The Cardinals have made no secret of their need to add starting pitching. It’s self-evident, as a rotation that ranks 23rd with a 4.73 ERA has been a key factor in the Cards’ disappointing season. Deadline deals shipped out impending free agents Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty, while Adam Wainwright is retiring at year’s end.
With three members of their anticipated starting five either already or soon to be out the door, St. Louis is gearing up to add multiple replacements. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said yesterday the club anticipated bringing in three starting pitchers next winter (relayed by John Denton of MLB.com).
It’s not the first time Mozeliak has expressed that goal. The baseball ops leader indicated a desire for a trio of starters last month. At the time, he left open the possibility of accomplishing some of that at the trade deadline.
The Cards indeed followed through on their goal of adding upper minors pitching. Lefty Drew Rom, who has spent the entire season in Triple-A, came back from Baltimore in the Flaherty deal. Double-A righty Tekoah Roby was arguably the most talented prospect the Cards received in the swap that sent Montgomery and Chris Stratton to Texas. Righties Adam Kloffenstein and Sem Robberse — each of whom was acquired from the Blue Jays for Jordan Hicks — were assigned to Triple-A.
Since none of those hurlers have yet made their MLB debuts, it seems the Cards aren’t penciling any of them into next year’s starting five. Mozeliak conceded the front office overestimated their rotation depth coming into this season and it has clearly since been a priority to bolster the upper levels of the minors.
The only pitcher who looks assured of an Opening Day rotation job is Miles Mikolas. The right-hander is having another solid season, pitching to a 4.27 ERA over 26 starts. He’s not overpowering, but he’s an elite strike-thrower and has been a source of mid-rotation innings for five seasons in St. Louis.
Steven Matz looked to have turned a corner after a brief bullpen demotion. Since returning to the rotation, the southpaw worked to a 1.86 ERA while fanning over a quarter of opponents with an excellent 4.6% walk rate over seven starts. It had been Matz’s best stretch as a Cardinal — until he was diagnosed with a lat strain that could end his season. The recent strong run probably gives Matz an inside track on a rotation spot next spring, though it’s a small enough sample his hold on a job could be tenuous.
Since the deadline, St. Louis has given rotation looks to Matthew Liberatore and Dakota Hudson. Liberatore, a former top prospect, had a strong season in Triple-A but hasn’t carried it over against big league hitters. Over 45 2/3 MLB frames this year, he carries a 5.72 ERA with a well below-average 14.4% strikeout rate. Still just 23 with another minor league option remaining, Liberatore isn’t in danger of losing his roster spot. He’ll get another eight or nine starts down the stretch but hasn’t solidified his hold on a ’24 rotation job.
Hudson isn’t a lock to be on next year’s roster. The sinkerballer is playing this season on a $2.65MM arbitration salary. He’d be due a modest raise on that amount if St. Louis tenders him a contract. Hudson has a 4.31 ERA in 31 1/3 MLB innings, starting three of nine appearances. He worked out of the rotation with Triple-A Memphis, posting a 6.00 ERA with a modest 17.3% strikeout percentage.
Matz’s injury cleared a rotation job for former first-round selection Zack Thompson. The 25-year-old lefty has worked almost exclusively in relief at the big league level. His numbers in that capacity — a 2.59 ERA, 24.9% strikeout rate, 51.3% grounder percentage through 59 2/3 career innings — are impressive. Yet Thompson struggled mightily when the Cards optioned him to work out of the Triple-A rotation. Over 34 1/3 frames with Memphis, he was tagged for an 8.65 ERA while struggling to find the strike zone.
Between Liberatore, Thompson and a few upper minors arms — Rom and Connor Thomas could have the upper hand, since they’re already on the 40-man roster — St. Louis has a number of controllable pitchers they can evaluate over the next seven weeks. It’s hard to envision anyone in that group staking a firm claim to a season-opening rotation spot, though they can at least put themselves in line for depth work that’ll inevitably arise throughout the course of the year.
Once the offseason arrives, Mozeliak and his staff will set about identifying external targets. The upcoming free agent class is pitching-heavy. Beyond Shohei Ohtani, some names on the market include Blake Snell, NPB star Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Montgomery, Aaron Nola, Julio Urías, Lucas Giolito, likely Eduardo Rodriguez and Seth Lugo (who each seem set to decline player options on their deals), and Michael Lorenzen. Veterans like Marcus Stroman (who also has a player option), James Paxton and Kenta Maeda could be limited to shorter-term contracts based on their age/injury histories but are pitching well this season.
St. Louis has never topped $80MM on a free agent deal for a pitcher. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Cards set a new high-water mark in that regard next winter. Roster Resource calculates their 2024 payroll commitments around $112MM, well below this year’s Opening Day figure that landed in the $177MM range. Arbitration raises for Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, Ryan Helsley and Dylan Carlson would add another $15-20MM to that projected ledger, but that leaves a fair bit of flexibility for attacking free agency.
That’s before considering the possibility of trades to potentially clear some payroll room while bringing back rotation help. Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos and Carlson were all floated in rumors this summer. St. Louis ended up holding virtually everyone who was controllable beyond this season but could certainly reopen trade talks on those players over the winter. The outfield surplus that fueled speculation about a Carlson deal still hasn’t been resolved. He seems likely to be a popular subject of trade attention yet again.