There's no easy way around it; the Cardinals have had a nightmarish season. On September 11, they sit at 63-80. They are on the verge of snapping their streak of winning seasons, and they may very well finish last in their division for the first time in roughly a century. The Cardinals were knocked out of the playoff race months ago, and the team's last hopes dried up in late July.
It's shocking, considering the impressive conglomeration of talent in St. Louis. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are making compelling cases for the Hall of Fame. Willson Contreras has been (and absolutely still is) an elite offensive catcher. Helsley and Gallegos are outstanding relievers, and the Cardinals have called up two blue-chip prospects in Walker and Winn. Both young players have the makings of stars. They have a glut of young outfielders, and Nolan Gorman has taken a huge step forward, emerging as one of the division's best power hitters. But, right now, it's just not working out. Nearly every player on the roster is battling for opportunities in 2024, and even those with secure spots have plenty to prove down the stretch.
Today, we'll discuss one thing each pitcher on the active roster (and some who aren't on the active roster at the moment) has to prove between now and the final game of the season.
Perhaps no pitcher has more to prove for 2024 than Zack Thompson. With a strong September, he can lock up a rotation spot. He can reassure the Cardinals that the internal pitching pipeline is again producing effective talent, and give them the confidence to pursue only two starters over the off-season. This may in turn allow the team to concentrate their resources on two players, giving them the chance to pursue top-of-the-market talent, on both the free agent and trade fronts. Thompson has certainly looked the part, especially recently.
But, if Thompson fails, the Cardinals will enter the off-season with just two names penciled in for 2024. There are technically other options, but Drew Rom and Dakota Hudson likely have lower ceilings than Thompson. The Cardinals, in this scenario, will likely feel pressured to spend on three arms, which could water down the talent they receive. Instead of targeting two legitimate top-of-the-rotation arms, they may instead target an ace, a mid-rotation arm, and a back-end starter. This is a completely different return, and it would be a significantly less exciting haul.
All concerns about the off-season aside, Thompson has proven that he can be a capable reliever before. He was the best left-handed piece in their successful 2022 bullpen. If he can't take this starter role and run with it, there is a chance the Cardinals decide to move him back, especially considering the fact that they traded Genesis Cabrera. Their other options include Packy Naughton, who will be coming off of a lost season, and JoJo Romero, who has looked great in 2023 but just hit the IL.
To earn a spot in the rotation, Thompson needs to look the way he looked on September 3rd against Pittsburgh, when he pitched through the seventh, allowing just three runs and walking zero batters. His peripherals are encouraging, as he's experienced a sharp increase in strikeout rate, though he's been fairly unlucky so far in 2023. The elevated strikeout rate is critical, and it raises his ceiling significantly. He's worth watching closely down the stretch! Every start counts for Thompson.