Coming into spring training this year there really wasn’t much of a question about the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff. There were five healthy starting pitchers in Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez ready to contribute. There was Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales likely starting in Memphis waiting for an opportunity. Plus Tyler Lyons in the St. Louis bullpen who could always be stretched out if needed.
Here we are mid-April and that supposed starting pitching depth has disappeared. Lyons is indeed in the St. Louis bullpen, but Cooney and Gonzales both find themselves on the disabled list. The latter electing for Tommy John surgery this week, putting him out for the season and potentially part of 2017 as well.
So while the offense has soared so far in 2016 (second in MLB in runs per game through April 14th), the other side of the ball has not gone according to plan.
With the departure of Gonzales for the year, it will be interesting to see if John Mozeliak does anything address the starting pitching depth problem that may be developing.
Historically, this is a situation where the Cardinals’ “internal options” would be leaned on. Cooney and Gonzales represented the best of those.
Top prospect Alex Reyes is currently serving a suspension after testing positive for marijuana for the second time over the winter. He isn’t eligible to return until May 18th.
Their #2 prospect Jack Flaherty is pitching in High A ball in Palm Beach. That ascension would be pretty rapid for the 2014 first round pick out of high school.
Luke Weaver, the team’s #3 prospect, is on the disabled list after injuring his wrist in spring training. He had been slated to begin the season with Double-A Springfield, which would have made him an option depending on performance. Instead, he still has a week or so until the cast will be removed from his non throwing hand.
So starting pitching-wise, the Cardinals’ cupboard is pretty bare.
The best option in the minors for the Cardinals right now is right hander Jeremy Hefner. Hefner, 30, is simply the most experienced. He threw 224 innings for the Mets in 2012 and 2013 before having Tommy John surgery. He would return to the mound late in 2014, pitching just 14 innings before announcing he would need a second Tommy John surgery.
He wouldn’t pitch in 2015, except for 15 innings in the Dominican Winter League. He signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals over the winter and pitched five scoreless innings in his debut for Memphis.
The team could also opt to piggyback Lyons and Rule 5 Draft pick Matthew Bowman to stretch one of the two out. They’re both generally accepted as long reliever types in the Cardinals’ bullpen and both have been starters for most of their careers.
Those are the current options for the Cardinals. None are as confidence inspiring as Cooney or Gonzales would have been in the same situation.
What’s the big deal with it though? In each of the past three seasons, a Cardinals’ starting pitcher has ended up on the disabled list in late-April or May.
In 2015, Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles and landed on the DL on April 16th. He didn’t start again, though he did make it back as a reliever in late September.
In 2014, following a blowout where he allowed 9 earned runs to the Cubs, Tyler Lyons hit the DL on May 13th. He was out for almost a month and didn’t return to St. Louis until July.
The 2013 season was particularly bad. First it was Jake Westbrook being placed on the DL on May 12th and was out for a month. Jaime Garcia joined him on May 18th and was done for the year. Then, not wanting to be left out, John Gast–who was called up to replace Westbrook earlier in the month–was placed on the DL himself on May 26th. Gast never pitched in the Majors again and recently announced his retirement from baseball.
So the recent history isn’t very attractive in this regard for the Cardinals. The odds are good that the Cardinals will lose a starting pitcher for a little while. And the organization may be as unprepared as they have been for it in a very long time.