Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Cardinals’ biggest question mark will be put to the test against the Mets this week

Coming into the 2022 season, the rotation figured to be the biggest X-factor for the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s of course far too early to say how that plays out, but it’s not too early for a progress report. 

The Cards have legitimate designs on the NL Central title thanks to a solid offense, quality bullpen, and stellar team defense. And what of the rotation? As implied above, it’s a bit of an unknown. 

Last season, the Cardinals ranked sixth in the NL with a rotation ERA of 4.01 and 11th in the NL with an FIP of 4.49 en route to winning 90 games. Gone from last year’s mix are Kwang-hyun Kim, Carlos Martinez, and John Gant, and also gone are deadline additions Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. Filling the gaps are free-agent addition Steven Matz and Dakota Hudson, who’s back from Tommy John surgery. Elsewhere, 40-year-old Adam Wainwright is back at the front end, Miles Mikolas is hoping for a healthy season, and Jordan Hicks is getting stretched out as the surprise choice for the fifth spot. 

As for the aforementioned progress report, we’ll break it down into two separate appraisals. The first will be a rundown of the St. Louis rotation’s performance thus far in 2022, and the second will be a check-in on the depth issues that looked like a major concern coming into the season. 

2022 performance

For the Cardinals and their partisans, there’s some (partly) good news here. To the relevant digits:

  • St. Louis right now ranks seventh in the NL with a rotation ERA of 3.65. 
  • They rank third in the NL in rotation K/BB ratio. 
  • They rank ninth in the NL in rotation strikeout rate.
  • They rank fourth in rotation FIP. 
  • They rank sixth in the rotation ground-ball percentage (the higher the better when you have an infield defense like the Cardinals do). 
  • They rank 10th in the NL in innings per start. 

You can probably discount some of these because the Cardinals play their home games in a pronounced pitcher’s park, and to date they’ve played a fairly weak schedule in terms of the quality of opposing offenses (though that changes Monday night when they start a three-game set against the Mets). Overall, though, the rotation has been above-average in matters of run prevention and commanding the strike zone. You’d like to see a bit more length from St. Louis starters, however. 

On an individual level, Mikolas has pitched like an ace, and Wainwright has been solid. Matz appears to have found his footing after a disastrous first start of the season. After allowing seven runs in three innings against the Pirates on April 10, Matz has allowed one run in 10 2/3 innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks. Command is typically the last thing to return to a pitcher coming back from Tommy John, and that was indeed an issue for Hudson in his first two starts. That’s especially the case given his reliance on late movement. In his most recent outing, however, he looked like peak Hudson as he attacked opposing hitters to great effect with well-placed sinkers. The returns were generally positive for Hicks in his first start in the majors — he didn’t even log a start during spring training. He needs improvement at the command-and-control level, but he kept the ball on the ground and allowed only one run in three innings of work. 

Rotation depth check-in

As for depth, the most pressing issue is the status of occasional ace Jack Flaherty. The 26-year-old right-hander was shut down during spring training after receiving a PRP injection to alleviate inflammation in his throwing shoulder. Not long ago, he was able to resume throwing from flat ground, but Flaherty still must progress to working from a mound and also ramp up to game readiness. There’s not any clear timetable for his return. Given his No. 1-starter upside, his absence is a significant one.

The loss of Flaherty leaves the St. Louis rotation with little room for anything else to go awry on the health front. That’s troubling when your rotation includes the likes of Mikolas (he hasn’t been both good and healthy for a full season since 2018), Matz (seven career trips to the IL with elbow or shoulder problems), and Hicks (a complicated return from Tommy John surgery). As well, right-hander Drew VerHagen, who’s been working out of the bullpen but was also probably next in line for rotation duty, is on the IL with a hip impingement. 

Down on the farm, top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore may be offering some hope for the near future. The 22-year-old lefty has an ERA north of 4.00, but he’s made real strides with both his strikeout rate and walk rate. He’ll be called up at some point this season, barring injury, but will it be as a reliever or as a rotation stop-gap? That may be determined by the level of desperation in St. Louis. 

Last season, the Cardinals enjoyed a successful season and trip to the playoffs despite a rotation that was merely solid. As well, only Wainwright made more than 21 starts for that team, and on the whole the Cardinals in 2021 gave starts to 13 different pitchers. So, yes, they can survive the current state of affairs, but they aspire more than what they achieved in 2021, which was a loss in the Wild Card Game. 

Given the shocking decision to cut loose Mike Shildt as manager coming off that 90-win campaign, there’s indeed pressure to do better. It may be hard to do that if the lack of rotation depth exacts a price later in the year. If it does, that will reflect poorly on ownership’s unwillingness to add a top-tier free agent starter even though many were available. Maybe the situation changes via trade leading up to the deadline, but right now the Cardinals are still betting they can make the current arrangement work. It has so far, at least to an extent, but it’s early yet. 

A checkpoint of sorts begins Monday. As noted above, the Cardinals thus far have faced some largely uninspiring offenses. That changes straightaway, as St. Louis begins the week with a three-game series against the first-place, 12-5 Mets, owners of one of the best lineups in the NL. Mikolas and his 1.76 ERA for the season will be put to the test against Max Scherzer and a New York offense that ranks third in the NL in runs scored and fourth in OPS. It’s one series, but it’s the biggest test of the season so far. We’ll know more about the Cardinals’ rotation on the other side of it, even if it’s not much more. 

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