This winter to date, much has been already written about the St. Louis Cardinals’ apparent wealth of MLB-ready starting pitching.
All five primary starters from 2016 are slated to return for 2017: Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha.
Then, we have the injured. Lance Lynn missed all of 2016, but continued an aggressive rehab plan last summer on his way back from Tommy John surgery and should be ready to roll in the spring. Prospect lefty Marco Gonzales also sat out last season and will look to reestablish momentum. One other candidate was pruned from the group last week as Tim Cooney departed to Cleveland on a waiver claim.
Last, but not least, we have former closer Trevor Rosenthal. Like many MLB relievers, the right-hander came up through the minors as a starter and has often expressed his desire to return to that role. We have been told that Rosenthal will be on a starter’s program in the spring. While that does not assure anything, it does potentially reopen a door that had been closed the past three years - at least by a crack.
For five jobs, that makes 11 legitimate names - all with prior MLB experience and all with a spot on St. Louis’ current 40-man roster.
Sure, some have question marks, starting with Garcia’s and Wacha’s injuries and inconsistencies. A feasible, but far from certain scenario would have Lynn and Reyes taking their spots every fifth day. At the same time, without significant roster changes, St. Louis’ 2017 bullpen could become a very crowded place.
So might Triple-A Memphis.
I also see at least 11 viable starting candidates for the Redbirds next season. What makes this even more interesting is that only four of the following names overlap with the 11 St. Louis combatants mentioned above.
Asked by a member of The Cardinal Nation who I thought could open next season in the Redbirds’ rotation, I began with a disclaimer.
I have not done the detailed analysis yet and will not until free agents are all signed, Rule 5 is past, trades are complete, etc., but off the top of my head, here is my projected starting five, all with extensive Triple-A experience.
The five are Weaver, Mayers, Gonzales, Arturo Reyes and Kendry Flores. The latter is a former San Francisco and Miami top prospect who recently signed a minor league deal as a free agent. Four of the five are members of The Cardinal Nation’s new top 50 prospect list for 2017, still being unveiled, and each of the quartet has already pitched in the majors. Only Reyes is not yet among them.
Other candidates who may be in the Memphis mix include Matt Pearce, who had a two-start Triple-A debut last season, Daniel Poncedeleon, Andrew Morales, and top lefty prospect Austin Gomber. The latter has considerable momentum coming off a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. Three of the four in this Springfield subgroup are also top 50 prospects.
As an aside, I have no reason to suspect Gonzales is not going to be ready. In fact, the last report I heard on his rehab was positive. I am also not assuming Flores will be moved to relief until someone in a position of responsibility actually suggests it. I expect he was signed as veteran Triple-A rotation depth as partial replacement for Deck McGuire, Jeremy Hefner and J.C. Sulbaran, who made 55 Memphis starts among them last season before leaving as free agents.
Another interesting alternative, though a long shot, is Rosenthal. What if his desire to start is so great that he is willing to go to Memphis for a while just to keep pitching every fifth day?
Without a certified epidemic of injuries, he is not going to pitch his way into the MLB rotation, no matter what he does this spring. For the first time in three years, Rosenthal is no longer a necessity in St. Louis' bullpen, potentially making a temporary step backward less painful for the team. I am not making any assumptions here, but the situation is unclear enough for me to wonder.
Finally, do not forget another solid right-hander with a starting pedigree - Matt Bowman. Now that his Rule 5 MLB-roster restriction is passed, the Cardinals could decide to return him to starting and if so, it would almost certainly be at Memphis. The odds of such a move could increase if Wacha and Garcia end up taking seats in the MLB pen.
The bottom line is that it is good to have options - and the Cardinals have a lot of them in starting pitching at the high end of the system – 18 by my count.
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