Do you realize that the Cardinals may have had more activity in the past 24 hours than they did all offseason combined? It feels like that, at least. It was a jam-packed day of Cardinal news which gives us plenty to get into this morning. (Also, my afternoon was full yesterday so if I miss some details or go down the wrong trail on my thinking, please hit me up on Twitter to clear things up for me.)
The day started off with Carlos Martinez showing up to camp wearing a sling, which is never exactly what you want to see from one of your top pitchers. The club, through Mike Shildt, let folks know that it was because Martinez had had an injection of plasma-rich platelets to help the recovery process. That did mean, however, that instead of being evaluated March 5, he’ll now not be able to start throwing until March 12 at the earliest. Given that Opening Day is March 28, you can see how that means he’s not going to be on the opening roster, at least not as part of the rotation.
I didn’t realize that Peter Gammons had written something about Martinez returning in June. Actually, Gammons’s wording leaves a little ambiguity. Here’s the quote:
Carlos Martínez may be an issue; he had three stints on the disabled list last season and made just 18 starts, has been shut down this week to build the strength in his shoulder, and when he’ll be ready for the rotation is in question, although they think he’ll be fine by June.
Fine by June doesn’t mean that he won’t be back until June. It might be that he’s not full strength until then. It might be that he starts in the bullpen and works toward lengthening his outings, though it would seem to be pretty hard to do that during the season. We have seen it done, though. Whatever the case, not everything is hunky-dory with the Cardinals’ nominal ace.
There is still some talk about, given the short amount of time, having him go to the bullpen so he can be ready for Opening Day. However, as many have noted, what’s the rush? It’s not like they need his arm for a playoff push like they did last summer. If he doesn’t make it back until May but then can start and stay in the rotation the rest of the way, not only does that mean he’ll contribute greatly, it also may mean he’s a little fresher for some October baseball. Martinez hasn’t had an issue with fading in the past but there are only so many bullets in an arm. Conserving a few this way isn’t the worst thing in the world.
We’re just going to have to wait and see how things develop with Martinez’s arm. If the treatment works and he can get back on the mound in a couple of weeks, it’s not the worst thing for him to start on the DL, spend some time at extended spring training, then get a couple of minor league rehab starts and be back by the end of April. There are plenty of options to cover a few major league starts. My radical theory is to let Alex Reyes take them if he shows he is healthy, then slide him back into the bullpen when Martinez is ready. More likely, we’ll see someone like John Gant or Dakota Hudson take Martinez’s spot.
There are many issues with Martinez going into the bullpen but one I don’t seem to hear much about is the fact that the bullpen is already really, really crowded. Again, I refer you to this post. When we looked at the roster then, we assumed that the Cards were going to use 13 pitchers (which hasn’t been confirmed but we’ll go with it for now) and that there was really one spot available for John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, Austin Gomber, Hudson, Dominic Leone, and Reyes to fight over. Martinez moving to the bullpen would probably not change things too much, I guess, given that Gant (who was already counted in the seven bullpen pitchers) or Hudson would move to the rotation, making an even swap. Still, that would take away some of the little flexibility the club has, which might come into play if Reyes starts the season on the DL but then needs to be activated.
Martinez’s arm took up the morning but another pitcher took the spotlight in the afternoon. Around lunch-time the word started trickling out that Miles Mikolas, Opening Day starter, was going to sign the much-expected extension today. It is a deal that starts next season and runs for four years at $68 million, a solid deal if last year is any indication of what Mikolas is going to be.
The Cardinals obviously want Mikolas to be the next guy to take on that mantle of veteran leader in the rotation, a mantle that has gone from Matt Morris to Chris Carpenter to Adam Wainwright. With a bunch of young guys coming up, they are going to need someone that’s been around but also has ties to the organization. Parachuting in a free-agent starter (assuming the club would ever go out and get a top-shelf starter in free agency) would give veteran leadership but wouldn’t have the institutional memory that someone like Mikolas will have throughout his deal. That doesn’t mean they can’t go out and add that big starter, but they’ll have Mikolas to help the young arms know how things are done The Cardinal Way, as it were. Institutional memory is a strong thing, especially in an institution as successful as the Cardinals.
While I have no real issues with the contract–the money is good and it seems like Mikolas seems like a good guy to have around–there’s still that twinge of not having more data before committing. Now, I’m sure the organization has plenty of data that gives them confidence that last season was repeatable and not a fluke, that this metric and that analysis show he’s going to be a good bet going forward. The days of cashing in on one good year with a big contract feel like they are over as people can see the underlying quality of the numbers. I’d have just liked to see a little more before committing. Granted, John Mozeliak has had more trouble with reliever contracts, but Mike Leake‘s contract seemed fairly fine (though maybe a bit long) when it was signed. A year later he’s being shipped off to Seattle. I don’t believe Mikolas will have the same problem or become a drag on the club, but you worry a bit when you only have one year to look at.
Finally, we get to the most surprising news of the day. Derrick Goold was the first to report (EDIT: I’ve been told actually Rob Rains had that scoop) that the Cardinals were going to sign Matt Wieters to a minor league contract. Most of you are probably old enough to remember when Wieters was the next big thing and Oriole fans were extremely hyped about it, even doing the Chuck Norris-like “Matt Wieters Facts“. For a few years, he…well, he didn’t live up to the hype, but he definitely produced some solid seasons. He’s a four-time All Star, with his last selection being in 2016, and he’s got six seasons of double-digit home runs, three in a row over 20 in 2011-2013.
Now, it’s safe to say Wieters, as most catchers do, has slipped as he’s gotten older. He’s not put up an OPS+ over 100 since 2015 (though he’s been in the upper 80s twice since then) and has hit .225 and .238 over the past two seasons. If you are signing him to be your starter, you hope the rest of the team can pick up the slack. If you are signing him to compete for the backup catcher role, then things get interesting.
The shadow of Yadier Molina hangs over everything the Cardinals have built at the position. We’ve often talked about how it is tough to get a capable backup to a guy that is going to play 130 or so games. People that have skills need to use them more than once a week (or once every two weeks, or like last year once a month) for them to stay sharp and there’s a competitiveness in every major league player that would prefer to be on the field rather than eating seeds on the bench. Wieters is the most decorated and strongest offensive force the Cards have had backing up Molina since….well, maybe ever. This isn’t Jason LaRue or Tony Cruz.
It’s also not Francisco Pena and that’s where things get interesting. The club has made no bones about how much they were comfortable with Pena as a backup. While his playing time last year over Carson Kelly while Yadi was hurt might have been more a desire of the former manager, the front office did add Pena to the 40-man roster at the end of spring and they offered him another minor league invite this season after Kelly was dealt to the Diamondbacks. There have been stories about how the pitchers liked to throw to him which helped negate that black hole of a bat. It was pretty much a fait accompli that he was going to be the backup you never wanted to have to use again this season.
That’s changed and I’m not sure exactly why. Molina still hasn’t played in Jupiter but there doesn’t seem to have been any setbacks to his recovery from knee surgery. He’s supposed to start DHing in spring games soon and be catching by March 14. That timetable was announced just yesterday so there shouldn’t be any issues we aren’t aware of. So it’s not because Molina’s going to be out and they need a more offensively competent catcher to fill in for an extended period of time.
It’s also interesting they’d make this move when Pena has the Yadier Molina Seal of Approval. Yadi’s always been good with any backup catcher, but it’s pretty clear at times that he connects more with some than others. He never seemed to really make that connection with Kelly (especially if Bengie Molina‘s comments about Kelly last year, saying in effect that he should go to Memphis if he wanted to play and not try to take time from Yadi) but definitely has with Pena. Honestly, I believe Molina’s sway is why Pena got the most starts last year when he was out. We know that Yadi has enough pull to get Jordan Hicks on the roster when the club really wasn’t considering it. Yadi’s opinion on things really matters and so far, I don’t think the club, especially the front office, has notably crossed him. Selecting Wieters over Pena would seem to do that, though, which is an interesting look.
I also wonder if Mike Shildt has told the front office that he is more open to using his backup catcher as a pinch-hitter, allowing for a bit more of a bench. After all, the odds of needing an emergency catcher if you use Wieters as a pinch-hitter in the eighth are pretty slim. It could come back to bite them but given how much Jedd Gyorko would like to have a role on this team, I bet he’ll do some practicing to be adequate there. Being able to actually choose from four hitters (should the team go with a 12/13 split) instead of three in the late innings could be an edge this team hasn’t had in a while.
I’m very intrigued to see what Wieters can do, as I do remember him being that big prospect coming up. (StlCardsCards may have said it best on Twitter: “The future of catching just signed a minor league deal to back up the still catching Yadi.”) If Shildt is going to be more creative with his use, that will be fun to see as well.
Oh, and the Cardinals played a game yesterday as well. The Cardinals beat the Nationals 6-1 but, like all spring scores, the old Whose Line Is It Anyway bit–where the names are made up and the points don’t matter–still applies. It was good to see Adam Wainwright have a solid initial appearance and things seemed to be working in a way that provides optimism for the coming year. However, we’ll have to see if it is repeatable and how long it lasts. Waino could pitch all season long out of the rotation and do well and we’d still hold our breath for his final start of the season. That’s just the nature of his recent history, his age, and everything else. Still, this was a much better result than it could have been and it does give us some hope that he can be a serviceable option this season. Shildt ran out Matt Carpenter/Dexter Fowler/Paul Goldschmidt 1-2-3 again and, again, the results weren’t exciting as only Goldschmidt got a hit. Again, please do not take anything from that. It would be nice to see Fowler get on track soon though, I will admit. Randy Arozarena had three hits and drove in two and Pena, perhaps having gotten wind of what was coming, went 2-3 with a double and two RBI.
I imagine things will be slower today in Cardinal camp as they host the Braves this afternoon. It was a fun day of Cardinal news, though!