TCN St. Louis Cardinals 2021 Top Story #5: Stopgap Pitchers Come Through

photo: J.A. Happ (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

In the 2020-2021 offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals made a big bet on their returning pitching depth – a gamble that fell short of realization.

Despite the extreme pressure the heavily-disrupted 2020 season put on their staff and an ample and price-depressed free agent market, the Cardinals made no pitching additions from the outside in preparation for the 2021 season. Their only notable move was the re-signing of career Cardinal Adam Wainwright.

As the pitching ranks narrowed due to injury during the first half and available minor league options were exhausted, something had to be done. The response was to add five veteran pitchers in June and July, all of whom contributed to the team’s strong second half. Three were starters and two worked out of the bullpen.


In an ideal season, the five regular members of the rotation would log around 32 starts each. However, that isn’t how 2021 evolved to say the least. Only the most unlikely candidate on paper, 39-year-old Wainwright, dodged the injured list, making his 32 starts.

On the other hand, due to time on the IL, ace Jack Flaherty had just 15 starts, one more than Carlos Martinez. Lefty Kwang-hyun Kim took the ball to open 21 games and Miles Mikolas was healthy for just nine starts.

Youngsters tried to step up to fill the gap, but generally fell short of expectations. John Gant was given 14 starts before being traded mid-season. Johan Oviedo made 13 starts but spent much of the second half back with Triple-A Memphis. Jake Woodford was solid in many of his eight starts but worked primarily out of the bullpen. Daniel Ponce de Leon was given just two starts before his banishment to the pen and later release.

It is not exaggeration to assert that without a trio of in-season additions of veteran starting pitchers, who collectively ate up 162 1/3 innings over 31 starts, the Cardinals may not have made the Wild Card Game.

Wade LeBlanc

The first to be acquired was 36-year-old left-hander Wade LeBlanc, signed to a free-agent contract on June 17. LeBlanc is a veteran of 13 seasons in the majors since 2008. The 6-2, 195-pounder had appeared in 246 career games (121 starts) with eight different teams.

With St. Louis, the well-traveled LeBlanc joined his fourth organization in just two months (and 14th overall), having most recently pitched for the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers before his release. Expectations were low, but LeBlanc paid no attention.

LeBlanc went on to make 12 appearances, including eight starts, for St. Louis. He contributed a 3.61 ERA and -0.1 fWAR before suffering a season-ending elbow injury on August 12.

J.A. Happ

As the Cardinals gave up on Gant, they flipped the right-hander along with prospect Evan Sisk to the Minnesota Twins on July 30. The return was lefty J.A. Happ.

Happ, 38, is a veteran of 15 big league seasons since his 2007 debut. Before joining St. Louis, he had a career mark of 128-98 with a 4.13 ERA in 343 career games (317 starts). However, his recent results were concerning – a 6.77 ERA in 19 starts for the Twins just prior to the trade. The Cardinals received cash from Minnesota to offset some of Happ’s remaining salary of $2.6 million.

In 11 starts with St. Louis, Happ went 5-2 with a 4.00 ERA, providing 0.4 fWAR.

Jon Lester

Later the same day they acquired Happ, St. Louis sent outfielder Lane Thomas to the Washington Nationals for long-time nemesis Jon Lester. The former Chicago Cubs starter had a dreary 5.02 ERA in 16 starts for the Nationals prior to the trade. The 37-year-old veteran of 16 big-league seasons joined St. Louis with a career win-loss record of 196-116 with a 3.64 ERA.

As a Cardinal, Lester made 12 starts, posting a 4-1 record, a 4.36 ERA and an fWAR of 0.0. The left-hander received about three-quarters of a million dollars for the remainder of 2021.

After their contributions of 2021, the three veterans became free agents following the season. None are yet signed for 2022.


Despite an excessive walk rate, St. Louis’ pen held together in the first half behind the big three of Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera and Giovanni Gallegos. However, veteran Andrew Miller was undependable all year long, and the others became less effective as the innings mounted.

The I-55 shuttle was busy but was tapped out due to injuries to Kodi Whitley, Junior Fernandez and Ryan Helsley and no new relievers emerging on the scene. Again, no veteran reinforcements had been added the prior winter.

Badly in need of walk-free, dependable innings from the pen, the Cardinals added a pair off the reject pile who became major contributors in the second half.

Luis Garcia

Right-hander Luis Garcia was signed to a Major League contract as a free agent on July 9 after having been released by the New York Yankees earlier in the week. When joining the Cardinals, the 34-year-old had spent eight seasons in the majors with four clubs. He appeared in 326 career games (all but four as a reliever) with a career mark of 14-17 with a 4.26 ERA in 315 innings pitched.

As a Cardinal, Garcia appeared in 34 games, logging a 3.24 ERA and earning 0.7 fWAR.

T.J. McFarland

T.J. McFarland, 32, was signed to a split minor league contract on July 1 following his release from Rochester, the Triple-A affiliate of Washington, and was assigned to Memphis. After several weeks with the Redbirds, the left-hander was added to 40-man and 26-man active rosters on July 16.

When joining St. Louis, the 6-3, 200-pound ground ball specialist had complied a career mark of 20-14 and a 4.08 ERA in 285 games (3 starts) with three MLB clubs.

As a Cardinal, McFarland went 4-1 with a 2.56 ERA (38 2/3 IP) and 21 strikeouts in 38 appearances. His fWAR was 0.3. The left-hander induced 12 double plays to establish a new Cardinals reliever record after the All-Star break (since 1974), which also tied for most double plays among Major League relievers throughout the duration of last season.

Both relievers became free agents following the season, Garcia moved on to San Diego on a two-year deal, while McFarland re-signed with the Cardinals. He is set to receive $2.5 million plus the opportunity for another $500,000 in appearance incentives in 2022.

Before the current lockout, St. Louis signed just one incremental pitcher, starter Steven Matz, so have work to do when the game resumes – if they want to avoid the 2021 pitching depth problem they allowed to happen and had to scramble mightily to try to amend.

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