Should the St. Louis Cardinals be concerned with Starting Rotation?

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Hey! Did you know the State of the Union address is less than two weeks away? If you didn’t, don’t worry, I’m just trying to be topical. Topicality can sometimes grease the wheels of discourse. You ready for this segue? Because here it comes…

Just as the President looks at the current state of the future of the country in the State of the Union, in the State of the Rotation, I will examine the Cardinals current rotation and how it may look in the future – This coming with talent currently in the Cardinals minor league ranks. Lord knows that the Cardinals love to draft pitchers in the opening rounds of the draft, so keep in mind that this picture is subject to change.

The question posted above is both rhetorical and not rhetorical. In some way or another, it seems like we can be comfortable with the 2015 Cardinals as they currently stand. The 2015 ZiPS projections seem awfully promising for St. Louis, so why should we be worried about the rotation?

Shelby Miller has been traded, but the rotation as it currently stands still seems pretty salty. Adam Wainwright still an ace, Lance Lynn has become more consistent, John Lackey is a steady and reliable middle of the rotation guy,Michael Wacha hopefully bounces back from his injury-plagued 2014, and then you have Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzales as your fifth starter? That must be a good rotation…Right?

The Cardinals themselves seem somewhat leery of it, with Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi reporting that the Cardinals have linked themselves to big name free agents like Mizzou product and native Missourian Max Scherzer and James Shields. In addition to these two, the Cardinals have also linked themselves to trades involving other front-line starters in the Phillies Cole Hamels and Detroit’s David Price.

As the article indicates, all of the pitchers have some sort of tie to St. Louis area, whether it is geographic or familial, with the Cardinals also having an expected increase in payroll that could help accommodate the contracts of one the pitchers. However, while the ties have been made, there are still nostrong indications that one of these deals could go down.

So despite the fact that the Cardinals rotation seems more than competent and the Cardinals claim to be happy with the starting pitching they have, should there be a cause for concern? It seems blasphemous to even think about it, but then again I would also like to think the powers that be know more than we do. Just to be more blasphemous for consideration, let’s play devil’s advocate and examine some potential concerns.

Adam Wainwright has logged 667.2 innings over the last three seasons and will turn 34 in August. Wainwright’s walk rate is still low, but did see an increase in 2014, while his strikeout rate and ground ball rate have both been in steady decline. He had some arm issues throughout the season in 2014 and is coming off a “minor” surgery following the conclusion of the season, so Father Time really could be taking a toll on Wainwright.

Of course, Wainwright’s numbers are still great and he is still an ace, and these may just be things that are bound to happen through the course of a 162-game season. Wainwright is a smart enough pitcher to where he will still find ways to succeed, but is it really that preposterous to wonder how long Adam Wainwright will continue to be the guy we’ve known him to be?

As far as picking up slack is concerned, Lance Lynn could be a good candidate. While some may be still be wary of Lynn’s ability, he has shown slow, but steady progress. Having the same workhorse mentality as Wainwright, I think 2015 could be a big year for Lynn. If Lynn continues to steadily improve on his walk-rate and ground ball-rate, while also increasing on his innings load (seems a lot to ask, but these are very also attainable ifs), he could be in the most valuable Cardinal talks.

Lance Lynn’s progression always seems to be a big question mark amongst the #BFIB, but as far as improvements go, another big question mark is Michael Wacha. In fact, we all know it; Wacha is the biggest question mark.

Wacha struggled after returning from injury in 2014. In my opinion, the Cardinals probably should have let him sit out until the end of the season. But if I’m still speaking honestly here, what should we expect from him in 2015? What should we expect beyond that? When he was drafted in the first round in 2012, he was projected as a middle of the rotation guy that could be a fast riser, but then rocketed to the Majors with otherworldly performances.

As it currently stands, Wacha will likely be at his middle of the rotation projection as the fourth starter behind John Lackey, which is a good thing. But it will be interesting to see not only how well he responds to his injury, but how well he will continue to progress. Will he still have the command on his fastball and changeup (which appeared to be greatly diminished in his post-DL 2014 starts)? Will he have trouble developing the third pitch he still needs?

I think only time will tell on this issue. Brandon McCarthy dealt with a similar issue – actually acting as somewhat of a predecessor for Wacha when it comes to this particular injury – and had a decent bounce back in the second half with the Yankees. McCarthy did get a big payday from the Dodgers, but is still somewhat of an enigma. I do not think Wacha is in the same boat as McCarthy, but just as we should acknowledge the effects of aging on Wainwright, we should probably the effects of injury to Wacha.

If a trade or signing is not made, then, as we all know, rotation’s fifth spot will either go to Marco Gonzales or Carlos Martinez. This of course comes after the Shelby Miller trade this offseason and the trade of Joe Kelly at the deadline last year.

With Kelly and Shelby now gone, the Cardinals don’t quite have as much MLB level starting depth. The Cardinals still have ‘depth’ with other options like Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney, but it is clear the talent pool is not as deep as it once was (That is, until we get closer to the likes of Rob Kaminsky, Alex Reyes,Luke Weaver, and Jack Flahertybeing MLB players). I’m sure that is may be part of the concern leading to the Rosenthal and Morosi reports, but let’s just continue on the path that both Martinez and Marco are in the organization in 2015.

Personally, I want Martinez to get this spot. Martinez has four out pitches and I believe will eventually develop into a strong starter. I am a believer in Martinez and that he’ll be everything that everyone believed he could be when he was coming up through the system. Before he was El Gallo, I remember seeing him throw his fastball at 96-98 consistently at starts in Springfield, hitting 88 on his slider, overall being pretty filthy.

Martinez has flourished in the bullpen at times, but has not quite had any tremendous success as a starter in his minimal attempts. If Martinez’s time as a starter is an indication of what is to come – which is not an outcome I am a firm believer in, but is an outcome that must be acknowledged nonetheless – then the rotation picture gets bleaker.

If Martinez is unable to achieve success or a Cardinals starter hits the DL at any point in the year, enter Marco Gonzales. Gonzales is another prospect to be high on for good reason. While I believe Martinez has a higher upside, Gonzales is very polished and more of the safe bet. Marco looked good in starts last year, though lacked his trademarked control at the Major League level. I think Gonzales will continue to improve, however, I think wherever he winds up in 2015, he must be there as a starter. I do not want to see Gonzales relegated to the awkward starter/long-relief/bullpen role previously occupied by Kelly and Martinez.

I do not know if the same could be said about Kelly, but in the case of Martinez, I believe this legitimately hindered his development as a pitcher. Because of this, I think it will be better for Gonzales to continue work as a starter. With John Lackey almost guaranteed being out the door after, someone will have to step in right away and Gonzales is the clear choice. With another year of professional starting under his belt (a full year in Memphis plus potential spot starts in St. Louis could really do wonders), Marco would most certainly be ready.

However, when it comes to being in the fifth spot in 2015, I think he has to have a remarkable Spring Training and be miles ahead of Martinez, which I believe will be hard to do. While Gonzales does have great poise to go with his skill set, I really think another year (or maybe even half a year) in Memphis will do him well – or, will at least be better than having him sit in the bullpen as the next Ferrari in the garage. But again, all of this depends on whether or not one (or both?) gets traded.

In 2015, the Cardinals may see some decline in Wainwright, but overall I still think he performs. Lance Lynn and John Lackey will solidify the two and three spots with consistent outings, but the last two spots are the biggest question marks. This could be construed to make it look worrisome, but I think that only happens with a foot outside of reality. When 2016 rolls around, hopefully Martinez and Gonzales will be ready to take on heavier workloads, and hopefully Michael Wacha remains 100 percent healthy.

With the aforementioned talent still being a few years away, I think the Cardinals will be able to do well with what they have. With Scherzer and Shields (as well as the trade options in Price and Hamels), I honestly don’t think I would use the money on these particular names. With Shields, 33, wanting five years at somewhere around $100 to $110 million, something tells me the Cards have better ways to spend $20 million a year. With Scherzer being 30 and wanting $200 million, I would think the potential financial risk could outweigh the reward.

If the Cardinals do go after one of these big names, I would honestly prefer the Hamels or Price option. Yes, as opposed to giving up just money, they would be giving up money and players, but I believe that Price and Hamels are the better options. The fact that they are left-handed kind of sweetens the deal, but the fact that he could come at a decent price (Marco or Martinez, Grichuk or Piscotty, and Bourjos) certainly has me thinking. I’m not saying one way is better than the other, because it certainly is a head-scratcher. It’s hard to argue with a rotation of Wainwright, Hamels-Price, Lynn, Lackey, and Wacha. This is just further evidence that John Mozeliak may have the hardest job in America (slight hyperbole).

Though the payroll is expected to increase in the near future, I think would rather see this cash being doled out as it was intended – to help with already hefty contracts (see: Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday), the pay increase in current contracts (see: Matt Carpenter), future extensions (see: Lynn), and players hitting arbitration (see: Wacha, Martinez, Kolten Wong, Matt Adams).

The payroll increase will mostly be needed to help handle these players, but will take place around the time some of the big contracts like Wainwright and Holliday come off the books. This money could go toward other future free agents (Jose Fernandez in 2019! #Dreaming), but could also be used for future arms like Reyes and Kaminsky or position players like Stephen Piscotty. Given how well promoting from within and using homegrown talent has gone for the Birds (and how well these young guns have looked so far in their professional careers). But if the last 6-8 months are any indication, Mozeliak may be tired of hoarding prospects and may feel as if the Cards have come up short in some capacity despite the fact that they have played in four straight National League Championship Series.

Lynn, Wacha appear to be the only certain expected future mainstays currently in the rotation, with Martinez and Gonzales now being only possibilities. But with the guys coming up through the system at this current juncture could come together to keep the Cardinals rotation formidable, while also still having some pieces (or draft picks) that could be moved if need be for other future needs.

Every rotation has cracks in the foundation and the Cardinals are no exception. But there are still plenty of options for the Birds to fix the cracks without having to go outside of the organization.

With this all being said, what are thoughts? Are some of these issues legitimate concerns for the Cards? Do they still have enough depth after the Shelby Miller trade? Should Marco or Carlos get the fifth starting spot? Or should the Cards go after the likes of a Scherzer, Hamels, Price, or Shields? If so; who, why, and at what cost? Leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks for reading.

 

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