We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.
Well, would you look at that. Another season down, another season where the St. Louis Cardinals cycle through an embarrassment of riches on their way to one of the best records in baseball, and earn another playoff spot in the process. Yawn.
The Cardinals rode a 2.94 staff ERA, by far the best in baseball, in 2015, and while their peripherals – a 3.48 FIP and 3.71 xFIP – didn’t quite back up that dominance, their pitchers still produced the sixth-highest wins above replacement in either league. That’s not necessarily some Cardinals-specific magic, as it’s only the second time in five seasons their ERA has beaten their FIP. Still, thanks to a pitcher-friendly home park and a great bullpen to help strand runners, the Cardinals as a rotation outperformed their xFIP for a fourth consecutive year.
That bullpen was even a shade better than their rotation, a ludicrously high bar considering their entire rotation together had a sub-3.00 ERA. Trevor Rosenthal and company have just got it like that.
Return of the ace
Assuming no spring training setbacks, Adam Wainwright will once again start on opening day for the Cardinals. The 34-year-old managed just four starts a season ago before suffering an Achilles injury, ultimately making it back for a bullpen role in late September and into the playoffs. He was pitching masterfully before the injury and looking to build a third consecutive solid season following a “down” 2012 season that saw his ERA rise all the way to 3.94 thanks in part to some sequencing and strand rate misfortune.
Expecting a return all the way to sub-3.00 Wainwright might be unfair given his age and velocity, but he still projects to strike out an average number of batters, limit the walks, and keep the ball mostly in the yard. Given the team behind him, that’s enough to put him just outside the top-25 at the position entering the season.
Wacha and Martinez
Wainwright is flanked by a pair of impressive 24-year-olds that continue to keep the future in St. Louis evergreen.
Michael Wacha was able to increase his velocity in 2015 and posted strong strikeout and walk rates a year after rehabbing through a shoulder issue. He doesn’t need to make hitters whiff a ton to be effective, as he’s great at limiting hard contact – and coaxing cheap pop-ups – while preventing hitters from getting a lot of pull power. His home run per-fly ball rate of 11.2 percent may have been high given his batted-ball profile, and he seems to profile as a sub-.300 BABIP pitcher, even if some models like him to regress closer to league average. In any case, Wacha’s not far behind Wainwright, slotting somewhere in the late-30s with a chance at a sub-3.50 ERA and eight strikeouts per-nine.
Carlos Martinez is a slightly riskier proposition, though he remains on track for opening day following a late-season shoulder injury. His final line for 2015 was great, even when including a tough start and a couple of shaky outings in September, as his 3.01 ERA and 24.4-percent strikeout rate worked in concert to make him a top-25 arm, even in just 179.2 innings. A remarkably improved changeup played a big part, giving him a great complement to a fastball that he started throwing with significantly more sink. The swinging strike rate decline is a moderate concern when betting on the strikeout increase to hold, but he’s firmly within the same tier as Wacha overall.
Mic Fleek, or the most boring pitcher in baseball
Out is John Lackey and brought in to replace him on a five-year, $80-million contract is Mike Leake, no stranger to the NL Central. Leake has posted three incredibly consistent seasons in terms of surface stats but saw his swinging strike and strikeout rates dip while his FIP rose to 4.20, the highest it’s been since 2012.
From a Cardinals perspective, adding another steady, 200-inning arm who does other things (defense, hitting) well is a nice addition, although one they paid a pretty penny to land. For fantasy owners, it’s a mild disappointment such a boring fantasy arm landed in such a cherry situation. His floor is such that he’s definitely inside the top-100 starters, with a ceiling that keeps him outside the top-70 or so.
Who’s waiting for Garcia to get hurt
Jaime Garcia holds down the No. 5 and token lefty slots for the Cards, with the 29-year-old looking to build on his bounce-back 2015. In 129.2 innings over 20 starts, he managed a 2.43 ERA and 3.00 FIP by limiting walks and stranding, like, every base runner thanks to a 61.2-percent groundball rate, a good strategy for overcoming a pedestrian strikeout rate. He also shook off the homer problems he had in back-to-back small-sample seasons, limiting opposing hitters to hard contact just 27.1 percent of the time by keeping them guessing at his five different offerings.
When he’s pitching, Garcia’s a slightly better fantasy option than Leake, but there’s little to suggest he’s going to give St. Louis 30 starts. Luckily, because this is the Cardinals, they’ve got reinforcements.
Fellow lefty Tyler Lyons seems primed to start the season in the bullpen as the team’s second lefty and emergency starter, and the 28-year-old proved reliable as a swingman a season ago. He has a solid strikeout-to-walk profile but doesn’t keep the ball on the ground and has been susceptible to the long-ball in consecutive seasons at Triple-A and in the majors. Missing bats and limiting free passes are important, though, and Lyons would be a worthwhile addition in some spot-starts or if he was set to enter the rotation for a longer stretch.
Perhaps more interesting as call-up candidates are a pair of southpaws who saw a bit of major-league action in 2015. Marco Gonzales was able to make his way back from an injury that cost him two months at Triple-A to make a spot start for the Cardinals, getting pasted in 2.2 innings. His minor-league numbers weren’t strong, either, with a depressed strikeout rate and some terrible batted-ball variance, but there’s enough in the 24-year-old’s profile for him to remain a top-five prospect in the organization, even if he’d only project as an average starter if called upon. Joining him in the top-five is Tim Cooney, the 25-year-old who showed well in six starts last year but is battling through shoulder weakness to start the season. Gonzalez is the prefered opportunity for fantasy owners.
From the right side, Matt Bowman lurks as a Rule 5 pick who could transition to the bullpen or be lost entirely, and a terrible 2015 (a 12-percent strikeout rate in 140 Triple-A innings) doesn’t inspire confidence in his fantasy value. Jeremy Hefner (on the Tommy John comeback trail), J.C. Sulbaran (probably time to try him as a reliever), and Deck McGuire (decent Triple-A rebound as a swingman) also theoretically exist. The Cards also claimed lefty Jayson Aquino, and he’s on the 40-man roster but is yet to pitch above Double-A and spent last season in High-A across three organizations.
A name to keep an eye on later in the year is Alex Reyes, a 21-year-old who was popped with a 50-game suspension in the offseason but who posted ridiculous strikeout rates while shooting through the minors last year. He’d be a worthwhile add if he hit the radar as a late-season spot-starter.
Rosenthal remains installed as one of the top-10 fantasy closers in baseball. With high-90s heat and 10 MPH separation with his changeup, he only needs to flirt with additional offerings (a sparsely-used slider and curve) to be successful. Any concern his 2014 was the beginning of a downward trend was put to rest in 2015, as Rosenthal was used slightly less and produced the best ERA (2.10) of his career, with his walk rate recovering and his FIP settling in at 2.42. There aren’t a great number of closers better than the 25-year-old.
Bringing the gap to Rosenthal will be a solid group of righties and left-hander extraordinaire Kevin Siegrist. Siegrist had one of the best debuts in recent memory in 2013 but was hammered in 2014, so it was encouraging to see him turn in a 2.17 ERA and 2.91 FIP in his first complete season last year. With a 28.9-percent strikeout rate and the ability to get righties out, he might get the first call if Rosenthal went down or needed a day off, even as a lefty who’s leaned on heavily by his manager (81 appearances). He got six spot-saves a season ago, and the strikeouts could be enough to make him worth owning from the outset in deeper formats. (Dean Kiekhefer is the third lefty in the organization after Siegrist and Lyons, by the way, but he’s a control artist all the way, off the fantasy radar.)
Should Mike Matheny opt not to go with his trusted lefty, Samuel Tuivailala could be the name to know, even if he doesn’t crack the roster to start the season. The 23-year-old possesses serious heat and has posted strong strikeout rates throughout the minors, and if he can put his control issues behind him, he could figure into the later innings by mid-season.
In the meantime, stalwarts Jordan Walden, Jonathan Broxton, and Seth Maness will fill out the middle innings. Walden lost nearly two MPH off of his heater before succumbing to shoulder problems after 10.2 innings in 2015, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the season and has struck out nearly 29 percent of batters he’s faced in his career. Broxton is, well, Broxton, and should see his ERA slip back below 4.00 thanks to a resurgent strikeout rate, though it’d just be a matter of time if he were given the ninth inning. Maness is a heavy-inning ground-ball specialist who’s a better real-life reliever than fantasy option.
And just to keep things interesting, the Cardinals added Korean righty Seung-Hwan Oh, who doesn’t even have a player page yet but has two awesome nicknames – Stone Buddha and The Final Boss. I can’t pretend to know what his fantasy potential might be, but I’m definitely rooting for Oh-mega.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.