Flaherty Injury Raises Rotation Questions

For only the third time this season, Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals was pulled from his start before pitching in the sixth inning. Flaherty sustained an injury while batting in the top half of the inning–something that National League starters inexplicably still do. Flaherty underwent tests on Tuesday and the team has placed him on the IL. After he left the game with tightness in his left side, the game unraveled for the Cardinals. If Flaherty misses significant time, then the season will likely unravel as well. So far this year, the Cardinals are a sub-.500 team in games that he doesn’t start. Flaherty is the undisputed staff ace and outside of an Arenado injury, it’s difficult to imagine a more concerning absence from the Cardinals active roster. With Flaherty injured, the rotation’s already obvious weaknesses become even more pronounced.

Mikolas Won’t Return Immediately

Miles Mikolas left his lone start this season after throwing four innings and allowing one earned run. It was his first start since 2019 as he spent the 2020 campaign recovering from surgery on his flexor tendon. Sadly, Mikolas threw well enough to remind fans that he is just what the Cardinals rotation needs. Showing little rust, he threw 73% of his pitches for strikes and appeared to be much the same pitcher that earned a four-year contract extension following a 2018 season with a league-leading 18 wins. Last Friday the Cardinals announced that he would be out for a significant portion of the year. The plan is to shut Mikolas down for four to six weeks to let his forearm heal completely. The Cardinals foresee him pitching again sometime this year, but many were anxiously awaiting his immediate return even before the Flaherty injury.

A Couple Bright Spots

The numbers for Carlos Martinez are perplexing. No one expected the “Tsunami” of 2017 to resurface. However, a 4.22 ERA that includes a fair amount of good fortune isn’t what the optimists were hoping for. On the other hand, he has been mostly good since he held the Washington Nationals to one run on April 21st. Since that game, he has an ERA under 3.00 and he even carried a no-hit bid into the seventh inning last Friday.

Despite losing his elite status some time ago, Adam Wainwright continues to find ways to get people out and remains a serviceable starter. The big concern is that he has seen one stint on the IL already this year, and it feels like he could land back on the shelf at any time. But barring physical breakdown, he could remain a solid, and sometimes spectacular, member of the rotation. None of his peripheral stats cause any concern that his 4.44 FIP or 3.95 ERA would likely balloon.

Cause for Major Concern

The same cannot be said of John Gant, current staff magician. Gant’s sterling 1.81 ERA defies all logic when combined with his 1.567 WHIP. In short, Gant keeps the bases packed–bending, but rarely breaking. All of this adds up to a pitcher with an xERA perilously close to 5.00, who is bound to regress. The Cardinals have no choice but to stick with Gant for as long as the results are there. If he can’t improve on his league-leading 31 walks this year, then the results could shift quickly. At some point, the Cardinals need him to pitch in the seventh inning, and it’s hard to imagine him having enough tricks up his sleeve to dodge big innings for much longer. Gant has notched only one quality start this season.

Generally though, Gant has gone deeper into games than Kwang-Hyun Kim. Kim has yet to finish the sixth inning in a start this year and has only taken the mound after the fifth inning on three occasions. The ERA is a respectable 3.65, and he consistently stifles opponents the first time through the order. However, his opponents’ OPS jumps from .601 in their first plate appearances to .971 the third time that they see him.

Problems Aside from Flaherty Injury

Daniel Ponce de Leon and Johan Oviedo are the only other Cardinals to get starts this year, and the results have ranged from “fine in an emergency” to “deeply troubling.” With poor performances to start games and mostly good numbers in relief, Ponce de Leon has repeatedly proven that he is better at navigating through innings from the bullpen. Oviedo is a slightly better option to start as he can generally make it through the order a couple of times, but in the very limited attempts to face hitters for the third time, he has been rocked. Neither are reasonable long-term options for this year barring major adjustments. Despite this, Oviedo is the immediate plan to replace Flaherty in the rotation.

It all adds up to a staff that needs to be bolstered. Flaherty (7), Wainwright (4), and Martinez (5) account for 16 of the team’s 17 quality starts this season. The greatest strength for any bullpen is a rotation that keeps them rested. This staff is unlikely to do that unless everything goes right.  Maybe Flaherty will be able to come back right away. Perhaps Mikolas recovers on schedule. Perhaps Wainwright continues to drink from the fountain of youth. Maybe Martinez is once again the starter that everyone believed he could be. Maybe Gant sustains his magic, and Kim starts going deeper into games. If so, the Cardinals will have an extra starting pitcher, something teams never complain about down the stretch. However, that is an awfully tall order.

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Players Mentioned:

Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, John Gant, Kwang-Hyun Kim, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Johan Oviedo