I’m not going to sugarcoat it (too much): I am not optimistic about the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting rotation. It is the reason that I am predicting the Cardinals to finish a few games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central this season despite a superior starting lineup. But it’s also fun, and fairly instructive, to consider the more optimistic side of projecting the 2022 Cardinals.
I try, when playing the optimist, to keep things still grounded in reality. I am not predicting that Dakota Hudson comes into 2022 after having had the kid from Rookie of the Year‘s arm surgery, nor that a succession of young players on rivals will simply bunt repeatedly in order to make things easier for the last hurrah of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. I want to look at reality and interpret it, if generously. And what I see in the Cardinals’ rotation does remind me of what I saw in 2011.
To be clear, the Cardinals did not win the World Series in 2011 because of their rotation. They won because they had a good enough starting rotation, along with a premier offensive attack and a refurbished bullpen which held up in October. But I am fairly bullish on the Cardinals’ lineup. I’m content with the Cardinals’ bullpen, even if I think it’s a step below that of the Milwaukee Brewers, the team that beat out the Cardinals for the NL Central crown in 2011. Good enough is good enough for me.
- The veteran fighting his last fight: Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, though by all accounts having a good relationship, have opposite personalities on the surface. Carpenter was a visible and transparent curmudgeon with all of the outward grit one would associate with his New England, hockey-playing background; Wainwright is an affable Southerner who playfully jokes around with teammates in the dugout. But that doesn’t mean that Wainwright isn’t highly competitive, and with the distinct possibility that 2022 is his final season in Major League Baseball, Wainwright is a prime candidate for a 2011 Carpenter-esque turn at leaving absolutely everything he has out on the field. Carpenter’s 237 1/3 innings are almost certainly out of reach–even in 2011 that was a lot–but his 3.45 ERA and 3.06 FIP, 7% and 19% better than league average, are not beyond comprehension for Wainwright in 2022. Last season, Wainwright achieved a 3.05 ERA, and while his 3.66 FIP may not look as appetizing, it was still 11% better than average, with his ERA a stunning 24% better than the league’s totals.
- The young gun trying to establish himself as the future ace: Given the expectations that his second half of 2019 have bestowed on Jack Flaherty, some may cringe at the notion of comparing him to Jaime García. But García, just twenty-four when the 2011 season began, was coming off an outstanding rookie season in which he posted a 2.70 ERA and was a Rookie of the Year finalist alongside Buster Posey and Jason Heyward. In 2011, García’s ERA did jump to 3.56, but by some metrics he was an even better player, with a 3.23 FIP and a workhorse-like 194 2/3 innings pitched. Given his recent arm troubles, this should be a reasonable goal for Jack Flaherty–pitch fairly well, stay healthy once he comes back from his current injury issues, prosper.
- The rock-solid #3 type: The Cardinals did not sign Steven Matz to be their ace–at least we should certainly hope not. He was signed to be a solid starter who you would be perfectly content, if not entirely enthused, giving a start or two in a postseason series. This was the role Kyle Lohse had for the 2011 Cardinals–the 32 year-old had never been a star–he had zero All-Star Game appearances or down-ballot Cy Young votes, and his results throughout his career had been a bit mixed–but he came through in 2011, with a 3.39 ERA and 3.67 FIP over 188 1/3 innings. Given Matz’s proclivity for inducing ground balls, a favorable ERA-FIP differential is certainly a strong possibility for the lefty in 2022. And since I am comparing the current rotation to the 2011 Opening Day one, I actually have too many current guys since I included Jack Flaherty, so you can throw Miles Mikolas into this archetype as well–unlike Lohse or Matz, his career does include an outstanding 2018 season, but in terms of projection for 2022, the Cardinals would gladly take a middle of the rotation guy.
- The ground ball gawd: Jake Westbrook walked too many batters and he struck out too few, but what he could do was get ground balls. He was actually fairly ill-suited for the 2011 team, a squad that transparently sacrificed infield defense for increased pop (their starting second baseman, Skip Schumaker, was a converted outfielder, and they had shipped off defensive stalwart Brendan Ryan and replaced him with Ryan Theriot, whose defensive deficiencies eventually required the acquiring of Rafael Furcal), but Dakota Hudson makes a ton of sense for the 2022 team. He also walks too many and strikes out too few but most of the balls put in play are hit to a Gold Glove-caliber infielder.
- The “this guy’s starting?” guy: I am holding out some hope that, despite some of the comments from Oli Marmol, Jordan Hicks actually is going to be treated as an opener–someone who throws an inning or two and then steps aside for Drew VerHagen or somebody as a bulk guy. Hicks certainly has the talent, but with ten total innings pitched in Major League Baseball since June 22, 2019, some caution is strongly advised. Although he was a far less splashy pitcher than the guy who throws 105 miles per hour with semi-regularity, Kyle McClellan was a fellow career-long reliever turned into a starting pitcher due to injury while in Spring Training. And McClellan got off to a strong start–over his first ten games (nine were starts, but the relief appearance went six innings), he had a 3.11 ERA. He came back down to Earth, thus necessitating the team’s trade for Edwin Jackson, but Kyle McClellan did have value for the Cardinals in 2011.
For those still not convinced by my rose-colored glasses look at the Cardinals’ starting rotation, the Edwin Jackson precedent could be reassuring. The starting rotation the Cardinals have to start 2022 is not necessarily their final product. When the 2011 Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright before the season even started, they were left with a paper-thin rotation, pulling a competent but hardly overpowering reliever into the starting rotation and counting on 156 year-old Miguel Batista for a shocking number of innings. The 2022 Cardinals do not have an optimal amount of depth, but they probably have more than the 2011 team post-Wainwright–Drew VerHagen is probably better than Miguel Batista, and while Lance Lynn became a much better pitcher than his prospect pedigree suggested, Matthew Liberatore in that role sounds favorable based on how we feel about each pitcher in the moment. And also, teams will fall out of postseason contention and desperately try to sell off pitchers, and those rentals will be available if the Cardinals need such a player, assuming the current crop can keep the team viable. Precedent suggests they can.