Surveying the NL Central Pitcher Injury Ward

Yesterday, the Cardinals got some bad news. Miles Mikolas, the team’s second-best pitcher and a valuable source of bulk innings, suffered a setback in dealing with the arm injury that had bothered him all year. He’ll need surgery to repair his flexor tendon, which will keep him out for all of 2020.

After a scintillating 2018 (2.83 ERA, 3.28 FIP, and a sixth-place finish in Cy Young voting), Mikolas came back to earth slightly in 2019. Even then, his pinpoint control and ability to coax grounders out of opposing batters gave him an excellent floor. While a 4.16 ERA might not sound impressive, it was better than league average in this homer-crazed era, and 184 innings of average pitching is hugely valuable.

The Cardinals came into this season with a competition for starting spots, but Mikolas wasn’t one of the competitors. He and Jack Flaherty would provide the guaranteed quality atop the rotation, while Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martínez, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Kwang Hyun Kim battled it out for the remaining three slots.

If there’s good news in Mikolas’s injury, it’s that deep bench of starting options. They’re all worse than Mikolas — all worse by a decent margin — but all five look to be quality major league options, which softens the blow. Ponce de Leon, who will take the hill today, made spot starts in 2018 and 2019 with solid results. We project him to be roughly 0.25 runs of ERA worse than Mikolas, which is hardly an unbridgeable gulf.

The real trouble begins if another Cardinals starter goes down. Kim is still an option, but he currently serves as the team’s closer, which is still a pretty wild sentence to write. The bullpen is already a little short-handed, though that should change as Giovanny Gallegos settles in and Alex Reyes and Génesis Cabrera return to the team. At the moment, however, Kim probably can’t stop closing, which leaves St. Louis in a bind.

Jake Woodford, the team’s 18th-ranked prospect, is the next man up. That’s a big step down from Ponce de Leon, and would eat into the team’s playoff chances more or less immediately. As is often the case with pitcher injuries, it’s not the first one that gets you, but the second or third. For now, the Cardinals will manage, but their margin for error just diminished considerably.

The Cardinals aren’t alone in their pain on Tuesday. Josh Lindblom, the Brewers’ new acquisition from the KBO, exited his start against Pittsburgh after only three innings. After the game, the team announced he was dealing with back cramps that had forced him from the game.

To hear Craig Counsell tell it, the setback is only minor. He expects Lindblom to make his next start. Lindblom’s words, on the other hand — well, I’ll let you be the judge. “The best way I can describe it is almost like a boa constrictor is wrapping around my ribcage,” Lindblom said. “It locks up and I can’t breathe, I can’t rotate.”

That doesn’t sound great. Having never had a snake wrapped around my ribcage, I can’t speculate on how difficult pitching would be in that situation, but my guess is “quite difficult.” The one silver lining to the situation? Like the Cardinals, the Brewers have options to fill Lindblom’s spot if he needs some time on the Injured List.

Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Adrian Houser seem like rotation fixtures for the team this year — Burnes is the weakest of the three, but he dazzled in spring and summer camps. Brett Anderson is coming off the IL (surprise surprise) to make a start on Friday, though it’s wise to have a backup planned with him. That’s five with Lindblom, but if the team needs a sixth, Freddy Peralta has already made a start in Anderson’s absence and could easily transition back into the role.

A seventh name is just as easy; Eric Lauer, an offseason addition, made his season debut on Sunday after missing time due to an asymptomatic positive COVID-19 test. Lauer is a great break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option; he threw 150 solid innings last year and looked like he didn’t miss a step in his first appearance of 2020, striking out six of the 10 Cubs he faced.

You know the rest of it: if Anderson and Lindblom are both out, that leaves the Brewers thin on depth. That’s no surprise, because that’s seven starters deep already. The eighth starter would likely be Zack Brown or reclamation project Shelby Miller, neither of whom seem like great options in a major league role at the moment. As much as is possible in pitching, however, the Brewers seem to have solid backup plans.

With these two injuries, St. Louis and Milwaukee are merely joining their NL Central peers in pitching uncertainty. The Cubs, early division leaders, are already dealing with their own pitching woes. José Quintana had thumb surgery after washing dishes too aggressively and still hasn’t thrown a bullpen session since. The team expects him back in the middle of August, but nerve surgery on your throwing hand? It’s certainly a fluid situation.

Unlike the Cardinals and Brewers, the Cubs are already dealing with rotation scarcity. Alec Mills and Tyler Chatwood are already in the rotation. That’s scary enough, but if one of their current pitchers goes down, it gets ugly fast. Adbert Alzolay, the team’s number six prospect, is likely next in line, but he dealt with command issues in 2019 that worried the team. After that, it’s Jharel Cotton or Colin Rea, a situation that fans who recently awoke from a coma that started in 2016 will find totally reasonable but the rest of us find terrifying.

The Reds, the new trendy competitor in a packed NL Central, are dealing with pitching injuries as well. Anthony DeSclafani, the team’s projected fifth starter, strained his teres major, a muscle involved in arm extension — yikes! He’s only expected to miss one start, but shoulder and back injuries are never sure things. Tyler Mahle is a solid replacement, but it gets thin after that: Lucas Sims, I guess? The quality dips rather quickly.

To make matters worse, reliever Robert Stephenson landed on the IL with a back injury. The team hasn’t announced how much time he’ll miss, but he was slated to pitch some high leverage innings for the team this year after reinventing himself in an excellent 2019. That puts a bit more pressure on the starting rotation, though DeSclafani’s return will allow Mahle to slide back into the bullpen for now. Like the Cardinals, things look fine for now, but another injury would turn the situation pear-shaped.

Not to be outdone, even the cellar-dwelling Pirates are dealing with a serious rotation injury. This isn’t new news, but Chris Archer had thoracic outlet surgery in June and won’t be pitching this year. They likely didn’t have the horses to compete in the race for the playoffs this year, but now they extremely don’t have the horses to compete. That leaves every NL Central team without a starting pitcher only one week into the season, with Mikolas and Archer the two most accomplished hurlers and also the two lengthiest injuries.

The NL Central race is so close this year that injuries could be a deciding factor. A few missed starts here, a disastrous emergency appearance there, and that could be the difference in the division. So far, however, the baseball gods have been capricious but even-handed. Everyone’s dealing with shortfall; everyone wants. The Cubs and Reds have the least depth, but they also have the most offense. It’s going to be a fight to the finish. These pitchers will all be watching it from the sidelines, at least for a while.

We hoped you liked reading Surveying the NL Central Pitcher Injury Ward by Ben Clemens!

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Jim
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Jim

Ben, you are really working hard these days. Way to go.