There were two things absent from the St. Louis Cardinals' 2023 starting rotation: innings and high-end talent. Jack Flaherty's best days were behind him, Adam Wainwright was aging, and Jake Woodford, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas were shells of their original selves. Only Miles Mikolas pitched more than 121 innings for the team, and not one pitcher outside of Jordan Montgomery (traded) and Steven Matz (only 105 innings pitched) had an ERA below 3.80.
John Mozeliak filled plenty of innings for 2024 when he signed Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and Sonny Gray. The talent, however, is up for debate. Kyle Gibson led the league in both games started and hits allowed to go along with an ERA of 4.73, and Lance Lynn led the league in home runs allowed. Both pitchers will pitch often and go relatively deep into games, but at what cost?
Trading for a starting pitcher seems like the most logical route; Mozeliak can save money and trade from the team's depth. Pitchers such as Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber, Jesus Luzardo, or any pitcher from the Seattle Mariners would be the more appealing route, but perhaps there's a back-end starting pitcher the Cardinals can trade for.
My argument today is that Paul Blackburn should be on the team's trade radar. Paul Blackburn is a near carbon copy of Steven Matz; he has experienced his fair share of injuries that have limited him to a maximum of 111 innings for his seven-year career with the Oakland Athletics. "When healthy" is a phrase often heard in conjunction with Blackburn's name.
He was an All-Star in 2022, and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to receive just $3.2 million through arbitration in 2024. He finished last season with a 4.43 ERA, 3.96 FIP, and a 1.543 WHIP in only 103.2 innings. It's not a pretty stat line, but there were signs of improvement in major categories for Blackburn.
Paul Blackburn isn't a flamethrower; his fastball averaged 90 MPH for most of his career. However, it has steadily risen since he came into the league. In 2024, his fastball averaged 91.9 MPH. His slider, curveball, and changeup are his strongest pitches in a deep repertoire. He has a cutter, but he threw it 20.4% of the time, and batters hit .435 against it. He could decrease his usage of that pitch and increase the usage of his slider, a comparable pitch with more horizontal movement.
Blackburn's strikeout percentage has increased at a comparable pace to his walk rate for his career. Both were career highs last year at 22.4% and 9.3%, respectively. While a 22.4% K rate is nothing special, the fact that it increased by more than 3% from the 2022 season is noteworthy.
Blackburn has excelled at limiting hard contact for his career, and the discrepancy between his ERA and FIP indicates bad luck on the defensive side of the ball for him. Given a more stout defense, Paul Blackburn could see progress in his ERA next year. The Cardinals, hopefully, improve defensively and surpass the efforts of the A's on that side of the ball.
The issue here is that the Oakland Athletics' General Manager, David Forst, recently stated that he intends to hold on to Blackburn, at least for the time being. Blackburn is cheap, and the Athletics love that for their players. St. Louis could entice Forst with a trade for a more controllable outfielder such as Alec Burleson or a utility player such as Tommy Edman. It may take just that to acquire a starting pitcher with upside who can fill in at the back of the rotation. A trade at the Trade Deadline for the right-handed starter seems most likely.