St. Louis Cardinals: What to do when Kwang Hyun Kim returns
The St. Louis Cardinals rotation has improved since their first turn through the order, but what will happen when Kwang Hyun Kim returns?
The first three games of the 2021 season were a cause for concern for some St. Louis Cardinals fans. Playing at Great American Ballpark, the team’s bats were alive but their biggest strength (pitching) looked like the team’s biggest weakness.
Since last Sunday though, the team has won four straight games on the strength of improved starting pitching and some timely hitting.
The spring injuries to Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim forced John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon into the rotation, but both Mikolas and Kim are working their way back. If everything goes well, Kim will be the first one back and will be back soon.
The question then becomes what to do with the rotation.
Use a 6-man rotation
The 6-man rotation always seems like the glamor pick for something that gets thrown around every spring. Pitchers are coming in healthy, everyone is confident, but then it never truly works out in the season.
In this case, neither Gant nor Ponce have done anything to lose their spot, so why not just add Kim to the end of the line?
In theory, this works great and the Cardinals have plenty of rest and all six starters pitch well. However, the issue really becomes when you think about the front of the rotation. Do the Cardinals really want Flaherty to pitch less often than he could feasibly pitch? I don’t think so. Also, as much as all six starters have the chance to stay hot and continue their success, the odds just aren’t great that all six starters will be able to stay sharp in between starts.
This is an option, but not the most inviting.
Send Ponce de Leon back to the bullpen
Ponce had the first start by a Cardinal this year that went 5.0 innings. On Monday versus the Marlins, he was more efficient than fans have seen him in the past, allowing just three hits and one earned run over those five innings.
After the worrisome series in Cincy, this start was huge and it was encouraging to see Ponce improve on his strike-throwing.
However, he’s probably a step below Gant as a starter, and therefore would make sense as the guy to be sent back to the bullpen. He was also the last starter named to the rotation, so again, it would make sense for him to be the first one out.
Send John Gant back to the bullpen
Gant also had a solid start against Miami following Ponce on Tuesday. Over 4.0 innings, he gave up four hits and just one run that was unearned. Although he has been in the bullpen for the majority of recent seasons, he was stretched out to 80+ pitches and was the first player named to the rotation when Mikolas went down.
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Like Ponce, he did nothing to pitch his way out of the rotation, even if he only went four innings. Gant has expressed his desire to be a starter, but sending him back to the bullpen could turn the bullpen into the best in baseball.
In their careers, Gant has been much better than Ponce de Leon as a reliever. In 2020, Gant moved into a later inning role and excelled, allowing just four earned runs over 15.0 innings. The Cardinals already have late-inning options in Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos, and Andrew Miller but adding Gant to that mix makes the bullpen stronger than adding Ponce does.
While a 6-man rotation is an option, it seems like when Kim comes back someone is going to have to go. I think the most likely thing to happen is Ponce de Leon returning to the bullpen, but sending Gant back into the ranks may be the best option as far as maximizing roles goes.