Rotation evaluation: Cards aren't planning major move; do they h -

Rotation evaluation: Cards aren't planning major move; do they have enough to compete?

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ST. LOUIS ( -- There isn’t a singular cause to blame for the Cardinals’ absence from the postseason. Inconsistent fielding, poor baserunning and a feast or famine offense certainly played a part, but for fans who remember 2015’s 100 win season,  was there any facet of the club’s production more disappointing than its pitching?

The Cardinals 2.94 ERA last season led the majors by a wide margin. There was some turnover from that group (John Lackey left for Chicago and Lance Lynn left the picture due to injury), but the return of Adam Wainwright and signing of Mike Leake figured to stabilize the rotation, if not balance out the absences. With holdovers Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha, it seemed the rotation would have a relatively seamless transition following 2015’s excellence.

Of the five who began the season in the rotation, only Martinez (3.04) finished the year with a sub-4.00 ERA. The earned run averages of other four combined: 4.74. Wacha couldn’t stay healthy. Garcia stumbled and   experienced an epic flame-out near the end. Wainwright appeared to feel the effects of Father Time, allowing an alarming amount of hard contact. And the newcomer, Leake? He sprung too many for fans to appreciate his debut season in town.

Read: What will become of Wacha? Cards evaluate starter's future heading into 2017

Realists understood that 2015’s output was unsustainable. What happened in 2016 was nearly unimaginable: the Cardinals 4.08 ERA this season was a franchise-worst since 2008. That team didn’t make the playoffs, either.

How do you explain this pitching staff, featuring appreciable talent, laying an egg equivalent to a group led by Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer?

“I think from a rotation standpoint, it’s hard to look back at 2016 and say they didn’t pitch well, because a lot of the stress that was put on them were extra outs, extra pitches,” John Mozeliak said Wednesday at the Cardinals end-of-the-season presser. “And if we clean that up, I think all of them benefit from that.”

As painful as it may be for fans to defend guys like Garcia and Leake after the dispiriting seasons they had, Mo might be onto something.

Pitchers for the 2015 Cardinals had at least a solid defense behind them. This season, they didn’t enjoy that same benefit. According to FanGraphs, there were only five teams with a worse Ultimate Zone Rating (an overall measure of a defense’s quality) than the Cardinals. Those teams combined to go 338-472 this season. Of those teams, only the Brewers reached the 70-win threshold. Defensively, the 2016 Cardinals kept pretty horrendous company.

That the pitching was affected by poor defense isn’t just lip service from a general manager excusing the unsatisfactory product he put together: Mozeliak is doubling down by indicating he doesn’t intend to make a significant move to bolster the starting rotation.

“In terms of trying to improve your rotation this offseason via free agency, I think it’s going to be extremely difficult,” Mozeliak said. “Are there trade candidates out there? Possibly. But when you have an Alex Reyes and a Carlos Martinez, you’re in a pretty good place to build around. Adam Wainwright is still an amazing leader and a key part of this rotation, and I do feel like he’s going to benefit from a normal and healthy offseason.”

Martinez (16-9, 3.04 ERA) and Reyes (2-0, 2.20 ERA) certainly make for a compelling  foundation going forward, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Mozeliak is prepared to roll with Wainwright for 2017. Does the veteran need to improve upon this year’s 4.62 ERA? Absolutely. But with his salary of $19.5 million on the books for both 2017 and 2018, and more than a decade of equity built up with the organization and its management, Wainwright is going to get that opportunity. Consider it a given, regardless of your doubts that his stock will turn around at age 35.

That’s three spots filled. Mozeliak also mentioned Lynn as someone the Cardinals would count on next season, and based on how Lynn responded in recent rehab assignments, it’s assumed he’ll have a spot.

The team is currently mulling the $12 million option on Garcia, who, even if the Cardinals re-sign, probably won’t have a role in the rotation unless something goes catastrophically wrong. Never one to turn away an asset, Mozeliak would either sign Garcia for depth, or shop him to a number of clubs in the market for starting pitching help before next season.

As it stands, Leake is under contract for four more years, making him an obvious candidate for the final rotation spot. He didn’t enthuse with his performance this year, but because of his contract and no-trade clause, expect to see him back again.

That leaves the Cardinals with five capable starters not named Michael Wacha. The 2013 NLCS MVP has been reduced to an afterthought thanks to uncertainty surrounding his medical condition. After missing time due to the injury in 2014, Wacha’s right shoulder flared up again in August, inspiring doubts about his future.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they won’t likely enter 2017 desperate for Wacha’s contributions. With Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales, Tim Cooney and Luke Weaver—pending health and effectiveness—all fighting for a chance, St. Louis should have a substantial reserve of potential options. That doesn’t mention Trevor Rosenthal, who may be discussed as an option to convert to starting with Seung-Hwan Oh entrenched as the closer.

“I haven’t really given that much thought yet, but I imagine that’s something we’re going to talk about,” John Mozeliak said.

If this plan for starting pitching seems pretty similar to what the Cardinals laid out at the beginning of the season, that’s because it is. Don’t discount the significance of Lynn’s return—his 2015 numbers would have looked pretty ace-like on this year’s Cardinals—but it’s fair to wonder why Mozeliak would feel confident the team can turn around its fortunes on the mound without much tinkering with the personnel.

It circles back to defense. The Cardinals say they are targeting an upgrade in center field. They say they want to better prioritize athleticism at all positions. This means a renewed emphasis on defensive play.

How much better would Leake be if his .321 BABIP from this season moves closer to his career-mark of .296 in 2017? What if Wainwright didn’t get burned by a play-not-made to extend a difficult inning every time he had less than his best stuff?

It sounds like Mozeliak intends to find out. The Cardinals know they have a pitching problem. The most cost-effective solution this winter may be to get creative: fix the pitching by transforming the defense.

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