Once the Cards traded for Marcell Ozuna and we got the corner OF and middle of the order hitter we needed, the buzz was that the Cardinals were going to acquire their new closer. To be sure, the 9th inning was a huge problem for the team last season but I couldn’t get over the nagging feeling that the rotation was a little bit short. The goal certainly was to play deep into the postseason and, if the postseason began today, Michael Wacha would be the team’s starter in game 2. Now, I like Wacha just fine and, in fact, Joe Schwarz over at Birds on the Bat recently discussed how good he actually was last year (hint: nearly as good as Carlos Martinez) but he’s still, in my mind, just a 5-6 inning guy who shouldn’t be pitching to anyone a 3rd time through the order. Maybe he should be on the bump in game 3 but not game 2 against Strasburg, Rich Hill, or Lester or Quintana.
I like the addition of Miles Mikolas and Luke Weaver obviously demonstrated that he’s ready to take the next step and become a regular member of the rotation. Martinez is a borderline ace and there’s lots of depth in the upper minors. There’s a lot to like about the team’s rotation but it also seems that 1.) there may not be much margin for error or injury and 2.) the rotation looks a lot like the rest of the roster with a lot of average-ish guys but lacking the stars it needs to be a postseason contender.
Mo’s declaration a few days ago that Luke Gregerson would be the team’s closer if the season started today wasn’t his first pretty shocking declaration of the offseason. The first shocking declaration of the offseason was that Mo was confident in the team’s starting rotation at this point. There’s no uneasiness about the rotation at all? Maybe I’d get it if Alex Reyes would be part of the rotation when he joins the pitching staff in May but all indications are that the team will need every live arm it can find to bolster the pen.
Now, of course, Mo wasn’t as confident as he declared a month ago because it was revealed this week that he spent a lot of time doing legwork attempting to acquire Chris Archer from the Rays, something I’ve been wanting him to do all offseason. Still, those talks reached an impasse and the rotation still has Mikolas, Weaver, and Adam Wainwright following Martinez and Wacha. As curious as it seems, Wainwright is the biggest question mark.
Despite a horrible ERA, Wainwright’s fielding-independent pitching numbers last year weren’t all that bad. His ERA was a ghastly 5.11 but his FIP was just 4.29, giving him 1.5 fWAR in 123.1 innings. He was OK into July and then had a pretty good start results-wise against the Cubs in mid-July and then 3 pretty bad starts in early August when it was clear to anyone watching him that Wainwright wasn’t OK. Both the eye test and the numbers indicated that something was wrong when the P-D revealed that something was wrong with the soon-to-be 36 year-old’s elbow. Waino rested and when he returned his strikeouts and velocity were way down.
Wainwright had elbow surgery in the offseason and turns 37 in August. Still, Steamer projects Wainwright to reach 1.7 WAR in 142 innings and ZIPS projects him for 1.6 WAR in 127 innings. That’s a pretty good rate for a guy who struck out 1 batter in 13 innings in the last 2 months of the season in 2017. Not only is Mozeliak confident about Wainwright’s 2018, but ZIPS and Steamer are pretty confident as well. Where does that confidence come from?
In August and September, Wainwright faced 61 batters and gave up 18 hits and 10 walks…and struck out 1 batter. His K rate was 1.6% and his BB rate was 16.4%. According to Brooks Baseball, his average 4-seam fastball velocity was 90.44 in July, 2017 and 86.68 in August, 2017. He lost 4 mph on his fastball between July and August. It’s pretty clear that something was wrong and all indications are that it had something to do with his elbow.
So where does all the confidence come from? In order for Mo to be confident about the rotation, he’s got to be confident in Wainwright. ZIPS and Steamer seem to be reasonably confident in him so is that where it comes from? Surely the team’s internal projections must be giving Mo something similar to what ZIPS and Steamer are showing. But aren’t all of those projections based on a lot of historical data? Isn’t it possible (or even likely) that all those projections aren’t weighting the last 2 months of 2017 heavily enough?
If he can produce roughly 1.5 WAR in 120-130 innings, I think most Cards’ fans (and coaches, teammates, members of management) would be pretty happy. The team could supplement the other innings with Jack Flaherty and others from the farm and would have a solid 5th man for the rotation. But what if the Wainwright that shows up on Florida mounds in March is the same guy the team saw in August and September? Then, the team has no 5th starter going into the season?
Or maybe it’s worse if Wainwright is OK in March and suggests that it’s possible he might pitch well during the season and then the team runs him out there 8 or 10 times and he’s awful. The team loses 7 or 8 of those games and Wainwright has an ERA around 8.50 or something and now the team has to find a 5th starter.
It seems to me that the best case scenario is probably something around what the projections are projecting — 1.5 to 2 WAR for somewhere between 140 and 160 innings — but the worst case scenario is probably replacement level or even lower and the team loses a bunch of games while they’re figuring out what to do. That’s not what we normally expect from projections. The projections the public sees are usually something around the 50th-percentile projection meaning that a pitcher who projects for 1.5 WAR could have a best case scenario maybe around 3 WAR. But I just don’t see that as Wainwright’s 90th-percentile projection for 2018. Does anyone?
I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if Flaherty ended up getting Wainwright’s innings. In fact, ZIPS actually projects Flaherty to be better than Wainwright in 2018 and worth 2.0 WAR. But if he takes Wainwright’s spot, that still eats into the team’s depth and adds another average-ish piece to an average-ish rotation.
The bottom line is that the team still needs to be trying to trade for Chris Archer. Honestly, I feel somewhat better about the bullpen right now than I do the rotation. I realize most of Cardinal nation right now is up in arms (so to speak) about the pen, but a stronger rotation could help alleviate some of those concerns.
Thanks for reading.