June 15, 2024

For all of the complicated data gathering systems now ubiquitous in major league training camps, many pitchers still base a great deal of their spring around their ability to count to five.

That’s the number of pitchers in a typical starting rotation and the number of slots teams need to have fully firmed up by the time camp breaks.

For the St. Louis Cardinals, those five are Kyle Gibson, Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas. They know it, the staff knows it, and perhaps most importantly, the other pitchers in camp know it. From there, there are questions to be answered about both depth and road blocks.

“You’re always an injury or two away from [depth] being truly tested,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “But when you look at our starting five, we feel pretty confident about that group.”

That leaves left-handers Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson, both of whom have spent the last two seasons bouncing back and forth from the minors to the majors and the rotation to the bullpen, in the lurch.

Liberatore is 24 and has made 53 starts at Triple-A over the last three seasons. Thompson, 26, has made 38 starts at that level over the same stretch.

Both are former first round picks, Liberatore for Tampa Bay and Thompson for the Cardinals. Both have had opportunities to assert themselves as rotation stalwarts, and neither has fully seized it.

That uncertainty is a large part of why the Cardinals felt it necessary to acquire three outside starting pitchers, and it will define a great deal of their work this spring.

“Those decisions you don’t have to make until later,” manager Oliver Marmol said of the playing time path for the duo. “You can definitely build them up to be able to throw multiple innings and work them as starters, and as you get closer [to the season], you make the decision of where they’re going to provide the most help.”

Both Liberatore and Thompson want to start. That hardly needs to be asked of them. Both came through the minors as starters, both have pride in their craft and a desire to prove themselves, and both know how the economics of baseball work – starting pays better.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Matt Liberatore throws a pitch to the Houston Astros during the seventh inning of a spring training baseball game, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Julio Cortez AP

The important question, then, comes in discovering how they would frame an assignment to the bullpen, and whether they’re able to compartmentalize whatever inevitable disappointment accompanies that move and still pitch well enough to help.

“It can be scary and intimidating if you let it be,” Liberatore said about the uncertainty at this juncture of his career. “But at the end of the day, when I step on a mound, my job is to get outs, whether that’s making a start or coming out of the bullpen. I just think you have to do some work to be able to separate the feelings from the business side of things.”

“Just kind of having to treat the whole offseason as [if] we have no starters,” Thompson added. “Just really kind of staying in my lane. This is what I need to do to be ready as a starter, and if team spots dictate what direction that goes, then we’ll go that direction.”

Liberatore described an intentional winter process with his trainers, advisors and family where he laid out two parallel mental tracks. Praising the communication from pitching coach Dusty Blake, he said that he thought through what he would need to do as a starter and what he would need to do as a reliever, almost preparing an emotional cushion that might shield him from pitching let down.

“Being more proactive about putting plans in place and systems in place that support various roles,” he said.

Last season was the first time Liberatore pitched out of the bullpen with the Cardinals for an extended stretch, and he saw success. His batting average allowed to opponents was more than cut in half, and he saw a nearly 300 point improvement in OPS against. Strikeouts were up, walks were down, and his fastball played at a higher velocity which enhanced the effectiveness of his breaking ball.

Thompson, conversely, finished the 2022 season seemingly ready to seize a high-leverage relief role in 2023, only to see himself demoted as the team scrambled to cover innings. The Cardinals then declared he would remain in the minors for the rest of the year to build back up as a starter, only to abandon that plan as the season went upside down and pitchers were shipped off to new teams.

It was difficult, he said, to try to build mid-stream rather than start with an innings load and throttle down.

Said Thompson, “I think, personally, it’d be easier if we go down that road to work our way back rather than, OK, I’ve only been built up for an inning, an inning plus.”

Unlike Liberatore, Thompson said he didn’t spare much intellectual bandwidth this winter to mentally preparing for a bullpen stint. If it happens, it happens, but his intent is to start, and his mindset is bent in that direction accordingly.

Mozeliak disagreed with the suggestion that this spring could be career-defining for the duo in terms of the roles in which they land, and there remains every chance that one or both could start. Inevitably, at least one starting pitcher leaves spring with an injury, and the Cardinals have already conceded that they’re considering opening the season with a six-man rotation based on their unusually intense schedule as they head west from Florida.


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