As the calendar has officially turned over to January and with spring training much closer than it may seem, the Cardinals are in what appears to be mostly ready for camp condition. The club has been able to address issues of upgrading its everyday lineup, as well as adding both bullpen and bench depth. Yet is the offseason quickly winding down, there are still a few edges that could afford to be smoothed off regarding the team’s depth, and general manager John Mozeliak has plenty of options to consider in addressing his most prominent area of need: starting pitching depth.
Adding another veteran pitching presence to the fifth starter picture is an admitted area of intent for Mozeliak. While Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and John Lackey have their roles set in stone, the team has thus far been content to allow Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales compete for the final rotational spot. With the team’s devotion to growing from within from both a financial and talent base perspective, this is not a surprising situation, nor is it a non-desirable one. Martinez represents the most electric arm in perhaps the entire organization, while Gonzales was the club’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year, while climbing from through four levels of the organization during his first full professional year.
Both are obviously enticing options that stand to represent a significant part of the team’s pitching future and are enviable options to have available to pick between in the present. However, as is the case with many younger hurlers, there is always the chance for growing pains. Martinez, 23, and Gonzalez, 22, are both at the point in their respective careers where they are acclimating to the chance of being full-time Major League starters, and meeting the grind that such a role carries. As well, there is the already admitted factor that there will be protective innings limits in place for either of the duo in play. Add that into the ever-present chance that injuries besiege any part of the staff as well and change the dynamic of the rotation instantaneously, and the need for there to be more depth available capable of starting games.
That is where the existing free agent market comes into play. While the easy-to-align locational value of Max Scherzer remains, it is a possibility that remains a solar system’s length away from being a realistic add for the team. The same goes for James Shields, who’s been involved in more recent speculation as well. In all actuality, the type of low profile addition that Mozeliak has discussed would be able to swing between adding a third dimension to the starting pitching competition, as well as become a viable option has a long reliever as well.
This type of option would be an arm looking to rebound its stock from a down year, returning from injury or simply is sliding through the cracks some as the winter progresses. A low cost option that has high value return on investment in the type of way that Pat Neshek did a year ago. Looking at the available options remaining on the market, there are a number of suspects that fit this description.
Among the stock bounce back group, veterans Scott Baker, Franklin Morales, Kyle Kendrick and Alexi Ogando stand out. Baker, who battled arm injuries for the better part of 2012-13, rallied to make 25 total appearances for the Texas Rangers a year ago, eight of which were starts. Overall, he posted a 3-4 record with a 5.47 ERA in 2014. In his heyday as with the Minnesota Twins, he won over 10 games three times and the 33-year-old has won 66 career games.
Ogando’s effectiveness took a severe downtown in 2014, as he turned in an dreadful 6.84 ERA as he battled a mixture of shoulder and elbow injuries that sent him to the disabled list three times in 2013 and limited him to 25 innings last year. But the 31-year-old former All-Star has diverse resume of being able to spot start and contribute in multiple capacities out of the bullpen. As far as reclamation projects go in regards to filling needs for the Cardinal staff, his versatility makes him a very intriguing—and likely low cost—alternative.
Morales, soon to be 29, is a recovering member of the Colorado Rockies staff. In his first season as a majority starter, he posted a 5.37 ERA over 142 innings to contribute to a 6-9 record a year ago. For the majority of his career he was a reliever that carried a 4.51 ERA out of the pen in Coors, and has the always welcomed benefit of being a left-hander that misses bats (7.3 k’s/9) is successful versus left-handed hitters (.213 career average vs LHB).
Kendrick has seen his stock slide substantially over the past two years. He has gone from being a promising component of the Philllies’ rotation, posting back-to-back campaigns of sub-4.00 ERA while making 15+ starts, to struggling to two losing seasons and ERA’s north of 4.60 in each of the last two years. However, he has decent control and is in need of the type of season where he can prove his mettle and does have some experience in the bullpen (despite most of it being due to relegation).
There are also those that have to re-establish their stock and at the head of that class sits Brandon Beachy and Chad Billingsley. Both have considerable risk, has Beachy has twice undergone Tommy John surgery since 2012 and Billingsley has been sidelined since September of 2012 with a mixture of tendon injuries, but was one of the NL’s most electric pitchers when healthy. Both bring considerable risk, but if the goal is to simply obtain potential upside for a battle in camp and have a high upside presence, they fit the bill.
Other currently available options in these veins include lefties Paul Maholm, Joe Saunders and Brad Mills, as well as right-handers Carlos Villanueva, Chris Young and former Cardinal killer Ryan Vogelsong.
However, the option could remain simply to sit pat and let the homegrown guys sort it out. From a depth perspective there are plenty of internal options besides Martinez and Gonzales that have either moonlighted before or are coming on strong for a chance to prove themselves as well. Tyler Lyons has spent parts of the last two years with the club. Tim Cooney and Zach Petrick will be knocking at the door this year from Memphis, as could top prospect Alex Reyes, who is slotted to begin at Double-A Springfield.
There is also the presence (however ominous it may be) of Jaime Garcia to account for, who will be entering his likely final season with the club and will be pushing to get healthy to advertise himself of the open market next winter.
In addition, there could be the potential for another rapid rising prospect in 2014 first round pick Luke Weaver. With the club’s recent history of fast tracking polished collegiate arms, he should not be ruled out for a second-half appearance either if his development mirrors that of his first round processors in Wacha and Gonzales.
The possibilities are numerous and the actual outcome is yet to reveal itself. But as the team looks towards making finishing touches over the next month the direction that starting pitching offering will go, there are no shortage of routes that can still be explored.