By Tyler Brandt, from Cardsblog.com
We continue our position outlook series with the Cardinals starting rotation. The goal is to assess the Cardinals major league talent at the position today, in the short-term future, and in the long-term future. We have already completed all of the hitter positions. Here are our previous articles: catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field, center field, right field.
The Cardinals have their five ready to go for now: Carlos Martinez, Luke Weaver, Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright. Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty serve as potential replacements for injury or poor performance.
The Cardinals return four of their five starters from the end of last season. The only difference is that Lance Lynn is still unemployed and the Cardinals replaced him with Miles Mikolas. Carlos Martinez returns as the Cardinals top starter. Many are still anticipating a big breakout season from Martinez that would vault him into Cy Young contention. I am skeptical of that argument, but that would still leave Martinez in a good spot.
The case for Martinez becoming the NL's top pitcher is based on his stuff. A hard thrower with his movement is going to be hard to hit well. But I don't think Martinez's ceiling is that of Cy Young for two reasons. The first is that he needs to stop walking batters. He walks batters at around a league average rate (but below average for starting pitchers). That trend has kept up four his entire career, so it's unlikely that he will now find a way to improve.
The second problem with the Cy Young argument is that Martinez's contact rates aren't exceptional. Some pitchers put up great numbers with poor walk rates, like Arizona's Robbie Ray. But Ray led all qualified starters in whiffs per swing, while Martinez a couple percentage points above average. I would be more comfortable endorsing Martinez for a breakout campaign if he were getting more swings and misses.
I see Martinez as doing what he has done the past three years, which is still really good. His durability will likely help him end up as somewhere between the 10th and 15th most valuable pitcher in baseball. He may not be as dominant as guys who throw less, but racking up 200 innings at his pace is incredibly valuable, and about average for a team's top starter.
There is clearly a big drop after Martinez, but Weaver has the most talent of the other four. I already touched on why he might be even better this season, but his floor is that of a number three starter. Weaver will likely never reach top starter status, but becoming a quality number 2 is well within reason.
What you get from the other three depends on what Mikolas is. Trying to translate his numbers over from Japan is difficult, but the low walk rate puts him in the 3-4 starter range.
His terrible outing from yesterday is something to keep an eye on, but we need to give him a few more innings before souring on him. If Mikolas keeps his low walk rate, then Wacha and Wainwright make for a fine 4 and 5. If Mikolas can't do that or gives up too many homers, then pushing up either of the other two causes problems.
Of course, there is a safety valve here. Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty are more talented than each of those three at this stage in their respective careers. I wouldn't count on Reyes coming off of Tommy John, but Flaherty is intriguing.
He has a strong minor league resume and reached the majors at just 21 years old. He can locate his fastball on the edges, throws a plus changeup, and his slider is coming along nicely. The breaking pitch is a little inconsistent, but he has seen steady growth in this area.
If one of Mikolas, Wacha, or Wainwright falters, I have no problem believing that Flaherty can be an above average fourth starter or better this season. It would be best for the Cardinals to have him accumulate less service time while they don't need him yet, but if they do need him, then they can count on him.
This season's outlook: Good
Two Years into the Future
Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, and Luke Weaver are still in the rotation. The last spot will go to Ryan Helsley, currently in AAA.
The timeline of the Cardinals pitching pipeline makes this position easier to project for the future. Martinez is under contract through 2023 including options. Reyes will be a free agent in 2023. Weaver is controlled through then. Flaherty still has six years of service time to go before he is a free agent. And everyone else in the minors will be under team control for a while, too.
The Cardinals are hoping that one of Reyes or Flaherty will become a number one starter by this time. Reyes obviously had the stuff to get there before his injury last season. If he makes a full recovery, then he'll just need to work on cutting down the walks.
Even if he never really masters control, he misses enough bats to be effective anyway. The only question will be how many innings he can throw in a season. Reyes could end up anywhere from high leverage reliever to ace starter, but only injuries would make him ineffective.
As for Flaherty, he should be a front end starter by this point, too. He will be entering his age 24 season, and should have a sharp slider at that point. Sliders really aren't hard for MLB teams to teach, so I think that pitch will develop well. The expectation is that Flaherty will be at least a number two starter. Based on what I have seen both in his minor league numbers and with the eye test, I think his floor is that of a number three starter. I see him as most likely a number two, but he will factor into the Cardinals rotation sooner rather than later.
The last spot in the rotation will go to Jordan Hicks if he is ready. But I don't see Hicks as being starter ready by 2020. I think he has a long way to go for his third pitch, the changeup. You have heard the rave reviews about his fastball, but he doesn't have much to complement it right now.
The general consensus is that he has an average curveball now, which may become a plus pitch down the road. But I haven't seen any high opinions on his changeup. Even if Hicks can throw 100+ miles per hour, he'll need that third, offspeed pitch to be a starter. He will likely be in the bullpen by 2020, but maybe not in the rotation.
Ryan Helsley doesn't quite have the upside of anyone else I have discussed in this section, but he'll be a cheap back end of the rotation option. The 23 year-old reached AAA last season, and has a good minor league track record. In low A, he struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings while walking less than 2 per nine. But those numbers didn't keep up as he progressed.
Helsley still had strong strikeout numbers in limited time in the high minors, but the walks crept up, too. The control isn't terrible, but subpar control combined with his average arsenal makes him more of a 4 or 5 starter.
There is a pretty good chance that Helsley realizes that potential, as he has generated whiffs at each level. He has four pitches, including both a four-seam fastball and a cutter. Using all four pitches has helped him keep hitters off balance without yet having a plus pitch. He may be best viewed as a reliever, but rather than spend money when the rotation already has the first four, the Cardinals would rather stay in house.
Short-term outlook: Excellent
Five Years into the Future
Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, and Jordan Hicks are in the rotation. The fifth starter will be a draft pick that hasn't happened yet.
As tempting as it is to stick a big name free agent in here (Dallas Keuchel might fit), I don't think the Cardinals will do that. The Cardinals will have front end pitching under team control or arbitration for a long time.
They would likely rather spend on a position player where they don't have a young player coming up. We are talking five years from now, meaning that the Cardinals will have this year's draft and next year's draft to fill just one rotation spot.
For this year's draft, there are several college and high school arms that could go mid to late first round. Suggesting names for the Cardinals now is a bit of a fool's errand, but 8 of the players listed in MLB Pipeline's numbers 15-30 draft prospects are pitchers. The Cardinals will likely be picking in that range, so they'll have the chance to restock their young pitching.
As for the names we know, Martinez and Weaver will both be in their last year of team control. The Cardinals would have to re-sign Reyes to keep him at this point. It's certainly possible, but I actually think the Cardinals will end up preferring to lock up Weaver and Flaherty. If Reyes hits with full potential, he will cost an exorbitant amount. If he doesn't, then Flaherty and Weaver may both be better.
Hicks is the only one I didn't have in the short-term future rotation. By this point, he should have figured out enough to get to the rotation. His slider is already far enough along that he really only needs that third pitch.
I just think it will take some time to develop. Luckily for Hicks, this exercise gives him five seasons. He is another pitcher with front end upside. Unlike the other guys, his floor is a bit lower. It's entirely possible that Hicks ends up a reliever or a back end starter. I didn't even consider that possibility with Flaherty.
I'm willing to bet on the upside, but temper expectations a little bit. I would like to see how his stuff plays for a full season in the high minors next year before giving him too high a grade. For this rotation, view Flaherty, Weaver, and Martinez as a strong top three. I'd even put them in that order based on Martinez being over 30 at that point. Hicks and the draftee fill out the back end.
That's some serious upside at the back end if the Cardinals spend a high pick on a pitcher soon. This projection depends a lot on that unknown draftee, but I will assume that they get an average starter. Based on the team's track record, they will probably do better, but that seems like a fair guess for most baseball teams. The upside of this crew is tremendous, and the floor is still having a pretty good first three starters.
Long-term outlook: Great