ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging there is one.
The Cardinals, and the legion of disgruntled fans who followed their tumultuous 2017 season, are well aware there are holes to be patched. Where then, do they start?
After their third-place finish in the NL Central, a continuation of worsening results year-over-year since 2013, no one transaction appears to be enough to right the ship. The Cubs are still entrenched atop the division and Milwaukee’s ahead-of-schedule arrival as a contender means the Cards have more than just a dragon to slay; they have to outrun the rest of the knights just to get a chance to draw their sword.
To fully grasp the needs of the franchise, a detailed audit is needed. What are the true strengths and weaknesses of this team?
Despite the travails (some due to injury, some due to underperformance), the starting pitching was the backbone of St. Louis’ contention this season.
They threw the fourth-most innings in the National League and finished with the sixth-best ERA. Only four teams (the three division winners and Arizona) had a better batting average against.
They did all this with a wounded Adam Wainwright, declining performances from Mike Leake, and 18 starts from pitchers who began the season in Triple-A.
The Cardinals have excelled at developing in-house pitching options, and projecting the rotation for 2018, the evidence bears out their skill.
Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes all appear to be at the front of the line for starting jobs (assuming Reyes recovers as expected from Tommy John surgery), and all of them are 26 or younger.
Martinez is already on a deal for that will pay him $11.7 million per year through 2021 with two team options in ‘22 and ‘23; pennies on the dollar for a pitcher of his caliber.
Wacha will be Arb 2 this offseason, and even if a long term deal isn’t made, is under control until 2020.
Weaver and Reyes aren’t even arbitration-eligible until 2020 and won’t be free agents until 2023.
*That’s not even counting the younger crop, including Jack Flaherty (who started five games in 2017), Sandy Alcantara (eight relief appearances) and Dakota Hudson (a first rounder in the 2016 draft who jumped to AAA this season).
That’s a fantastic set of arms to have inked in for the future, though they aren’t without concerning factors.
Weaver has yet to withstand the rigorous workload of major league innings. In back-to-back seasons he has rattled off incredible starts through August and early September, only to crash in the back end of the season’s final month.
Reyes is an all-world talent and figures to headline the rotation in the years to come, but hasn’t yet started with regularity at the major league level. He’s also returning from arm surgery and may not join the rotation until later in the year. When he does, he could face medically-prescribed shutdowns throughout the season.
Michael Wacha proved nearly everyone with a keyboard wrong with his late-season resurgence, but will be forever stalked by his shoulder condition. His solid season inspired confidence, but the specter of a shutdown is always present.
Most of these concerns are alleviated by time and conditioning, but with Opening Day six months away, they certainly factor into the offseason assessment.
Which brings us to the fifth rotation spot.
Lance Lynn’s status is officially up in the air, but at this point there doesn’t seem to be much indication he will return to St. Louis. That’s not to say he wont, just that there isn’t any compelling evidence to refute the likelihood of his departure.
Adam Wainwright, despite recording 12 wins, had the worst season of his career. He threw just 123 innings, posted an ERA of 5.11 and a WHIP of 1.500. The troubles, likely related to declining health in his elbow, reached their nadir against the Pirates on August 17.
Wainwright began the game with velocities floating between 65 and 85 miles per hour, more than five miles per hour slower than his norms. He surrendered a home run on a 65 mile-per-hour curveball that looked like Home Run Derby pitch.
He made one more start, going two innings, on September 23 before the Cardinals could no longer ignore the obvious. He will have arthroscopic surgery in the offseason on his elbow to repair cartilage damage, according to Derrick Goold.
Wainwright will no doubt campaign to be a starter, and his equity with the manager and higher-ups may be enough to put him in competition for that spot. But he will return at age 36, having undergone three elbow procedures and a surgery to repair a torn Achilles. The odds do not favor a full season, much less a productive one.
This leaves the rotation with a rosey future, but a shaky present. There are a handful of top pitching options hitting free agency this fall (Lynn chief among them) the Cardinals could pursue to stabilize their starting corps. Barring that, the sheer volume of prospective mound talent is more than enough to net a top arm in a trade.
The Cardinals have built their recent run of success on in-house pitching development and it remains their greatest area of strength. It’s taken them as far as it can. If they hope to stay relevant in an increasingly lethal division, they must reach outside for the final pieces.