Future of the Rotation in St. Louis

Tink Hence, Peoria Chiefs, April 6, 2022. Photo credit Steve Snider, @SteveKSnider on Twitter

Cardinals fans have been a bit spoiled in recent history so you have to excuse us when we get a little nervous at the thought of missing the playoffs. A winning regular season is just assumed and the number of playoff wins have become the measuring stick for a successful season. Since the year 2000, there has only been one losing season (2007), they have made the playoffs 16 out of 23 years, and have been to four World Series (winning two). The current roster has a good chance to keep this tradition going.

They have a top five offense led by 2022 MVP Paul Goldschmidt and third place vote getter Nolan Arenado. They are surrounded by OBP machines Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan, an outfield oozing with potential (Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, and Alec Burleson), young guns ready to produce in Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez, and top prospects Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn looking like future stars and we can’t forget about the wild card that is Moises Gomez. They shored up their only area of weakness during Free Agency with the addition of Willson Contreras at catcher.

On the pitching side, the bullpen looks to be an area of strength yet again. There are some that might disagree with that statement, and the 2022 playoff performance from Ryan Helsley might provide evidence to the contrary. For now I choose to trust the body of work. The current mix of Jake Woodford, Genesis Cabrera, Andre Pallante, and Jordan Hicks provide a solid bridge to allow Giovanny Gallegos and Helsley to close the door. All but Cabrera (31) are below the age of 30 and look to be around for a few years. There are a whole slew of pitchers in the minors ready if any of the above not perform.

The rotation is where things get dicey. The off-season message boards were lit up with concerns from fans regarding this seasons rotation. Most fans viewed the lack of an outside addition as a big “swing-and-miss”. To be fair the 2023 rotation could be above average to good, the key word there is “could be”. A lot of things need to go right and recent history has shown us that that is not a certainty. Health is a big question mark with this group and anything below a career average performance from a couple of the top three, and it is not hard to see this thing going the other way. The good news is that Mozeliak and company have shown that they will make moves at the trade deadline to strengthen the club. If the Cardinals want to have another deep run into October this season, they will likely be at it again. Any concerns about the rotation for this season are likely to get amplified in the 2024 offseason.

The Current Rotation

Adam Wainwright, RHP: Free Agent after this season (likely to retire). Currently on IR.
Miles Mikolas, RHP: Signed through 2025 season.
Jordan Montgomery, LHP: Free Agent after this season.
Jack Flaherty, RHP: Free Agent after this season.
Steven Matz, LHP: Signed through 2025 season.

Three out of five members of the rotation are gone after this season without new contracts. There are questions surrounding the two signed beyond the 2023 season. Matz only started 10 games last year and had an ERA above five. Mikolas is coming off of arguably his best season as a Cardinal, but will be 34-years-old this season.

Do the Cardinals pay up and extend Montgomery or Flaherty? Do they dive into the free agency class of 2024 to address the need? Or is the solution already in-house?

The First Wave of Help

Matthew Liberatore, LHP
In 2022 he pitched 34.2 innings at the MLB level and had a mixed bag of results. In three starts, he was great. May 28th against Milwaukee, June 14th against Pittsburgh, and July 7th against Atlanta, he pitched a total of 14 innings, did not allow a run, struck out 15 batters, and walked six. The overall season totals were less rosy. He made a total of seven starts (nine appearances), was hit hard by right handers (.327 AVG, 1.010 OPS), had below average strikeout numbers (17.4%), and appeared to struggle with the control/command of his fastball. All this lead to an 11.2% walk rate, 1.78 WHIP, and a hard hit rate of 48.2%. This is a small sample size and could be chalked up to a young pitcher facing big league lineups for the first time. Liberatore’s curveball looks legit and his slider shows promise, but he will have to improve his fastball to make a consistent impact at the big league level. Good news is that this Spring his fastball has been sitting 93-94 and touching 96. If that velocity uptick is here to stay his profile could look a lot nicer.

Zack Thompson, LHP
Thompson shares some similarities with Liberatore above. Another lefty, he also threw 34.2 big league innings last year, had an elevated walk rate (10.3%), a low strikeout rate (19.9%), and possess a potential weapon of a breaking ball. The difference in the two lies in the fastball. He combines above average velocity with outstanding extension that helps his fastball get on hitters in a hurry and induces a lot of weak contact. Thompson is currently slated to be one of the best left handed options out of the big league bullpen this year, but he could also be stretched out as a starter if needed. The development of a solid reliable third pitch will likely be the difference in a backend starter profile or a reliever.

Connor Thomas, RHP
Thomas is the third left-hander on the list, but the first that is lacking in previous big league experience. Thomas’s 2022 season appears, on the surface, to be quite uneven. He finished the regular season with a 5.47 ERA and a 17.9% strikeout rate in 135 innings, all with triple-A Memphis. He then pitched in the Arizona Fall League where things looked a lot different. In the AFL he sported a 1.75 ERA and a 32% strikeout rate in 25 2/3 innings while facing some of the top prospects in all of baseball. Why the difference? That answer might be Jason Isringhausen. The former All-Star closer helped Thomas find the grip on his cutter, a pitch that he had been working on during the season. That adjustment might just prove to be the game changer that he needed. Thomas will be competing for a bullpen spot this Spring. If the success he had in the AFL can be replicated a spot in the rotation might not be that far out of reach.

Gordon Graceffo, RHP
Graceffo was the Cardinals breakout pitcher of the year for 2022, maybe even all of the minor leagues. He laid waste to High-A hitters last season, and after an adjustment period, more than held his own against more advanced competition in the hitter friendly Double-A Texas League. He finished the year with a 2.97 ERA, .94 WHIP, and 139 strikeouts in 139.1 innings. All the ingredients are there for a successful starter, he has the frame (6’4″, 210 lbs) to hold up to a starters workload, he has a solid four pitch arsenal that he commands extremely well, and he runs his fastball up into the high-90’s with good life. He is going to be a big league pitcher, and is starting this season at Tripl-. The only question is how soon and what impact does he make once he gets there? There is potential for a #2 starter here and this season will reveal a lot more about his trajectory.

Michael McGreevy, RHP
McGreevy followed a similar path to to Graceffo’s from last season. He pitched very well in High-A and then was challenged by Double-A hitters after a promotion in late May. He also has the build of a starter and features a four-pitch mix that he commands well. The question I have with McGreevy is what will his out away pitch be? Right now all his pitches look to be average to slightly above average major league pitches as evident by his low strikeout rate in Double-A (18.4%). His changeup has the potential to keep hitters off balance and early reports from camp have his fastball velocity ticking up. If the increased velocity holds and he develops a consistent put away pitch he could go from a #4/5 to a #3 starter.

The Next Group Up

The Southpaw Class of 2022
The Cardinals picked three straight collegiate left-handers at the top of last years draft. Cooper Hjerpe (1st round), Brycen Mautz (2nd round), and Pete Hansen (3rd round) all have the potential to make an impact. At the same time, not one of them has thrown a pitch in a regular season professional game. A full year with Gary LaRocque and the player development team will give us a better indication of what they have in these three. Hjerpe looks to have the best chance of making an immediate impact on the rotation. Last season with Oregon State, he went 11-2 with a 2.53 ERA and struck out 161 batters in 103⅓ innings. He was a unanimous first-team All-American, was named the college pitcher of the year by multiple organizations, and was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. The Cardinal organization has gone on record praising his makeup and believe that he could move through the organization quickly.

Markevian “Tink” Hence, RHP
I truly believe that if anyone on this list has top of the rotation stuff, it is Hence. Nasty, electric, dominant, and devastating are adjectives that have been used to describe his stuff. The excitement is palpable. He has added to that excitement this Spring. With further development and increased command of his pitches in the strike zone, he could be a difference maker. The reality though is that he is likely still two years (or more) away from the big leagues so we will have to wait a bit on him.

Inohan Paniagua, RHP
In 2022 the organization transitioned Paniagua from reliever to a starter and in that process they might have hit on something. He took the mound opening day for Single-A Palm Beach in 2022, and seventeen starts later proved that was more than up for the task. He posted a 2.18 ERA and struck out 107 batters across 99 innings before earning a call-up to High-A Peoria. The transition to Peoria was, as expected, a challenge for the first year starter but there were streaks where he showed the effectiveness that he had in Palm Beach. In an August start against Great Lakes he carried a no-hitter through 6 1/3 innings and struck out seven. He needs innings and is developmentally behind Hence but there could be a future rotation piece here.

Where does all this leave the organization for the 2024 season?

As I mentioned, I see them making some sort of in-season move to strengthen the rotation for another playoff run this year. Might that move also be a move to shore up the future? I could definitely see a scenario where Mozeliak targets a pitcher that not only helps this season, but could also be under contract for future years as well. I tend to fall in the camp that trusts this front office. They have shown time and time again that they have a plan and most of the time it works out. I like the pitching coming up through the minors and I see a lot of potential there. To solely rely on that potential as the future of the rotation is risky and not a plan that I see this organization running with. The solution is almost assuredly a combination of the up and coming arms in the minors, the re-signing of a Montgomery/Flaherty, and an outside addition (or additions).

Let’s wrap all of this with a fun scenario. There is a certain 2024 free agent that would look awful nice with the “Birds on the Bat” across his chest. Might we have an edge? We can always dream while we wait.

Jeremy covers the St Louis organization and contributes on Prospects of the Week for Prospects1500. Born and raised in the Midwest, he is a lifelong fan of the Birds on the Bat. You can follow him on Twitter @JMahyfam for more baseball content.

"Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too." -Yogi Berra

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