Watch that first step. It’s a doozy.
After months of anticipation, after an off-season of potential answers to the questions from last year, after the last couple of weeks of spring heightened our excitement and our readiness for baseball, yesterday happened. Now I know how some people that saw The Last Jedi felt. At least Luke, for all his faults, didn’t continue to spoil his friends’ offensive bounty.
Before we go any farther, some of you are new to the blog for this season so I want to explain our running schtick, Heroes and Goats. Every game, we pick a player that fits both of these tags and we keep the running total over here (scroll past the links). While both of those may be players that had the best game, it may also be a player that came through (or didn’t) at a critical juncture of the game. It’s always Cardinal players, not managers or the like. For the Goats, we also have a personal rule that, if it is relevant, the leadoff guy breaks ties with the reasoning that he has an extra responsibility to get the offense started. Finally, these are my personally subjective selections and I figure your mileage may very.
It probably won’t for our first Goat of the season, though. Carlos Martinez was given a 2-1 lead, blew that, saw his teammates tie it for him, then blew that. This is not the line you want to see from your ace on Opening Day: 4.1 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 5 K, 1 HBP. That’s a lot of runners in not a lot of time. I was only able to listen to the game, but Martinez struggled from the opening bell and never really got it together. The bottom of the fourth was the only frame that he seemed to get it figured out, but he reverted in the fifth.
Of course, this is going to spur the “he’s not good enough” discussion, with folks wondering if he truly is an ace, whatever that term might mean to you. I wouldn’t go that far–he’s obviously the ace of the staff and he’s still one of the better pitchers in baseball, even if he needs to make a step to be what you might term elite–but there’s no doubt that this goes in the pile of data points for folks that aren’t so generous. Now, this could be his worst game of the year and, if so, we’ll be singing a different tune come October. I’ve just had this nagging feeling for a while that Martinez isn’t going to be that top 10 pitcher that he can be and should be. I’m usually wrong, but days like these don’t alleviate that fear. Then again, Adam Wainwright was an ace, at least for a while, and he still had some clunkers of outings. It does happen.
It was just very frustrating to see this while the offense was, if not solving Noah Syndergaard, at least making their hits count. Syndergaard struck out 10 batters in the first four innings, but allowed a two-run homer to Yadier Molina (and, judging by the reaction of the crowd, they still haven’t forgiven 2006), then watched Matt Carpenter double and Jose Martinez (who, even with his throwing error, gets to be our Hero) single him home. Martinez also got Thor for a home run later, but the game was really already decided by time he went yard in the sixth.
Getting four runs off of a pitcher like Syndergaard should make for a good day and I’d like to think it’s a sign that this offense really is going to click. They put up those runs with the top four batters going 1-16 which would seem to show the depth of the lineup. Martinez had his three hits. Molina had his homer and drew the Cardinals’ only walk on the day (ruining those that put money on Carpenter being the first guy to get a free pass in 2018). Paul DeJong had the other hit. You’d have liked to see a more sustained attack but the fact that so many folks can do something means that it should be tough to completely shut the lineup down.
While Martinez’s day was the spark that lit the fire that burned the Cardinals down, Matthew Bowman was the one that took that spark and added a full can of gasoline to it. Brought into the fifth with one out and a runner on second after Adrian Gonzalez had doubled in the fourth run of Martinez’s day, Bowman allowed the following:
Sac bunt (by Syndergaard)
Two-run single, one charged to Martinez
With all the high-octane arms in the bullpen in a spot where you really needed to make sure that run from second didn’t score, Mike Matheny went with his old reliable. Again, you don’t want to draw a lot of conclusions from day 1, especially after Bowman had a decent spring, but being a ground ball reliever means that things are going to find holes. Bowman’s been solid for the last couple of years but it would be nice, as I’ve heard Adam Butler and Rusty Groppel talk about on the Bird Law podcast, if the Cardinals limited Bowman to starting innings. He shouldn’t be the first option when runners are on, especially when they are in scoring position. I know Matheny wants to make him the next Seth Maness double-play specialist (though here, with Gonzalez on second, that didn’t even apply) but Maness was a fluke, not a new category of pitcher.
After Bowman was done, it was 8-3 and there wasn’t any coming back from that. Brett Cecil followed and got an out, but not until he allowed a single to Jay Bruce. Which is disturbing coming off last year when Cecil had trouble getting left-handed batters out. We used to scream “YOU HAD ONE JOB” at Randy Choate a lot, especially his last season, when lefties would walk or get a hit off of him (which was more regularly than we’d want). Cecil has shown that he can deal with righties as well so it’s not completely a “ONE JOB” situation, but that’s the biggest reason they’ll deploy him in a game. I’d hope that he can start being at least effective if not dominating against lefties soon.
Mike Mayers followed Cecil and pitched a scoreless inning, though he did allow two hits. Jordan Hicks made his major league debut and wowed everyone, averaging over 100 mph and ending the frame with his first major league strikeout. While I’m on record as saying I’m not sure that this was the best thing for Hicks’ long-term development or that it was necessary, there’s no doubt that it’s going to be fun to watch if this keeps up. Sam Tuivailala finished the day and didn’t do a lot to ease whatever block Matheny has on using him in higher-leverage situations, giving up a run and throwing two wild pitches while walking two. Maybe it was just a bit of nerves, but it still feels like right now, if there’s a pitcher that’s going to get buried and only used in blowouts, Tui’s your guy.
Of course, that’s assuming Tui’s still around after today. We’ve gone 1200 words and yet to talk about the big news that came out just hours before first pitch, the fact that free agent reliever Greg Holland and the Cardinals had come to an agreement, pending a physical. Holland, who many people all winter long felt was a fit for St. Louis, took a one year deal for $14 million, which was not only less than the qualified offer he rejected but also of the option that he declined at the end of the season. Beyond the $14 million price tag (which, let’s be fair, is really nothing for the Cards), they also lose their second-round draft pick (and the bonus pool money that goes with it) and will have to remove someone yet again from the 40-man roster to make room for their new acquisition.
There’s no doubt that Holland has made a name for himself as a great option at the end of the bullpen and he saved 41 games last year after missing all of 2016 with Tommy John surgery (so at least that’s out of the way). There’s a strong argument that having a veteran presence, a guy that has done it versus guys that possibly can do it, improves the ballclub.
We’ll have to wait and see who they take off the 40-man roster now, but overall I think this is a fine, if probably unnecessary, move by the club. At least it’s just one year, which is a strong point in its favor. I don’t think you really want to lock down a closer for huge money over multiple years and you especially don’t when you have a lot of arms that can take the ninth. I can see that Holland in the ninth will allow Matheny and Mike Maddux to deploy other pitchers in various ways. Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons warmed up early in the game yesterday so it seems like they aren’t going to cement him into that eighth inning spot. When Luke Gregerson returns, he’ll probably take the eighth, leaving Lyons and Dominic Leone and perhaps Mayers depending on if his resurgence is for real to rotate in the sixth or seventh. You have to feel pretty confident about the late inning options no matter what the selection.
I do wonder what they’ll do with the 40-man. It seems also very strange to promote Hicks (and go through this whole process) when you are that close to finalizing a deal for Holland. How much is this going to affect the young flamethrower? Probably not much, at least right now. They weren’t probably going to throw Hicks into high leverage situations right off the bat. That said, if he does develop into that kind of pitcher, the late innings are really going to be interesting.
Folks are going to be clamoring for Bud Norris to be the guy that gets the ax today. You know my stance on Norris, but looking at everything else, I’m not sure that isn’t more of a possibility than it had been before. Norris still hasn’t thrown a pitch that the $3 million contract pays for, but I’m not sure what the other option is. Waive someone like Tuivailala or maybe a minor leaguer like Ryan Sherriff and demote Mayers, who besides Bowman is the only person with options (save Hicks, but if you did all this rigamarole and demoted Hicks after one day, someone needs to have an intervention with John Mozeliak)? You could, although it would be supremely ironic that the battle we watched at the end of spring, John Brebbia versus Mayers, would first wind up with both of them going to the big club then, after one game, have them both in the minors. (Baseball, folks. It’s a crazy game.)
The Cardinals already have put one pitcher (Josh Lucas) on the market free for the taking. I can’t believe they’d be wanting to let another guy like Sherriff go, but they didn’t necessarily seem as high on him as you’d expect from a guy that had a pretty decent first year in the bigs. As for Tui, it feels like there’s a bit of a disconnect but the front office likes him more than the managerial staff and the FO would be the ones making the decision. I still have problems believing they’d pay Norris $3 million to go away without ever making an appearance, but the front office is being a little more ambitious and less conservative as of late. I guess it’s possible, which is more than I said a couple of days ago.
Day off today for the Cards, which is really unsettling since it’s a Friday. (Next Friday we’ll have the same phenomenon.) When the guys get back into action on Saturday, it’ll be Michael Wacha going up against Jacob deGrom.
Wacha has done pretty well against these hitters in the past, especially Bruce, who has enough at bats from his time in Cincinnati to make that a fairly meaningful sample. Hopefully that means he can limit any big innings by keying in on this middle of the order hitters.
Marcell Ozuna‘s seen him the most, unsurprisingly, and hasn’t been overly phased. DeJong faced him in the middle of that crazy-hot series last year which accounts for those numbers. If they can score against Syndergaard, they should be able to get some runs in this one as well. Whether it’ll be enough is up to Mr. Wacha.
One game is in the books. It didn’t go the way we wanted but let’s not draw any wild and rampant conclusions just yet. After all, the Cards won on Opening Day last year–then lost nine of their next 11. One day does not a season make!