The Cardinals ran out of innings in 2023. There’s really no other way to say it. Sometime in July, they didn’t have enough pitchers to make it through games. A variety of factors caused this issue. Firstly, their starters weren’t pitching deep enough into games. Jake Woodford, Matthew Liberatore, and Adam Wainwright were frequently knocked around in the early innings, leaving the bullpen on the hook for 6 or more innings. Even Mikolas, who was, at the time, coming off of an incredible 2022 season, took a major step back in the efficiency department. This is an issue that should be, at least partially, remedied in 2024. Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson are workhorses capable of turning in six or seven innings more frequently than Woodruff or Liberatore.
Secondly, the bullpen was dealing with a variety of problems, including injury. Ryan Helsley, one of the game’s premier closers” missed multiple months. Packy Naughton missed the entirety of the season and Guillermo Zuñiga was unavailable for the vast majority of it. Injuries in the starting rotation also put excessive strain on the bullpen. Matz and Wainwright both missed significant time. The Cardinals were actually forced to plan out “bullpen games,” further compounding the issues. Injuries, unfortunately, cannot be predicted. There is no way of telling how the 2024 Cardinals will be affected by them. 2023 was unfortunate, yet 2024 could be worse. The Cardinals must be prepared.
Eventually, they just ran out of innings. There was nobody available to pitch when necessary. Thus, the Cardinals turned to Jacob Barnes, Casey Lawrence, and even Ryan Tepera. These mid-season signings are rarely a good omen. It’s something unprepared or struggling teams do to simply survive the slog of a 162 game schedule. The Cardinals were unprepared, or at least not well enough prepared.
Have they fixed this issue for 2024?
They’ve made some interesting additions. Fernandez, O’Reilly, and Robertson intrigue me. The depth in the minors is also substantially more talented than it was a year ago. Andrew Kittredge has the potential to be an impact reliever in 2024. But, can any of them provide what the Cardinals need most? Can any of them provide innings in bulk? That remains to be seen. Just like last year, the Cardinals are entering the season without making proper preparations.
And what’s more, they’re doing so without two pitchers who were perfectly capable of providing bulk innings: Chris Stratton and Drew VerHagen. Stratton appeared in 76 games in one full season as a Cardinal. VerHagen made 60 appearances with them in 2023. They both posted ERAs under 4.00. Though Cardinals fans never properly appreciated them, they were invaluable, especially in a season like 2023. The Cardinals don’t have anyone who has proven they can fill that role right now. It’s the last unchecked box on the list of things they absolutely have to do.
Getting another starter would be nice. Adding center-field depth would be nice. Acquiring a left-handed bench bay would be nice. But, adding bulk innings to the bullpen is a necessity. Cardinals fans were foolish to dismiss Drew VerHagen, and the Cardinals were foolish not to consider bringing him back for 2024. The Cardinals need to add a reliever like Adam Ottavino or John Brebbia who can take the ball when everyone else is unavailable. If they don’t, be prepared to watch a talented team run out of innings again.