Most Cardinals fans celebrated when the team dumped Mike Leake and $38 million of his remaining contract off on Seattle before the waiver trade deadline. Though Leake provided a reasonable value during his nearly two seasons in St. Louis, the prospect of him as a member of the starting rotation for three more years was less than palatable coming off his rough August.
So in a total salary dump, the Cardinals cleared Leake out of the organization. His departure opened a space in the 2018 rotation that wasn’t previously anticipated. As the Cardinals begin to infuse young pitching onto the big-league scene for the stretch run of this season, how do the Cardinals starting pitching assets stack up for next year? Rather than a prediction of how the Cardinals will fill their rotation for 2018, I’m going with a power ranking, which I intend to reflect more closely these assets could stack up for 2018 going forward. Again, the top five below won’t necessarily be the Opening Day rotation, but reflect my views on their potential ability to contribute to the rotation during the season. Let’s dive in:
1. Carlos Martinez
Martinez sure looked like an ace during his shutout of the Padres, eh? A lot was made of C-Mart’s mid-season lull prior to his dominant outing in San Diego, but there’s no question that Martinez remains the best pitching asset in the St. Louis organization. The Cardinals were eager to lock him into a new contract extension before the season, and fans should be just as eager to watch Martinez pitch for their team for years to come.
2. Alex Reyes
Reyes’ selection at No. 2 is very different from claiming he’ll be the team’s second starter in 2018–I don’t believe that will happen. In fact, coming off Tommy John surgery, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Cardinals bring Reyes along slowly in 2018—whether that means the back of the rotation, out of the bullpen, or in the minors. Still, when power ranking possible rotation pieces, it’s hard not to include Reyes and his blazing fastball prominently high on the list. His brief stint with the club in 2016 was incredibly encouraging. During a bit of a downer baseball season for Cardinals fans, it’s easy to forget the impact Reyes might’ve had upon it. Don’t worry, folks. Soon.
3. Luke Weaver
Not to jump the gun based on a small number of major league appearances, but Weaver is currently performing as a capable member of a productive starting staff. At 4-1 with a 2.50 ERA thus far in 2017, Weaver has been effective during a time of rotation desperation for St. Louis (oh and by the way, he just beat MadBum). Looking at Weaver, he draws physical comparisons to Mike Leake, which might not be the most complementary choice in light of recent events. That said, Weaver has one thing that Leake doesn’t: a consistent mid-90s fastball. If Weaver can continue developing as a pitcher along his current track, he’s worthy of third in these power rankings going forward.
4. Michael Wacha
The toughest decision I had for these rankings was between Luke Weaver and Michael Wacha. I’ve always been of the belief that any periodic struggles in Wacha’s career were injury-related—when he’s healthy, he’s pretty good. This ranking is a reflection of Wacha coming up on an innings total that has historically been a danger zone for him and his scapular stress reaction condition. Wacha tends to break down every other season, and since he’s been fine this year, it could spell trouble for the next. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him hit the DL for a time in 2018, a viewpoint that justifies this lack of stronger confidence in this ranking.
5. Adam Wainwright
Though the Cardinals winning percentage with Wainwright on the bump is stronger than ever (their 15-8 record in his starts this year boggles the mind), it would seem imprudent to assume that would continue without a drastic improvement in Wainwright’s performance. His 5.12 ERA this season won’t cut it going forward. On top of that, another bout with elbow trouble has made many wonder how much Wainwright has left in the tank. He’s continued to rehab through the injury, and will likely be seen again this season for St. Louis. As for next season, Wainwright is under contract, and because of his status as a veteran leader of the team, he projects as a member of the rotation until further notice—even if the numbers aren’t especially good.
6. Jack Flaherty
Despite Wainwright’s struggles and health concerns, I can’t justify Flaherty higher on the list. In his MLB debut last week, Flaherty showed flashes of the future the Cardinals desire for him. Simultaneously, he displayed the kind of inexperience that often manifests itself early in a pitcher’s career at the highest level. Flaherty has a bright future ahead, but to expect his arrival as a legitimate contributor to occur so quickly wouldn’t be fair to his development. Perhaps 2017 can serve as a learning experience for Flaherty, as some of those bruises from late-2016 seem to have done for Luke Weaver.
7. Sandy Alcantara
While his eventual future may still lie as a starting pitcher, Alcantara might have the chops to contribute to the Cardinals next year as an anchor out of the bullpen. Early returns on his stint with the big club are mixed—he’s had one outing in which he allowed a walk and a homer—but Alcantara’s blazing fastball could prove better than serviceable if he can hone in on his command. We’ve seen the Cardinals use top starting pitching prospects as relievers numerous times in the past—Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes are come to mind—so Alcantara’s September performance could have bearing on his role for next season, when the need may arise for him to pitch out of the ‘pen instead of the rotation.
8. Dakota Hudson
Hudson has yet to make his major league debut, but the 2016 first-round draft pick out of Mississippi State is a name to keep an eye on for 2018. A fast-riser through the organization, Hudson has split the 2017 season between Springfield and Memphis, going 10-5 with a 3.01 ERA. Like Alcantara, Hudson could be an interesting choice for deployment in the major league bullpen if necessary, due to his lethal slider.
Are you comfortable with this list, or do the Cardinals need to add a piece this winter to replace the departing Lance Lynn? Did I leave out anyone within the organization that could be an answer in the rotation? Feel free to sound off with your comments.