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What Will the Cards’ 2019 Pitching Staff Look Like? A Breakdown of Possibilities

I realize 2018 isn’t over and that there’s still a heck of a lot left to play for but we talk about all of that everyday. I wanted to bust out the crystal ball to see what this thing can look like in 2019. Honestly, talking about Adam Wainwright’s return from the DL got me thinking about 2019 so I decided to break it all down.

Here it is…for entertainment purposes only.

Starting Rotation

As things stand right now the Cardinals have a few rotation spots that are spoken for and a whole bunch of guys who could compete for a back end spot, compete in the bullpen or wind up serving as trade bait.

Carlos Martinez will sit atop the rotation so long as his health will allow it. We’re getting an intriguing look at what he can be at the back end of the bullpen but he’s been an extremely effective starter over the past few years and the best use of his talents will be to have him starting every 5th day. If he has continued trouble with staying healthy we can revisit this but I’d be shocked if isn’t the Opening Day starter in 2019.

Miles Mikolas has certainly done enough to have a spot locked up. Not much to analyze here. He’s in unless he’s traded and I doubt that’ll happen, I’d sooner bet on an extension of some kind.

Jack Flaherty is in as well. Nothing left to prove here. He’s got a chance to be 1-2 starter in 2019 just like he’s been in 2018 and I think he’s got more room for growth.

Michael Wacha, if he’s not traded, will be in the rotation. It would probably be tough to maximize the return on him in a trade since he missed half of this season with the oblique injury and has only one more year before hitting free agency. I don’t see a reason to sell low. Play out his final season of team control as he pitches for a big free agent contract and hope he can stay healthy. If he’s your 4th starter you have a pretty stinkin’ good rotation, by the way. Not many #4 starters out there as talented as Wacha.

Projecting those four is easy enough. Sorting through the rest of the candidates could be, well, interesting…

John Gant has been awesome for the Cardinals in 2018. Heck, I’d argue that his emergence as a legitimate starter has kept the team in the playoff mix. Good fastball, excellent change and enough other stuff to keep hitters honest. He’s an effective relief option as well and if he’s not dealt he’s going to be on staff in some capacity.

Luke Weaver has shown flashes at times but he’s had some of the same problems Wacha had before 2018. He’s a 2-pitch pitcher who has a hard time going through opposing lineups more than twice. He has the fastball and secondary pitch (change up) that could make him a very good reliever but me might have more value as a trade piece. A younger team looking for a cost controlled SP with upside would probably love to have Weaver. I’d put the odds of Weaver being moved at 75%.

Austin Gomber would give the Cardinals a left handed starter, which is kind of nice given some of the top lefties in the division (Votto, Gennett, Rizzo, Yelich, Shaw, etc.), and he’s also been a stable performer at the Major League level. He’s got all the pitches a Major League starter needs and he throws strikes.

Dakota Hudson has showed he can pitch at the Major League level as a reliever but he’s always been a starter and might be a better fit as someone who controls contact over 5-6-7 innings than he is working at the back of the bullpen. He doesn’t get a ton of strikeouts – and never really did in the minors either – but his sinker/slider combo gets a lot of weak contact on the ground. He would be an extremely valuable trade piece to a whole lot of teams.

Daniel Poncedeleon doesn’t have the upside of some other rotation candidates but he does have a live arm and a ton of minor league success on his resume. Given the crowded nature of things he’s probably ticketed for a spot in the bullpen as a middle-to-long reliever unless he’s a trade piece. I like him but he’s going to have a tough time holding off other, higher profile candidates.

Alex Reyes should be healthy come Spring Training but I wonder if the team will be extra careful with Reyes in 2019 and have him work out of the bullpen initially. We’ll see…but if he’s good to go he’s got enough talent to push others aside. I wouldn’t project him as a part of the Opening Day rotation but I’d be shocked if he’s not starting games in the second half of the season. He’s still the most gifted arm the Cardinals have, even counting Martinez and Flaherty.

So that’s 10 legit rotation candidates for 5 spots. That math doesn’t work. Of course, several of these guys could also help out in the bullpen but even that’s looking kinda crowded before considering the potential for outside upgrades. The team could also think about bringing back pending free agents Tyson Ross and Adam Wainwright but I don’t see a case for that right now. Are either of those guys likely to be better options than the 10 pitchers above? Nope. They are not.

The Cardinals have a few more kids to toss into the mix here too. Ryan Helsley has already reached Triple-A and could evolve as either a starter or a reliever. Junior Fernandez has pitched exclusively as a reliever in 2018 but he’d always been a starter before and he regularly touches 100 MPH. Lefty Genesis Cabrera, acquired in the Tommy Pham trade with Tampa, is a 21 year-old who made it up to Triple-A at the end of this season and he touches 97 MPH. Jake Woodford is another 21 year-old who reached Triple-A in 2018 and he has been compared to Flaherty at times in the past though he probably doesn’t have Flahety’s upside.

In other words, the Cardinals are loaded when it comes to potential starters for 2019 and beyond. It would make sense to package some of these guys with other assets to improve the offense, in my opinion.

Bullpen

While there is no clear cut “closer” set heading into 2019 there is a ton of depth, a whole bunch of big arms to choose from.

As I addressed above, Martinez is the closer to finish up 2018 but I can’t see him in that role moving forward unless his body just won’t let him start and remain healthy.  Still, I have to list him as a candidate.

Jordan Hicks could be that guy but he’s going to have to command his fastball better and throw the slider for strikes more often if he’s going to close. Bottom line – he needs to miss more bats. When you can touch 105 MPH there’s no reason to be below 9 strikeouts per 9 IP. Personally, I think he needs to spend the offseason working on a four seam fastball with a high spin rate to complement the sinker and slider combo. If he does that we could be looking at a truly dominant closer.

As mentioned above there a bunch of potential starters who could impact the bullpen: Weaver, Hudson, Gant, Gomber, Poncedeleon and Reyes. The only one who appears to have real closer-type stuff is Reyes and a Hicks-Reyes combo at the back end of the pen is awfully tempting, isn’t it?

Outside of those starters-who-could-relieve there’s another group of guys to consider.

Mike Mayers did some nice things and has a big arm but still has some things to prove.

John Brebbia has been solid as a Cardinal and is a useful, versatile middle reliever.

Dominic Leone is really intriguing. If he can stay healthy he could emerge as a legit setup man, which is what he was in Toronto before 2018.

Luke Gregerson is under contract for 2019 but it’s pretty tough to see him bouncing back and having a meaningful role. It’s possible but you’ve really gotta squint to see it.

The lefties – Brett Cecil, Chasen Shreve and Tyler Webb – need to be improved. It’s time to move on from Cecil and eat the final two years of his contract – he just can’t be trusted. Shreve is okay but he’s not especially good against left handed hitters and I think Webb is just an extra guy. The Cardinals probably need two new left handers for the back of the bullpen and at least one of them needs to be a high-end guy. With all of the pitching depth I’ve listed here it shouldn’t be tough to sign or trade for a big-time lefty.

Toss in prospects like Helsley, Fernandez, Cabrera and Giovany Gallegos and there are some more guys who could help out at some point. Honestly, I’d love to see Cabrera get a look for a lefty spot in the bullpen during Spring Training. Lefties that throw 97 MPH aren’t easy to find.

Bottom Line

The Cardinals are loaded with premium starting pitching. They’ll have to sort out their bullpen plans but the upside is high there as well. One thing they can’t do is sit on all of this talent…they’re going to have to turn some of this talent into another Major League bat. They need an everyday third baseman so that Matt Carpenter can stay at first base and they have plenty of outfield depth so focusing on someone to take over at third (someone who can hit 3-4-5 in the order) would be wise. A package that includes 1-2 of these arms, a couple of position players (Tyler O’Neill, Carson Kelly, etc.) and maybe a prospect or two further down the ladder should land a pretty good return.

The Cardinals have the depth to deal from. Hopefully they’ll take advantage.

More – Fear the Attack of the Rooster: Carlos Martinez Can Be a Formidable Closer