Do you remember October 10, 1996? On that day, the St. Louis Cardinals evened their National League Championship Series tilt against the Atlanta Braves at one game apiece. A huge seventh inning, capped off by a Gary Gaetti grand slam, allowed the Cardinals to defeat Greg Maddux (!!!) on the strength of a strong start by Todd Stottlemyre. Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)”, one of the first pop songs I remember as a contemporary hit and not as a song I knew in retrospect, was in the midst of its 10th week atop the Billboard Hot 100, while The First Wives Club, a movie I never saw but whose TV commercials I remember probably from MLB playoff coverage, led the American box office for a third consecutive week.
And on this day, Genesis Cabrera, who was born on October 10, 1996, will make his Major League debut tonight as the Cardinals’ starting pitcher against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Twenty-two is a dizzyingly young age for a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball. Only four pitchers younger than Cabrera have made a start in the big leagues, and if you exclude the super-anomalous Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Soroka, the list totals four starts. Not four starters–four starts. The mere fact that Genesis Cabrera is making a start in the big leagues should be cause for celebration. Only nine pitchers this century have made a start at a younger age for the Cardinals than Genesis Cabrera.
The last 22 year-old to make his starting debut for the Cardinals was Jack Flaherty, who did so after a 2017 season in which, splitting his time between AA and AAA, he had generally strong results. In AA, his ERA was a sterling 1.42, and while his fielding-independent pitching was technically worse, it was still a rather impressive 2.29. His AAA stats weren’t quite as strong, and his 4.10 FIP ran in the vicinity of pedestrian, but Flaherty did have a markedly better-than-average ERA of 2.74. Flaherty followed a fairly predictable path to the Majors, improving his results incrementally at each level before eventually, thanks to the attrition of a big league season, finding a spot with the St. Louis Cardinals.
But Genesis Cabrera’s minor league numbers are quite a bit less *spends hour staring at computer trying to come up with the perfect descriptor of the inverse of his pitching metrics* good. In 2018, which Cabrera spent almost entirely at the AA level, he put up a 4.12 ERA and 4.00 FIP while pitching for the Montgomery Biscuits, the third-tier affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays. With the Springfield Cardinals, albeit in only five starts, Cabrera was even worse, with a 4.74 ERA and 4.91 FIP.
Scouting grades were a bit more favorable, though, so Cabrera received the benefit of the doubt and found himself with the AAA Memphis Redbirds, where his results got…much, much worse. In 39 2/3 innings in 2019, Genesis Cabrera has a 6.35 ERA and an even worse 6.84 FIP. Admittedly, his walk rate looks suspiciously high, at 2.5 HR/9, but even when normalizing the rate of home runs to fly balls to a typical rate, his xFIP stands at 6.37. These are results which are, across the board, inferior, and at a lower level, than those of Michael Wacha (5.59 ERA/5.64 FIP/5.02 xFIP), results which saw the Cardinals starter of the last half-dozen seasons demoted to the bullpen.
I haven’t been this confused by a Genesis personnel switcharoo since Peter Gabriel left his 70s art-rock band and they decided to let the drummer sing instead. But I guess that worked out for everybody involved so maybe this will (note: I know this isn’t how his name is pronounced but sometimes, I have to prioritize bad jokes over accuracy). But until it does, I’m just going to see Cabrera for what he appears to be–a potentially intriguing but ultimately raw and very unproven prospect who is now being vaulted into a starting role for a team trying to overcome one of the worst months in franchise history.
That a player with as spotty of a record as Cabrera would be necessary is not in and of itself shocking. That he would be needed in May as the team’s 7th starter, with none of the prior starters on the Injured List, is a bit more disconcerting. There have been a few extenuating circumstances which led to Cabrera getting this start–default starter Carlos Martinez evidently being eased back into the bullpen, Alex Reyes being handled with kid gloves in the minors, Austin Gomber dealing with injuries–but this was a team allegedly built on depth. It was the depth that supposedly allowed the team to eschew free agent starting pitching options such as Gio Gonzalez and the still-unsigned Dallas Keuchel while being able to afford to trade Luke Weaver to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But this amounts to more of a grievance against the Cardinals’ overall ideology than their specific player preferences. It doesn’t answer the more immediate question for the team: Why Genesis Cabrera? And the cynic in me wonders if this is an attempt by the Cardinals to justify one of their more frequently critiqued transactions in recent memory–the trade which sent Genesis Cabrera and two others to the Cardinals in exchange for now-Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Tommy Pham.
Many have ripped the Cardinals for trading Tommy Pham, myself included, and I still hate the trade, but at the same time, it’s probably not the same disaster in practical terms that it is in theoretical terms. I’d rather a universe in which Tommy Pham, who has a 140 wRC+ in 235 plate appearances this season, was a Cardinal, but at the same time, I will happily concede that outfield depth is the least of the Cardinals’ problems at this time. The idea of trading away an outfielder, regardless of which one it was, for prospect depth was a defensible one. The issue becomes which prospects return. And to this point, the Rays prospects sent to the Cardinals haven’t amounted to much: Roel Ramirez has struggled in the bullpen for the Springfield Cardinals while Justin Williams has stagnated in the AA outfield.
Genesis Cabrera is the best hope for the Cardinals to come out of the trade looking like winners. And the Cardinals may be insistent on trying to fill a circular hole with a square peg. I hope I’m wrong.