Mikolas, Kim Injuries Put Cardinals’ Shaky Rotation in Spotlight

It’s a race that currently means nothing because it hasn’t actually begun, but at this writing, the Brewers have inched ahead of the Cardinals in our projected NL Central standings, albeit by a whopping 1.3 wins, 82.1 to 80.9. It’s the kind of thing that happens as we tweak the playing time inputs based upon spring training-related news and updated assumptions, but it’s a reminder that the gap between the two teams — or really, the Central’s top four, including the Cubs (projected for 79.5 wins) and Reds (78.1 wins) — is very small. Any edge could be the difference between snagging a division title or sitting at home in October, particularly given the unlikelihood of the division generating a Wild Card participant.

In that light, the Cardinals’ rotation rates as a moderate concern, at the very least. Last year, the unit entered the season projected as the majors’ 16th best in terms of WAR, but St. Louis soon took significant hits. Just before the pandemic-delayed season got underway, the team lost Miles Mikolas for the year due to a flexor tendon strain that required surgery and Carlos Martinez to a COVID-19 diagnosis after one turn amid a season-halting outbreak, then wound up losing Dakota Hudson to Tommy John surgery late in the year. The Cardinals made the expanded playoffs in spite of their rotation, which tied for 19th in the majors (and placed 11th in the NL) with 3.1 WAR and delivered a 3.86 ERA and 4.55 FIP, with Adam Wainwright as their only starter to deliver more than 0.6 WAR, and that in his age-38 season.

Like the vast majority of teams, the Cardinals appeared as though they would benefit from a dip into the free-agent market for some rotation fortification. Yet they sat on their hands for most of the winter before re-signing Wainwright to a one-year, $8 million deal, and otherwise eschewed any outside help. They kicked the tires on James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and Jake Odorizzi, but despite saving money elsewhere — particularly by declining Kolten Wong‘s $12.5 million option, cutting Yadier Molina’s salary (from $20 million to $9 million via his new one-year deal), and flat-out stealing Nolan Arenado from the Rockies in exchange for five bodies of varying warmth while getting Colorado to pay the entirety of his $35 million 2021 salary ($20 million of it deferred) — they watched each of those starters sign elsewhere.

And so the Cardinals head into battle with basically the same rotation as before, minus Hudson. The unit is again projected to rank in the middle of the pack, 14th in our Depth Charts at 11.3 WAR. Yet already two starters are dealing with minor injury issues, and it’s tough to ignore all of the various question marks.

Atop the list of concerns is the 32-year-old Mikolas. He gave the Cardinals 64 starts, 384.2 innings, and 6.7 WAR in 2018 and ’19, his first two seasons back from Japan, but hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since October 11, 2019, and apparently won’t be ready for the start of the regular season. After receiving a pair of platelet-rich plasma injections during the 2019–20 offseason for a sore flexor tendon, he nonetheless strained it in a July 22 exhibition outing and wound up needing surgery that cost him all of the abbreviated season. He recovered enough to report to camp “full go” in mid-February and faced hitters in a live batting practice session on February 25, but shoulder stiffness led to subsequent sim games and bullpen sessions being pushed back. An MRI taken last week revealed no structural damage, but on March 12, manager Mike Shildt said that that Mikolas would be shut down for 7–10 days due to lingering soreness. At the very least, he won’t be built up to a starter’s workload by Opening Day.

On top of that, Kwang Hyun Kim was scratched from his scheduled outing this past Saturday due to tightness in his back, that after being roughed up in his first two Grapefruit League appearances. The 32-year-old lefty has already returned to throwing on flat ground, so this may be a minor bump in the road, but a setback could jeopardize his availability as well. After spending 13 years with the KBO’s SK Wyverns, he made a strong debut last year, posting a stellar 1.62 ERA in 39 innings, but his 3.88 FIP and meager 15.6% strikeout rate point to a possible step backwards. And that’s before Kim expressed concern about his 87.9-mph average fastball velocity in his spring debut, 2.2 mph below last year’s Statcast average.

The aches and pains of Mikolas and Kim leave Jack Flaherty and Wainwright as the two members of the rotation inked in for the start of the season. Flaherty, who turned in 61 starts with a 3.01 ERA, 3.64 FIP, and 7.0 WAR in 2018 and ’19, wasn’t as bad as last year’s 4.91 ERA suggests, given not only his 4.11 FIP but also a September 15 start against the Brewers in which he was tagged for two homers and nine runs in three innings. Without that particularly bad day — and who among us hasn’t been blitzed at Miller Park before? — he’d have finished with a 3.13 ERA and 3.41 FIP, thoroughly in line with his previous body of work. As it was, his 23.1% HR/FB rate, which placed in the 92nd percentile, suggests some bad luck and some positive regression ahead.

Like Kim and the sidelined Hudson, who delivered a 2.75 ERA and 4.50 FIP before undergoing Tommy John surgery the day after the season ended, Wainwright significantly outpitched his peripherals in 2020, overcoming a career-high 1.23 homers per nine to post a 3.15 ERA (his lowest mark since his abbreviated 2015 stint) and 4.11 FIP (still his best mark since ’16). All of those pitchers owe some debt to the departed Wong, but the good news is that Arenado ain’t exactly chopped liver, and Tommy Edman, who will apparently get the bulk of the work at the keystone, has put up good numbers in limited duty there. Infield defense won’t be the Cardinals’ problem.

Beyond the availability of Mikolas and the durability of the grizzled Wainwright, the real wild card of the rotation is Martinez. Since suffering a right shoulder strain on July 30, 2018, he’s made just five starts, pitching out of the bullpen upon returning in late ’18 and again in ’19. In the latter season, he didn’t debut until May 18 due to a rotator cuff strain and soon moved into the closer role, saving 24 games while pitching to a 3.17 ERA and 2.86 FIP in 48.1 innings. He began last season in the rotation but was hit hard in his July 28 start, then tested positive for COVID-19. He didn’t pitch again until September 8 and was torched in that start and three subsequent ones before being sidelined by an oblique strain, finishing with an unsightly 9.90 ERA and 6.89 FIP in 20 innings.

Despite last year’s struggles, Martinez entered spring training as a rotation candidate, and with two strong outings in a row after a dud of a debut on March 4, he’s already earned a spot, according to Shildt. Last year, Martinez’s four-seam fastball averaged just 93.3 mph, three miles per hour slower than in 2017, his last full season as a starter; he averaged 96.6 out of the bullpen in ’19. On Sunday, in his third start of the spring — a four-inning, 56-pitch outing against the Mets — he revved up to 98 mph on his penultimate pitch, that after sitting 94–96 in his final two innings. If he’s back to being anywhere close to the pitcher he was from 2015 to ’17, he’d provide a huge boost, but with six trips to the injured list in the last three years and just 86.2 innings since mid-2018, he’s no guarantee.

With Martinez in place, the battle to fill Mikolas’ spot boils down to righties John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon; the oft-injured Alex Reyes, who has totaled just 26.2 innings since undergoing 2017 Tommy John surgery, will pitch out of the bullpen in a multi-inning role, with a 100-inning target for the season. The 28-year-old Gant is considered to have the inside track despite not having made a regular-season start since late 2018. He made 64 relief appearances totaling 66.1 innings in 2019 but was limited to 17 appearances and 15 innings last year due to a recurrent groin injury and faced just five batters after September 10, twice departing without retiring a hitter. Gant has made a solid showing this spring, most recently throwing 79 pitches on Tuesday in 4.2 innings against the Nationals.

The 29-year-old Ponce de Leon, who bounced between Triple-A and the majors in 2018–19 and served as both a starter and reliever with the big club, spent all of last season in the majors. He was largely knocked around (4.96 ERA, 5.64 FIP in 32.1 innings over eight starts and a relief appearance) but did allow just five runs in 17 innings over his final three starts. He too has made a positive impression this spring, and most recently threw 68 pitches in 3.2 innings against the Marlins on Saturday.

Further down the depth chart are righties Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford, both of whom pitched for the Cardinals last year and are most likely to wind up either in the big club’s bullpen or in the rotation at Triple-A Memphis. Oviedo, a 23-year-old righty out of Cuba, made five starts for St. Louis last year after splitting the previous season between High-A and Double-A but scuffled (5.30 ERA, 5.47 FIP). He’s a hard thrower who flashes an above-average curve and changeup but doesn’t yet throw enough strikes, per Eric Longenhagen’s late-2020 report. Woodford, 24, made one start and 11 relief appearances for the Cardinals but was cuffed for seven homers in 21 innings; he’s “a kitchen sink righty with below-average control, a backend starter who needs a long relief partner,” again according to Longenhagen.

So long as Mikolas’ injury is comparatively minor, the Cardinals appear to have a reasonable amount of depth, but they’ve left themselves little margin for error if multiple issues arise (a truth that’s hardly exclusive to them), and they need a whole lot of positive scenarios to pan out. At this juncture, the market for free-agent starters has been picked bare save for Rick Porcello, whose 5.55 ERA over the past two seasons probably has something to do with that. The 32-year-old is nothing if not a durable innings eater, and last year’s 3.33 FIP and his contact-centric profile suggests he’d benefit from a strong infield defense behind him.

Even if the Cardinals were to sign Porcello, however, he’d be a long way from helping the team — perhaps further off than Mikolas. Thus they’ll attempt to make do with their internal options. Given the low bar in the NL Central, that may well be enough.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

I wonder if it has occurred to the Cards as a concern that the fans who watch the Rockies every day (including me) aren’t all that upset by the Arenado trade? No one watched much baseball last year, and no one outside the Denver area watches the Rockies much period, but those of us who did, and do, saw a guy with some frightening signs of decline (I believe the shoulder injury was mostly a smokescreen, as his defense was just fine and he dove for balls on that shoulder every night).

I believe there’s a significant chance Austin Gomber, who has won a starting job and has looked fantastic, will come within a couple wins of what Arenado gives the Cards this year. And Nolan will just be older next year when the Cards are paying him $30m.

Greg Simonsmember
3 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

As a Cardinals fan, of course I hope you’re very wrong. Time will tell…

3 years ago
Reply to  Greg Simons

I would like to second that sentiment about Arenado,

3 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

Yeah, well, playing while injured for a crappy team during a pandemic while facing one of the toughest schedules in the league might have had something to do with that.

random Colorado guy
3 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

“Not all that upset” is not exactly the same thing as “fatalistic and resigned.”

3 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

He doesn’t hit the ball hard at all. He never really has, but last year was extreme. He was never fast either, but literally everything fell apart last year. 10% speed, 32% EV, 26% hard hit percentage, etc, etc. It goes on and on. The only thing he did well last year was with his glove, and not striking out. I watched him hit a few balls this spring as well, and it looked like he was getting nearly all of it and they weren’t going out. I think the chance that he isn’t actually that great with the bat is a lot higher than some people are thinking.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

Would you care to give us his dRC+ last year?

3 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

“no one outside the Denver area watches the Rockies much period”

Not very many people in the Denver area watch the Rockies much either.

3 years ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

Part of that calculation, though, has to be that it’s also pretty likely that the Cards have somebody within a win or two of Gomber- Ponce de León, Gant, etc- even if he manages to do really well and hit 3 wins. They’ve got a lot of guys who I’d expect to finish in that 1-3 fWAR band if they got 200 innings