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Do the Cardinals Have a Good Rotation? They Say Yes. We Say No.

The Starting Rotation.

It’s still the most important component that a team can have.  Some things about baseball rarely change. An excellent rotation can overcome flaws, hitting slumps, and assorted mistakes. The value provided by rotation is as strong now as it was back in the  1940s.

The 1942 Cardinals won the National League pennant and World Series. They had the best starting-pitching ERA in the league.

It was the same in 1944. NL’s top rotation, another pennant, and second World Series championship for the Cardinals in three seasons.

In 1946 the Cardinals had the circuit’s No. 1 rotation, put another NL flag in the collection, and won their third World Series in five years.

Let’s move ahead to 2015 when the Cardinals overcame a mediocre offense (and other problems) to win 100 games and the NL Central. The St. Louis rotation crafted a league-leading  2.99 ERA and cranked out the most quality starts (106.) And that’s how the team piled up so many wins despite coming in at 11th in the league in runs.

Because of exquisite starting pitching, the Cardinals led the majors with 32 victories when scoring 3 runs or fewer in a game. And when the Cards pitching staff was supplied with at least 4 runs in a game, the record was 68-15. The arms didn’t need much offense to work with. That’s because the Cardinals held opponents to 3 runs or less in 101 of 162 games … and winning 84 of the 101. Amazing.

I just reviewed the past three seasons (2015-2017) and came up with this:

Of the 15 National League teams that qualified for the playoffs during the three-year period, 14 posted a rotation ERA that ranked no worse than 5th in the league. The only exception was Colorado in 2017 Rockies.

The Cardinals failed to make the postseason in each of the last two years, and their rotation was a factor, with the starters ranking 7th in ERA in 2016, and then 6th last season. The 2016 Cardinals pounded a league-leading 225 homers, and plated the third-highest run total … but the pitching didn’t hold. With the rotation fading when the summer turned hot — a 4.80 ERA over the final 74 games — the 2016 Cardinals won 86 times and fell a game short of getting a wild-card playoff spot. It was a similar (but worse) misadventure in 2017; the Cardinals were in position to seize a wild-card ticket until their rotation collapsed with a 7.97 ERA over the final 16 games. The Cardinals sank to third in the division with 83 wins.

The Rotation.

It’s almost always The Rotation.

This sets up a fascinating 2018.

We are having a gentlemanly disagreement with Cardinals president of baseball operations and GM Michael Girsch. It’s about their team’s 2018 rotation — as constructed now. Should the Cardinals unexpectedly add a pitcher to strengthen their rotation before the start of the regular season, we’ll reevaluate the situation.

Many fans and media share this view: the Cardinals’ rotation is thin and vulnerable.

Mozeliak and Girch hold the opposite view. They like their rotation. They’re confident in their rotation. They are a bit perplexed by all of the rotation worries out there. But the outside anxiety doesn’t shake management’s positive outlook.

“I can see why people on the outside don’t have the same confidence we have internally, but that’s okay,” Mozeliak told me on my 101ESPN morning show last month. “I hope we surprise people and make them happy.”

Girsch expressed the same calmness and optimism in an interview with Post-Dispatch columnist Jesus Ortiz.

“I guess one area that I’m probably more comfortable than I sense the general public is … our rotation,” Girsch told Ortiz. “I just think that we have a bunch of good starting pitchers and that if you choose to look at them in a way that is pessimistic and negative you can find something to be negative in all of them. If you choose to look at them in a way that’s optimistic and based on their past performance you could be really optimistic that we have six or seven legitimate middle of the rotation or better type starters. I guess I would say I expect the rotation to be better than maybe what people think right now.”

Wow.

As of now, the Cardinals’ five-man rotation consists of Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, and offseason free-agent purchase Miles Mikolas. Rookie Jack Flaherty is in line to be the so-called 6th starter.

The concern over the St. Louis rotation has been discussed at length this offseason, and skeptics have specifically cited reasons for being nervous. No need to review that again now … because the concerns are obvious and have been aired many times.

Just for kicks, I looked at the ZiPS forecast for the three leading contenders in the NL Central to see how their rotations measure up. Again, this is based on the five starters that the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals have in place on this day.  Subject to change, of course.

But in terms of rotation Wins Above Replacement — the combined WAR for each team’s  five projected starters — on of the five here’s how it looks:

Cubs,  16 WAR.

Cardinals,  12 WAR

Brewers,  9 WAR

So going by that, the Cubs’ projected rotation is four wins better than St Louis, and seven wins better than Milwaukee. But the Cubs and Brewers are angling to add a starter, and both are reportedly in the hunt for free agent Yu Darvish. We’ll have to take a second look at this later, pending additional moves to reinforce each team’s rotation.

As of now, the Cardinals seem to be fine with the idea of going into the regular season with the group they have. Chicago and Milwaukee seem to be more inclined to secure another starter for their rotations.

Mozeliak and Girsch insist they have firm faith in their rotation.

Many on the outside have shaky faith in the Cards’ rotation.

Ultimately, one side will be proven right.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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