awaited chance at the rotation. I for one think that he is a very solid number five starter who can give five to six innings on a regular basis.

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As you can see, unless you want to fantasize about the remainder of the minor-leaguers coming up and immediately shining sufficiently to start regularly — a possibility that is not enhanced by the St. Louis Cardinals’ ultra-patient approach with youngsters — there’s just not a lot of needed depth there with which to start 2018.

Now, none of this supposes a trade or a free agent signing. There are certainly arms out there available for the right deal. As I’ve written before, the team could spring for a Lynn-like arm (either Lance himself or an Alex Cobb type), or wait til spring and make some non-roster invites to those awaiting deals.

But absent an incoming trade, signing, or a surprising promotion, it doesn’t look like the team is ripe with immediate choices for rotation depth. And that being the case, I don’t see one of the core of 2018 starters — Martinez, Wacha, Weaver — being packaged to go elsewhere without a suitable replacement.

Nor do I see the next tier — Flaherty, Hudson, Sandy Alcantara, Daniel Poncedeleon, etc — as likely departing. Perhaps one of them, but almost certainly not more.

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It’s not common to think of this franchise being afflicted by pitching depth issues. The loss of Lynn and trades of Garcia, Gonzales, and Leake have changed the facts on the ground. The St. Louis Cardinals are hardly in bad shape pitching-wise, but their off-season plans are no doubt impacted by new and different circumstances.