photo: Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty (Jeff Curry/Imagn)
By definition, Major League Baseball team rosters are ever-changing, yet only a handful of teams are able to execute these continual changes while remaining competitive year after year.
The St. Louis Cardinals are one of these few organizations, following a consistent strategy, starting at the very top of the management chain. Yet, in the last three years, the final result fell short of expectations.
“While we haven’t actually made it to the playoffs the past three years, we’ve been extremely close,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. told the Post-Dispatch last October. “It’s not like we’ve done a teardown and rebuild and we’ll see you in four years.”
Still, much has changed in an orderly fashion over the last 12 months, including the trade of outfielder Tommy Pham and the ascension of Harrison Bader, followed by the acquisition and signing of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Yet perhaps the most striking changes have been among the starting five, as the Cardinals went outside the organization to add a stabilizing force to a rotation in transition as younger pitchers worked their way into prominence.
As a result of recent events, the two most notable starting pitching assignments of the Cardinals season have shifted from 2018 to 2019, with Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty stepping into Opening Day roles formerly held by Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright.
Miles Mikolas replaces Carlos Martinez as Opening Day starter
One year ago, Miles Mikolas was still a relative unknown. In the eyes of some, he was a curiosity who once swallowed a live lizard on camera apparently because he could, but who eventually had to head to Japan to continue to pitch. There was disagreement over how his subsequent overseas success would translate to Major League Baseball.
Carlos Martinez, on the other hand, seemed on top of the world, ready to lead the rotation for as many as the next six seasons while under team control. At just 26 years of age, the right-hander had already logged more than four years as a major leaguer and was coming off a standout 2017. That season, Martinez surpassed 200 innings for the first time while leading the National League in shutouts and tying for tops in the NL in complete games.
With Adam Wainwright heading into the twilight of his career and injured to start the season, the choice of Martinez to take the ball in the 2018 opener in New York was the obvious choice. In fact, it was his second career Opening Day start and well-deserved. After all, in our annual assessment here at The Cardinal Nation, Martinez had been the Cardinals top starter in each of the three prior seasons – 2015, 2016 and 2017.
As most readers already know, 2018 turned until a season of uncertainty for Martinez. After a stellar 1.43 in his six April starts, a May lat strain was the first bump. The pitcher who returned in June posted a 6.75 ERA that month. By late July, Martinez was back on the disabled list with an oblique strain said to be minor. After returning for one shortened start, he was placed back on the DL with what was called a right shoulder strain. When Martinez returned in late August, it was determined that a move to the bullpen would be the best way to manage his shoulder and once there, he soon transitioned into the closer’s role, at which he was effective.
That shoulder ailment continues to this day, leaving the timing of Martinez’ return and his 2019 role up in the air.
Into that 2018 starting void stepped Mikolas, who quickly became the most consistent member of the Cardinals’ starting five. In fact, he was the only starter to remain in the rotation the entire season, making 32 starts and pitching 200 2/3 innings, while delivering a team-low 2.93 ERA.
His quality start total of 20 was double that of the next-closest starter, Flaherty. Mikolas averaged 6 1/3 innings per outing, the only Cardinals pitcher to pitch into the seventh inning on average. He had both the lowest walk rate among starters (not just for St. Louis, but all of the National League) and the rotation’s best strikeout to walk ratio (fourth-best in the NL).
Perhaps most impressively, St. Louis came out on top in three of every four games (24 of 32) Mikolas pitched for a .750 winning percentage. Personally, he won 18 of 22 decisions, while no other rotation member had more than eight victories (again Flaherty). His winning percentage of .818 led qualifying National League starters in 2018. Mikolas went 10-0 on the road, the best single-season away record of any pitcher in Cardinals history. At mid-season, he was St. Louis’ deserved National League All-Star pitching representative.
Mikolas’ fWAR (Wins Above Replacement according to Fangraphs) of 4.3 topped every pitcher signed as a free agent across Major League Baseball that off-season, besting the likes of Yu Darvish (0.2), Jake Arrieta (2.0) and Shohei Ohtani (2.8 fWAR as a hitter and 1.0 on the mound), all of whom make substantially more money.
This spring, the Cardinals awarded Mikolas with a four-year contract totaling $68 million covering the 2020 through 2023 seasons and awarded him with the Opening Day start in Milwaukee.
On the other hand, Martinez is not with the team. He is reportedly back in St. Louis, having started over in his spring training build up, while heading toward an uncertain future.
Jack Flaherty to start the home opener over Adam Wainwright
Though Wainwright was not ready for Opening Day 2018, his return from a spring training hamstring injury was timed such that the veteran could start St. Louis’ home opener.
Replacing him initially was Flaherty. In fact, the same move would occur three times during the season. As Wainwright’s 2018 digressed into another year of injury and misfortune, Flaherty was the primary beneficiary – and the rookie ran with it.
Midway through 2018 spring training, there had seemed no room for Flaherty in St. Louis, so he was sent to minor league camp. However, as Wainwright headed for what would be his first of three disabled list stops, Flaherty was recalled from the back fields and given the start in St. Louis’ fifth game of the season. Following his five-inning, one run outing, he was optioned out as Wainwright was activated.
Flaherty returned from Memphis to make another spot start on April 28 at Pittsburgh, again filling in for Wainwright, who went back on the DL. Though he was returned to Triple-A afterward, Flaherty was back with St. Louis for good on May 15, when – you guessed it – Wainwright went on the shelf for a third time.
While in Memphis, Flaherty took care of business, as well, logging a 2.21 ERA in five starts while fanning 41 in 31 2/3 innings.
With former ace Wainwright out for an extended period, Flaherty was able to start every fifth day and soon solidified his rotation spot. He went on to make a total of 28 starts for St. Louis in his rookie season and concluded by placing fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Wainwright returned as rosters expanded last September and was encouraged enough by his results that he asked to return for a 15th season with St. Louis in 2019. The club offered him a much lower salary with significant incentives, which he accepted.
Both Flaherty and Wainwright opened the 2019 regular season in the starting rotation.
However, when the decision to name the starting pitcher for the home opener was made, the mantle was passed from the healthy Wainwright to the young gun Flaherty. That will officially occur on Friday, April 5 when Flaherty takes the ball against the San Diego Padres at Busch Stadium.
If 2019 turns out to be Flaherty’s only home opener start, it may be because he moves to the very top of the rotation in the future. He has that potential.
So there you have it. An orderly transition in the Cardinals rotation has Mikolas and Flaherty awarded the signature starts of 2019, replacing Martinez and Wainwright.
Do not write any of this in ink, however, as the next changes are almost certainly just ahead.
Yet the expectation that the Cardinals will return to the playoffs remains the constant, now with Mikolas and Flaherty leading the way, supported by Wainwright and Martinez.
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