As of Tuesday's 10-1 drubbing at the hands of Cleveland, the St. Louis Cardinals have lost six in a row and eight of their last nine. In large measure because of that span, they've seen what was a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL Central on May 19 turn into third place and a 3 1/2-game deficit by June 9. Mike Shildt's club is lugging around a minus-27 run differential, and the SportsLine Projection System gives them just a 21.3 percent chance of making the postseason.
The recent failures aren't reducible to one thing, but we'll nonetheless note that the Cardinal pitching staff has an ERA of 7.38 over the last nine games. That run of grim numbers points at a larger problem -- the rotation.
Right now, the Cardinals rank 11th in the NL in rotation ERA and last in rotation K/BB ratio. So the results have been far from optimal for a team with designs on a third straight trip to the postseason. However, the current state of the Cardinal rotation suggests that things could get even worse on this front. Consider:
- Ace Jack Flaherty is on the IL with an oblique strain, and he might not be back until after the All-Star break.
- Veteran right-hander Miles Mikolas is on the IL with a forearm issue, and that's after he missed the entire 2020 season after undergoing surgery to repair the flexor tendon in that same forearm. He's pitched just four innings this season.
- Left-hander Kwang Hyun Kim is on the IL with back tightness.
- Lest we forget, right-hander Dakota Hudson and his 3.17 career ERA will miss all of 2021 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
As for what's left, it's not entirely inspiring at the moment. Adam Wainwright is 39 and has an ERA+ of 90 this season. John Gant has been excellent, at least until his most recent start, but he's averaging less than five innings per start. The bafflingly inconsistent Carlos Martinez has a 6.21 ERA, and stop-gap Johan Oviedo hasn't been much better. In other words, it's entirely possible things are going to get worse in the St. Louis rotation.
Internal solutions are hard to come by at the moment. Austin Gomber was dealt to the Rockies in the Nolan Arenado swap, and injuries to Jordan Hicks and Kodi Whitley mean the overtaxed bullpen can't really spare a Jake Woodford or a Daniel Ponce de Leon or a Genesis Cabrera as a rotation filler. Top starter prospects Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson have failed to impress at Triple-A Memphis this season, so an emergency promotion seems unlikely for either.
All of this leaves the trade market. We're winding our way toward the July 30 trade deadline, and it's becoming clearer by the day that the Cardinals -- assuming they're serious about winning the division -- badly need to land an impact starting pitcher.
Max Scherzer is the most tantalizing potential target. He's a native of St. Louis, and even though he's 36 he's proved he's still capable of pitching at a Cy Young level. As well, his Nationals don't look like contenders in the NL East, and the fact that Scherzer is in his walk year increases the incentives to move him (assuming he's willing to accept a trade). On the other hand, the Nats under GM Mike Rizzo are a "damn the torpedoes" kind of team, which means he may not sell if there's even a faint hope of contention. If he does decide to dangle Scherzer, it probably won't be until something close to the zero hour. The Cardinals may need help much sooner.
Jon Gray of the Rockies would normally be a fitting target, but he first must prove his elbow is healthy. The Tigers' Matthew Boyd is certainly an appealing target, and Detroit may be willing to move him in June as opposed to waiting. Current AL ERA leader Kyle Gibson of the Rangers will almost certainly regress to an extent, but he's a name to monitor. Should the Twins decide they're out of it -- they probably are -- then Michael Pineda and Kenta Maeda (once he returns from the IL as early as next week) may be on the radar. Dylan Bundy and Andrew Heaney of the Angels are two other names. John Means could be a deadline darling if the O's decide to move him and he recovers from shoulder fatigue in a timely manner.
Names abound, and the Cardinals know they need at least one of them. The challenge is for the front office to determine whether the situation is urgent enough now to pursue a deal or whether they might be able to wait on a needle-mover like Scherzer. Recent events suggest the team president John Mozeliak should probably consider the situation to be urgent.
No team figures to run away with the NL Central this season, but the Cardinals are growing increasingly desperate for help in the rotation. That help doesn't appear to be on the way unless they go out and get it via trade.