It’s painfully clear what the Cardinals need to do with Steven Matz
Put down your pitchforks, Redbirds fans. There’s still way a for Matz to contribute to this team—it’s just not in his current role.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - When Matthew Liberatore starts for the Cardinals on Friday night in Cleveland, it should be an audition for a more permanent role in the St. Louis pitching rotation. And there’s a case to be made that the bar to clear shouldn’t be set particularly high for the young lefty to earn that spot.
That’s because the Cardinals have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to the starting rotation woes that have already developed this season. Even after a gem by Miles Mikolas on Thursday in Cincinnati, St. Louis is still one of eight teams in MLB this season with a starting pitching ERA above 5.00.
Although Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak infamously claimed that the team had six starters for five spots coming into the year, the individuals he had been counting on to perform have simply not picked up the mantle to this point. Entering the weekend series against the Guardians, no Cardinal starter carries an ERA better than 4.23.
While the team has understandably preached patience for veterans with track records like Adam Wainwright or for starters who have flashed glimpses of tremendous upside like Jack Flaherty, the most recent start for Steven Matz may have been the one that definitively showed he’s not going to be a solution to the problem in his current form.
Matz was knocked around by a mediocre Reds lineup Wednesday, surrendering 11 hits and six earned runs in only four innings of work. The woeful effort against a Cincinnati team that ranks 22nd in MLB in OPS ballooned Matz’s ERA to 5.72 for the year.
Though he had recently shown signs of progress leading into that outing, this setback should be the one that opens the team’s eyes to the reality of his situation.
In five of his 10 starts this season, Matz has allowed an opponent to score against him in the first inning. Three of those times, it was a crooked number posted against Matz before he could record three outs. And twice, including Wednesday, the lefty starter permitted a four-run first inning to effectively take his team out of a game before it had ever really started.
The downside of Matz’s spot in the rotation is evident, and the upside the Cardinals chase weekly by leaving him in his role is a unicorn. In 2022, Matz mustered two starts of at least six innings. He hasn’t done in once this year and he’s never traversed seven innings in any outing as a Cardinal. Though Matz has had passable stretches as a starter, those stretches usually come crashing down with a dud that limits any realistic chance at a victory for the Cardinals on the day it happens.
And when ‘passable’ is the loftiest ceiling he’s displayed, what are we really doing, here?
The Cardinals are 2-8 in Matz starts in 2023 and he carries an 0-6 record. The reasons to shift Matz from the rotation are plentiful. But there’s actually another side to this conversation that should further incentivize this front office to move a move: Matz could genuinely be a contributor in the St. Louis bullpen.
Matz’s 5.72 ERA this season is almost identical to the 5.70 ERA he carried in his starts in 2022. But when he returned to action in another role last September after recovering from a torn MCL, Matz produced a 1.69 ERA by allowing just one earned run across 5.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen. Though nothing is guaranteed for a pitcher who has allowed a league-leading 68 hits on the campaign, there’s a case to be made that Matz could develop into a lefty relief weapon for the Cardinals.
The elephant in the room is the $11 million average annual salary that Matz earns each year through 2025. But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Cardinals willingly paid a substantial annual price for a left-handed reliever—remember the Andrew Miller contract? Although Miller was arguably compensated more than the value of the production he provided, he contributed reasonably within his role.
For a team that was willing to pull its $87.5 million franchise catcher out from behind the plate after five weeks, the optics of changing course with Matz shouldn’t prevent the move from happening.
A bullpen role could allow Matz to add to the mid-90s fastball velocity he’s maintained as a starter. Then shelve the secondary pitches that aren’t working—both the radio and television broadcast noticed he was tipping his changeup Wednesday—and stick with one or two complementary offerings for those shorter bullpen appearances. A simplified repertoire and more specialized role could allow Matz to hone in on the success he’s had against left-handed batters this season.
Even as Matz has struggled to a 5.72 ERA, he’s actually been pretty effective in left-on-left matchups. Lefties are slashing just .189/.268/.297 against Matz, while righties have tagged him for a .353 batting average and .958 OPS. Even if he manages to change nothing about his pitching, the ability to limit Matz to more favorable matchups could turn him into a more capable contributor.
If it hasn’t hit the Cardinals like a ton of bricks by now, I’m not sure if it ever will occur to them--but this is the best path forward for the benefit of both Matz and the team.
The next step of this move is Liberatore’s side of it. The 23-year-old has made strides with his performance in Triple-AAA Memphis this season to earn an opportunity with the big club. But it’s important to recognize the potential pitfalls of assuming the relatively unproven option will automatically thrive. Even though it feels like he can do no wrong in the eyes of Cardinals fans after the solid five-inning start he put together last week against Milwaukee, expectations should be managed.
Liberatore carried a 5.97 ERA in 34.2 innings with St. Louis last season. It’s possible that despite the gains he’s made in velocity and effectiveness in the strike zone so far this season, he could still struggle in the big-league environment like he did a year ago.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Liberatore’s floor is any lower than what Matz has been giving the team. Giving him a prolonged crack at it—the opportunity to work through struggles at the big-league level like the team has so patiently done with Matz and the rest of the rotation to this point—is the only way to find out whether Liberatore can be a legitimate answer for a pitching staff that sure could use one.
With two months until the trade deadline, now’s the perfect time for the Cardinals to commit to more than a temporary run for Liberatore in the rotation. Give him Friday night and then another eight or nine starts after that to see whether the former first-round pick is ready to become a mainstay at a Major League minimum salary.
If time shows that Liberatore isn’t ready for that role, then so be it. At that point, there will still be room to adjust with a trade to bolster the starting rotation. Providing Liberatore the latitude to reach his ceiling, though, should be a prerequisite for the Cardinals before exploring another desperate deadline on the pitching front.
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