A six-man rotation doesn't make sense for the Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals could open 2024 with six starting pitchers. While it might appear smart at first glance, the larger rotation could hurt the Cardinals in the early portion of the season.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds
St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds / Aaron Doster/GettyImages

Baseball teams have increasingly turned to six-man rotations over the past few years to give their starting pitchers an extra day of rest. The St. Louis Cardinals have tossed around the idea of joining that group to start 2024.

The Cardinals open the season with an unforgiving schedule, traveling to Los Angeles for four games against the Dodgers and playing eight games in nine days after leaving the Spring Training complex in Jupiter, Florida. According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (subscription required), these demanding workloads to begin the season have led the Cardinals to consider adding another starter to the rotation, at least to begin the season.

The idea sounds good on the surface, but the Cardinals may actually be looking at this backward. This early in the season, especially with the grind that the Cardinals will be going through, the bullpen seems more important than the rotation. Starters are not yet fully stretched out, leading to shorter outings as they become acclimated to a full workload after only pitching a few innings per game in Spring Training. This will put more demands on the bullpen to cover innings.

A sixth starter could keep a rotation fresher, but aside from the fact that the Cardinals have one of the most experienced rotations in baseball, comprising players who understand what is necessary to pitch every five days, the fact that there will be a sixth starter will also force the bullpen to work more innings.

The sixth starter will be the team's worst starting pitcher, meaning it's likely that the pitcher will throw the fewest productive innings of any starter on the team. The bullpen will therefore need to handle more innings than it would if the Cardinals went back to their ace instead of to a sixth man. Additionally, removing one of the bullpen options and putting him in the rotation will mean he can only pitch once every six days instead of whenever he needs to be called upon to eat innings in relief.

Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore are likely the frontrunners for the final starting job. But while they have nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, the best course of action would probably be to let Andre Pallante serve as the seldom-used long relief pitcher. Pallante is hardly spectacular, but the Cardinals generally know what they're getting. This would also give the team a chance to see if Pallante's "death ball" can reliably retire right-handed hitters.

Pallante's presence would likely mean that Thompson and Liberatore begin the season in Triple-A as starting pitchers for Memphis. This full workload would allow one of those two to be prepared to take a rotation spot in the almost certain event that one of the starters goes down with injury at some point in the season.

The six-man rotation, while trendy, is not a great idea for the Cardinals. Because of the early season's unusually strenuous nature for the Cardinals, the bullpen should be the primary focus. Let the proven starters do what they've always done and lean on the relief corps to provide those much-needed innings as the season gets underway.