Last season, the St. Louis Cardinals sputtered out to a 24-24 start, which left them nearly nine games back of the Chicago Cubs by the last week of May. They finished the 2016 season with an 86-76 record, missing the postseason for the first time since 2010. But there was some hope for fans in St. Louis.
Stephen Piscotty, despite a slump from late-May through the end of the season, ended up showing what he can do when given a full season in the big leagues. He was good for an .800 OPS and 2.9 WAR last year. Other key players had good seasons too, with Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss, and Jedd Gyorko all putting up outstanding numbers at the plate.
But the problem for St. Louis wasn’t in scoring runs. No, the Cardinals were number three in the National League in runs scored. The problem was their pitching.
Only one of the regular five starters for the Cardinals last season finished the year with an ERA under 4.60, and that was 24-year-old right-hander Carlos Martinez. Adam Wainwright (now 35 years old), Mike Leake, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia were downright bad, leaving the Cardinals in their struggle to keep up with the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets in the wild card chase.
But this season, things were going to be different. Martinez was paired at the top of the rotation with young right-hander Alex Reyes, one of the best and most exciting pitching prospects in the game. Reyes came up and dominated in a short period of time last season, making 12 appearances (five starts) and tossing 46 innings, allowing 33 hits, one home run, and striking out 52 batters. Reyes’ effort in 2016 left him with a 1.57 ERA in the big leagues.
With Lance Lynn returning from Tommy John surgery, the Cards looked fine to trade away Garcia and banish Wacha to wherever pitchers with chronic shoulder injuries and inflating ERAs go—someone find Mark Prior and ask him where that place is. But on the day that pitchers and catchers reported to spring training for the Cardinals, the team was forced to give their fans a very unwelcome Valentine’s Day present: Reyes will require Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2017.
All of the sudden, a rotation of Martinez, Wainwright, Leake, Lynn, and a pile of question marks doesn’t look so good, especially when keeping up with the Cubs was already a tall task. But the good news is that St. Louis has some options to replace their young fireballing prospect, even if going to those options after losing Reyes is like dropping your steak on the floor and ending up eating a bowl of dry kale.
There’s no way around the fact that the external options for St. Louis are bleak. Here are the best of the free agent starting pitchers that could be waiting by their phone for a call from John Mozeliak.
Of the names on this list, Fister, Niese, and Peavy make the most sense for the Cardinals to look at. While Fister had a down year with the Houston Astros in 2016, the good news is that he remained healthy and gave the team 32 starts—something he hadn’t accomplished since 2013. From 2011-2015, Fister pitched 853 innings with a 3.24 ERA, 1.8 BB/9, and 6.4 K/9, so there’s at least some hope for him to provide better numbers moving from the offense-loaded AL West to an NL Central that features mediocre-at-best offenses outside of the Cubs and Cardinals.
Niese had an awful season between the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets in 2016, but knee surgery has fixed his torn meniscus and he recently held a 40-pitch bullpen session in front of scouts from 13 different teams—it’s unclear whether the Cardinals were one of those teams, however. From 2012-2015, the left-hander had a 3.65 ERA in 697 innings for the Mets and could be a solid bounce-back candidate this season.
Peavy was once an elite pitcher in Major League Baseball, but those days have been gone for nearly a decade. He’s going to be 36 years old in May and his numbers from last season look bad, but there’s a few things to consider. After a rough start, Peavy had a 3.76 ERA with 57 hits allowed and a .227 opponent’s batting average in 67 innings over his final 12 starts. The Giants moved him to the bullpen in August, where he finished out his season with 10 unremarkable appearances. Could there be something left in Peavy’s arm?
Internally, the Cards have the aforementioned Wacha to go along with Marco Gonzales and Luke Weaver. Wacha is only 25 years old and is well-remembered for the dominant postseason he had back in 2013, taking the Cardinals all the way to the World Series and putting together a 2.64 ERA in five starts. But things have been up-and-down for the tall righty ever since, losing a chunk of the 2014 season due to shoulder troubles and being used infamously out of the bullpen against the San Francisco Giants in Game 5 of the NLCS by manager Mike Matheny after not having pitched for weeks.
In 2015. Wacha had a strong start to the season but fell apart in the second half, and in 2016 he only made it to mid-May before his complete collapse and eventual trip to the DL with more shoulder problems. Wacha has a solid fastball-changeup pairing but has never really developed his cutter or curveball well enough to make batters swing and miss at them. If he could stay healthy, his future might be in the bullpen.
Marco Gonzales was once a promising young left-hander that has been derailed by injuries in the minor leagues the last few seasons. After being rated the number-52 prospect by Baseball Prospectus heading into 2015, Gonzales experienced shoulder problems that left him with just over 80 innings pitched in the minors that year with a 4.69 ERA and an absurd 11.4 H/9. Gonzales’ last appearance on the mound in organized baseball was a September 1, 2015 start for the Cardinals in which he allowed seven hits and four earned runs in 2.2 innings against the Washington Nationals. For now, Gonzales can’t be counted on.
Weaver is interesting, however. The 23-year-old started eight games for the Cards in 2016, posting a 5.70 ERA that is somewhat misleading—he had a 4.33 FIP, 11.1 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9 in 36.1 innings. He might have the best chance of all internal candidates at taking the vacant rotation spot, even though the Cardinals were likely planning on sending him to Triple-A to get more work before being thrown to the fire.
If the Cardinals aren’t going to go shopping in the bargain bin for a pitcher that comes with age, injury, or effectiveness concerns, the best options might be simply a roll of the dice on the health of Wacha or a young prospect such as Weaver. The silver lining in all of this, if you can call it one, is that the Cardinals weren’t going to contend with the Cubs in the NL Central in 2017 anyway. It’s not much of a consolation prize, but losing Reyes for an entire season would’ve hurt a lot more in a year when the Cards had an obvious contender on the field, rather than a team that’s projected to battle for second or third place.
The Cardinals will find a way to weather the storm of this injury, allowing their young potential ace to recover and be ready to pitch when his arm is healthy. When that day comes, they will be one step closer to building another contender in St. Louis.