The Cardinals need to focus on top-end starting pitchers, find starts in aggregate

If the Cardinals want to maximize their rotation in 2024, viewing the starts in aggregate is better than a traditional five-man group.

Wild Card Series - Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game One
Wild Card Series - Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game One / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

We've all known for months now that the St. Louis Cardinals would need to be starting high-end starting pitching this offseason. Not just one arm, but likely three starters who could slot in above Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz on Opening Day in 2024.

Early reporting continues to encourage me that for the first time in a long time, the Cardinals appear to be ready to make aggressive moves this offseason. They are linked (by credible, local reporting) to the likes of Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Jordan Montgomery in free agency.

On top of that, they have been linked to the trade market as well, with interest in pitchers from the Mariners, Marlins, and White Sox's ace Dylan Cease. In my opinion, the most intriguing name that the organization has an interest in via trade is Rays' starter Tyler Glasnow.

First, I do believe the Cardinals need to make at least two of their rotation upgrades via free agency. Spend the money to upgrade the team, don't just decimate your position player group to fix your pitching issues. But in order to get three really good names, a trade may need to happen.

Glasnow seems like an odd trade candidate considering the Rays will be contending in 2024 and have plenty of pitchers who will be on the IL next season, but Glasnow's own injury history (more on that later), salary in 2024, and free agency following next season make him a likely trade candidate.

With Glasnow salary jumping from $5 million to $25 million next season, that would be over 30% of what they spent on their 2023 payroll. My guess is they would rather get assets in return from him and free up $25 million to spend, rather than invest that all into one player.

His injury history, lack of control, and high salary for 2024 would all likely bring his trade value down as well, meaning he won't cost an arm and a leg like Cease or Logan Gilbert. I'll get more into Glasnow specifically in a future story, but for now, I want to get to the point Derrick Goold made recently on his podcast.

If the Cardinals see their rotation as aggregate starts, it allows them to get creative with acquiring top-end pitching

On his podcast "The Best Podcast in Baseball", Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discussed the Cardinals' interest in Glasnow with Kevin Wheeler, and a really interesting thought process floating around the organization that would allow them to target high-end pitching without worrying too much about how many starts they'll make in total for the club.

"One of the conversations kinda going around the Cardinals, Kevin, is this notion of, and it's the right notion too, is you look at a rotation in aggregate. Right? How do you get 162 starts from five spots? Not five guys, five spots. Now, if you turn 30 of those starts over to Zack Thompson, what are you going to get for that? But if you turn 15 of them over to Zack Thompson, and get 20 of them from Tyler Glasnow, what are you going to get? Is that an improved rotation?

Look...some of these guys may not give you 30 starts, they may give you 24...but how they can do that this year is knowing that we actually have guys who can fill in those leftover 8, 10, or 12 won't be a carter, it won't be an unknown."

The whole conversation with Wheeler on his podcast is worth a listen, as they talk through all of the different arms linked to St. Louis so far. But I think Goold's point about the starts in aggregate is one to really dig into as a fanbase. Over a 162-game season, each rotation "spot" has about 32 starts a year. In everyone's perfect world, the whole rotation is able to make each of their 32 spots. But in reality, that just rarely happens. This year, only 28 starters made 32 or more starts, meaning there weren't even enough pitchers for each team to have a guy make that many starts.

The Cardinals have to prioritize getting at least one, but probably two starting pitchers who are better than Miles Mikolas who can eat innings and make most of those 32 starts. They aren't going to fill their rotation with Glasnow types who they have no idea how healthy they will be. But one of those three rotation spots could be maximized in terms of upside if they are willing to run the risk of not getting a full 32 starts from said pitcher.

One of the biggest knocks on Glasnow has been his inability to stay healthy. He began 2023 on the IL but finished the season with 21 starts and 120 innings pitched, and was healthy this year and last year for the postseason series. Outside of 2023, Glasnow has never made more than 14 starts in a season.

If the Cardinals were to acquire him, their hope would be that he'd give them 25+ starts and a big part of their postseason rotation. But even if he has an IL stint or two and only makes 20 starts in 2024, he could still be a very valuable piece for the Cardinals. Which is more valuable - Glasnow giving you 20 or so starts and Thompson having to cover the other 8-12, or acquiring a lesser pitcher who can make every start throughout the year?

No one is trying to argue that the Cardinals should be hoping to get a guy who will only give them 20ish starts. But if they are actually going to make a significant upgrade to their rotation, they have to be willing to patch together starts during the season if someone like Glasnow goes down, knowing that when he's healthy, he increases their chances of winning significantly.

This is the problem with pitching in general. Even guys like Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray, who both have been very healthy in their careers, could go down and miss significant time any given season. Some guys, like Glasnow, are more prone to injury, but they offer the kind of upside the Cardinals' have lacked for a long time.

Instead of going after a third starter with a lower upside for the sake of hoping for more innings, why not bet on a Glasnow, or a one-year deal to someone like Frankie Montas or Tyler Mahle, and bet on their upside while understanding the risk? Trading for Cease or someone like that likely means losing one or two of Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman, or Brendan Donovan. Glasnow requires far less. Montas or Mahle won't get mega-deals but also offer far more upside than the James Paxton's of the world.


I like that the Cardinals are thinking creatively with their rotation. Even if they signed Nola and Gray, and traded for Cease, there is a possibility any of them get injured. They need to be willing to be risky and go after the best possible talent but do so in a way that keeps their offense in a position of strength next season.