As first reported last week by Ken Rosenthal and Paul Morosi of Fox Sports, the St. Louis Cardinals are currently exploring options to add depth to their pitching staff. They don’t appear to be aiming low. So far they have been name-dropped in trades for Cole Hamels and David Price and called a potential bidder in the Max Scherzer sweepstakes. James Shields’s name was briefly thrown around as well. I’m not going to get into which move is more likely, if any, nor which would most benefit the organization in the long term. That’s an exercise often involving a combination of math and knowing what the future holds – neither of which fall into my area of expertise.

Rather, let’s focus on the Why because it’s uncharacteristic for the normally frugal Cardinals to be even modestly involved with a free agent who could command over $200 million like Scherzer. There’s a meme floating around amongst Cardinals fans, of which I am one, that their pursuit of one of these high-profile arms is a direct result of the Chicago Cubs signing Jon Lester in December. That is to say, it’s a reactionary, “the Cubs are in our heads” move. And last Friday this narrative went mainstream. Bernie Miklasz, ace sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote:

“This one won’t go over well, and I’m not trying to troll anyone here. But I believe the Cubs’ expedited rebuilding program under team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer is making the Cardinals a little nervous. If indeed the Cardinals view the Cubs as a rising power, then that’s another reason to make a big move here to strengthen your roster for the long haul.”

He’s right, that won’t go over well. Cardinals fans can be a shifty bunch and we don’t always like being confronted with the idea that the NL Central isn’t run on our terms. But his last sentence is right on point if not to be confused with common sense. I’m in no position to know Cardinals GM John Mozeliak’s motivation for pursuing rotation depth but for the sake of argument, let’s assume the Cubs do have his attention. Then I agree with Miklasz, time to do something. The all-wild card 2014 World Series notwithstanding, the ideal set-up for postseason success is winning the division and not being saddled with a random, one game play-in. Naturally, that means keeping an eye on division foes and reacting accordingly. But there’s likely more going on here.

To say nothing of a proverbial closing window on the Cardinals current run, the November Jason Heyward trade made clear they are focused on winning in 2015. Their 2014 season was nearly derailed when they didn’t have an adequate contingency plan for an injured Yadier Molina (they still don’t), and the uncertainty surrounding the health and durability of the pitching staff in 2015 is a legitimate concern. Let’s look at their likely starting rotation, as projected by ZiPS, if the season were to begin today[1]:

  1. Adam Wainwright: Entering age-34 season; pitched 227.0 innings in 2014; underwent surgery in October to shave cartilage off his elbow which was a lingering problem in the second-half of the season, including the postseason.
  2. Lance Lynn: Entering age-28 season; pitched 203.2 innings in 2014.
  3. John Lackey: Age 36; pitched 198.0 innings in 2014; missed a start in September due to a “dead arm.”
  4. Michael Wacha: Entering age-24 season; pitched 107.0 innings in 2014; had a 68-game DL stint in 2014 with a rare shoulder condition (the same condition that afflicted pitcher Brandon McCarthy) and had a noticeably less-effective changeup – his best pitch – when he returned.
  5. Carlos Martinez: Entering age-24 season; pitched 89.1 innings in 2014; 32.1 innings pitched as a starting pitcher with a 4.45 ERA, 1.639 WHIP, and 9.5 SO9; 57.0 innings pitched in relief with a 3.79 ERA, 1.281 WHIP, and 7.9 SO9.

If the Injury Gods are on the Cardinals side in 2015, that’s a pretty imposing rotation, even with Martinez still being an unknown. It’s certainly enough to vie for the top spot in the NL Central. But I doubt that’s a gamble Mozeliak would prefer to take. So once age, injuries, and inexperience are factored in, a casual glance at that rotation shows that Lynn is the only one without an arguable question mark next to his name. The fact that Lynn is also heading into his first year of arbitration likely makes the prospect of adding another arm even more enticing.

So yes, the team on the north end of I-55 added possibly the biggest prize of the offseason to an already formidable young cast of talent; but if the Cardinals make a splash of their own they’re likely safeguarding against both outside threats and those from within.

[1] The Cardinals will also possibly have oft-injured Jaime Garcia and promising – yet unproven – rookie Marco Gonzales in the mix.

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