Cardinals capture series win over Angels, but roster construction concerns remain

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — The St. Louis Cardinals did what they needed to do during their three-day visit to Angel Stadium.

They took two of three from the feeble Los Angeles Angels, who entered the series with a 15-26 record, one game worse than the Cardinals. An eight-run seventh inning propelled them to victory in a bullpen game on Monday, and after coughing up a five-run lead on Tuesday, they rallied in the later innings for a comeback win. After a dismal series against the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis somewhat righted their ship, keeping them afloat for another week.

But are they built to last?

Let’s take a look at Monday’s game, for example. Despite Matthew Liberatore finding success as a multi-inning left-handed arm in relief, the Cardinals opted to start him in a bullpen game for the second time this year. He allowed four earned runs over 3 1/3 innings but was let off the hook after a valiant comeback by the offense.

The problem is not that Liberatore was chosen as a spot starter. He was drafted as a starting pitcher and is versatile enough to slot in on short notice. The problem is that he shouldn’t have to.

When the Cardinals pieced out their offseason last winter, they rightfully emphasized pitching. To John Mozeliak’s credit, the offseason additions he brought in, both as starters and relievers, have been largely successful. Sonny Gray has dazzled atop the rotation and Kyle Gibson has made for a strong supporting act behind him. Rarely have the Cardinals not been in ball games when Gray, Gibson or Lance Lynn take the mound. Andrew Kittredge and Ryan Fernandez are valuable assets in the bullpen. Keynan Middleton, who began a rehab assignment with Double-A Springfield on Tuesday, isn’t far behind.

One could argue Mozeliak’s pitching blueprint could hardly have played out better. Because the starting pitching has been able to regularly log at least six innings an outing, and because the bullpen is so vastly improved, St. Louis has been able to essentially lock down wins with their relievers.

With a lead, manager Oli Marmol can opt for the right-handed Kittredge or left-handed JoJo Romero based on the opposing lineup. He can do the same when trailing, using Fernandez or Liberatore. And once the game gets to Ryan Helsley, who with his 1.35 ERA and 13 saves has been one of the league’s best closers, it’s basically a wrap. The bullpen has been so dependable that the Cardinals were able to rest a struggling Giovanny Gallegos (who is now on the injured list with a shoulder impingement), someone they were counting on for high-leverage spots.

But by plugging Liberatore into the rotation as a spot starter, the Cardinals are subtracting value from their strongest area. For the second time this season, St. Louis opted to start Liberatore in a bullpen game with a pitch limit of 50 because they had no other viable option. Essentially, they took an important piece from their most successful portion of the roster and made the rotation and the bullpen weaker in the process. And yet, after being without Steven Matz for two full weeks, the Cardinals have yet to find a consistent answer as to who will take his place in the rotation. The Cardinals will honor the off day on Thursday and will start Kyle Gibson on Friday against the Boston Red Sox with Miles Mikolas slated for Saturday. They do not have a starter listed for Sunday.

Some explanation as to how the Cardinals got here should be provided. Liberatore entered spring training alongside Zack Thompson competing for the sixth-starter role. When Gray missed the first two starts of the season with a hamstring strain, St. Louis decided both Liberatore and Thompson would make the Opening Day roster, Thompson as the No. 5 starter and Liberatore in the bullpen. But Thompson struggled to maintain velocity — his fastball dropped nearly 5 mph, topping out at 91 mph. When Gray returned, Thompson was optioned to Triple-A Memphis. The Cardinals attributed the drop in velocity to a drop in Thompson’s weight. He’s now in the midst of a lengthy recovery program as he works to build his strength and arsenal back up, and is no longer an option to spot start.

The Cardinals hoped they would not need a sixth starter for the next few weeks, while Thompson and Andre Pallante iron out their kinks and build up from an innings perspective. When Matz felt his lower back tighten up in between starts in late April, he decided to push through it. This is common practice — players play through general tightness and soreness on a near-daily basis.

Except when Matz took that next start it was clear he wasn’t right. He lasted fewer than four innings and landed on the 15-day IL with a protruding disk in his lower back. Matz was initially given an injection, with a return to baseball after a couple of weeks the best-case scenario. Instead, after his bullpen session last week, Matz ended up needing a second injection, meaning he’ll miss at least a month from his first missed start, if not more.

Now St. Louis is scrambling to find a fill-in and has no sound answer. That Liberatore was their best option isn’t a shot at him or his performance. It’s an indictment on both the 40-man roster and the pitching development in Triple A. Thompson and Pallante aren’t stretched out to start (neither are they mechanically sound enough currently to do so) and the Cardinals don’t want to rush up prospects like Sem Robberse, Adam Kloffenstein or Gordon Graceffo (and they aren’t knocking on the door based on their numbers anyway).

“(Liberatore) gives us our best chance,” Marmol said repeatedly before Monday’s game. “He’s the better pitcher.”

Concerns on the bench

The holes in the roster aren’t limited to the pitching side, either. Let’s take a look at the Cardinals bench.

St. Louis is without two of its most valuable assets. Tommy Edman is progressing (albeit slowly) after complications from offseason wrist surgery. He’s working through his swing program and has hit all of his benchmarks but remains far from a rehab assignment. Willson Contreras’ freak accident has sidelined him likely until the All-Star break.

But most of the currently rostered names were not part of the organization’s major-league plans this year. Michael Siani was supposed to serve as a defensive replacement, now he’s the starting center fielder. Alec Burleson, Dylan Carlson, Iván Herrera and Matt Carpenter were supposed to serve as role players; instead, they’re seeing daily action.

The 40-man names in Triple A (Luken Baker, José Fermín, Alfonso Rivas) are not top prospects, nor are they anything more than organizational depth pieces from a roster standpoint. Prospects Thomas Saggese and Victor Scott II certainly have potential but neither is ready for the major leagues — and the Cardinals saw this already when Scott was rushed to the majors three days before Opening Day out of need. Jordan Walker, optioned to the minors in mid-April, will remain there as he works to regain both feel and confidence with his swing.

With the way Marmol’s lineup is constructed, there have been several instances in which his only right-handed bench bat is his backup catcher, Pedro Pagés. Marmol has been forced to burn his designated hitter several times this season to play a matchup with opposing hitters, in part because the Cardinals are carrying seven left-handed hitters. Many of them are one-dimensional (Brandon Crawford, for example, plays once a week as the backup shortstop) or are underperforming (the at-bats have looked better lately, but Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan all have an OPS under .700).

The absence of productive right-handed bats showed up in Tuesday’s game, when Marmol started four lefties against left-hander Reid Detmers, even with switch-hitting Carlson getting the start in right field and Carpenter getting the night off. Left-handed Burleson, who was on the cusp of making the roster out of spring, batted fifth. Again, this is not a slight at Burleson — whose go-ahead two-run home run in the seventh inning made the difference in St. Louis’ 7-6 win, and whose overall play has been strong of late. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a fourth outfielder batting fifth against the same-handed pitcher on any playoff-caliber major-league roster.

They weren’t expected to be World Series contenders, but the Cardinals certainly expected to be better than this. Their starting core has struggled as a unit, and yes, it is ultimately the manager and his staff’s responsibility to ensure they get the most out of their players. But the team’s true problems run much deeper than that.

The Cardinals take the field every day hoping Band-Aids will stop the bleeding. That strategy was successful over a three-game stint in Anaheim. But is it sustainable for the entirety of a season?

That’s the real question for the Cardinals this year.

(Photo of Iván Herrera and Matthew Liberatore: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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