St. Louis Cardinals: What to watch for in Spring Training part one

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 22: Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals leaves the game during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs on July 22, 2017 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Cardinals 3-2.(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JULY 22: Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals leaves the game during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs on July 22, 2017 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Cardinals 3-2.(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals begin Spring Training in just a couple of weeks with plenty of questions still unanswered.

Now that football is officially over, baseball is back at the center of attention. But don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. The off-season still sucks, and the St. Louis Cardinals haven’t done anything since trading Randal Grichuk. If something happens in the next two weeks, it will truly be miraculous. Until then, however, I’m putting together my four-part “What to watch for” series for Spring Training.

Let’s start with the Cardinals’ rotation.

Fresh faces in the Cardinals’ rotation

While many fans continue to say the St. Louis Cardinals need to upgrade their rotation, it’s clear the front office is content with what the team has. However, I think it’s fair to say each pitcher penciled into the starting rotation has a question or two attached to him and then some. One of the biggest questions coming into Spring Training for the rotation is what to expect from pitchers Luke Weaver and Miles Mikolas.

Both pitchers will be new to starting roles in the rotation and will look to solidify their roles early on in Spring Training. However, both pitchers offer different intrigue.

Last year, Weaver made it very clear he should be a part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation in 2018 and beyond. Weaver ripped off eight straight wins late in 2017, including six coming from starts. In that stretch, Weaver pitched to the tune of 1.61 ERA with fifty-eight strikeouts and eight walks. His performances might be a reason the Cardinals are okay with letting someone like Lance Lynn walk.

Related Story: Cards Plan B

There’s no doubt Weaver is a different pitcher than he was in 2016, and that’s great. However, because of the small sample of starts last year (10), consistency is the one thing I am looking for in Weaver this Spring Training. He needs to show he carried his performances from last year over to his stuff this year. Showing he can get the Cardinals six innings or more every five days will go a long way for this ball club. He is penciled in as the fourth guy in the rotation.

Perhaps the biggest mystery for the St. Louis Cardinals this Spring Training though is Miles Mikolas. The Cardinals signed Mikolas to a two-year/$15.5 million deal through 2019. He pencils in as the fifth starter in the rotation and was formerly coached by new Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux.

If you didn’t know, Mikolas was previously with the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers from 2012-2014. Mikolas wasn’t very good, posting a 5.32 ERA in those three years. His struggles led him to the Japanese League where he turned around his career. In three years in the Japanese League, Mikolas posted a 2.20 ERA in 424 innings pitched. In 2017, Mikolas pitched 188 innings and recorded 187 strike outs and 23 walks.

Naturally, the obvious question for Mikolas is what will his second stint in the MLB bring?

If you just look at his numbers over the last six season it’s obvious he is a different pitcher. However, there is also an obvious difference between the Japanese League and MLB. I think we are more likely to see the Japanese League version of Mikolas but to a lesser extent. He will have some regression, but how much regression will be on the forefront of minds when thinking about this off-season.

If Mikolas does not do well in his first year with the St. Louis Cardinals, many will wonder why the team did not go after a big free agent starting pitcher like Lance Lynn, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, or Alex Cobb. It’s a fair question, but mitigated somewhat by the length of Mikolas’ contract. A two-year deal isn’t long considering what any of the aforementioned pitchers will command this off-season.

The contract allows the Cardinals some flexibility with Mikolas should he not do well in year one. That won’t be enough to save the front office from criticism though.

On the contrary, if Mikolas exceeds expectations, whatever those are for you, the Cardinals look good having saved money in order to potentially land other free agents over the next couple of years. If he can get back to 180+ innings this season, the Cardinals will be a playoff team.

Either way, the unknown of Mikolas heading into Spring Training will be heavily scrutinized by many fans. Whether it’s fair, the fact of the matter is Mikolas need to go out there and pitch. Partnering again with Maddux eases my worries a little bit, but a coach can only take a player so far. His first couple of starts will be very important.

Not so fresh faces, but plenty to prove

The St. Louis Cardinals will also feature two veterans in the 2018 rotation to start the season. Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha will return as the number two and three starters for the Cardinals. 2017 became a tale of two different pitchers by the time the season was over.

Last spring, the biggest question facing Michael Wacha was his health. Wacha responded to that question by throwing 165.1 innings to a tune of a 4.13 ERA with 158 strike outs and 55 walks. While there is no doubt we would have liked to see Wacha pitch better, I think the focus was mainly on his shoulder holding up. I think we can safely say he exceeded expectations, but that doesn’t mean the concern is all gone.

One year removed from any injury doesn’t mean it won’t come back. Wacha will need to continue to show his shoulder is healthy enough to remain a starter. I tossed the idea around of Wacha becoming the Cardinals’ closer this year if they were seriously considering adding an additional starting pitcher, but it looks like the front office believes he is good to go.

Related Story: Be wary of Pham

So with 2017’s worries behind him, what should we look for in Spring Training?

I noted health earlier, but I think the biggest thing to look for with Wacha is building off his success in 2017. If he can keep his injury woes behind him, I think Wacha has a chance to reach the 180 inning mark this season. But that also comes with the notion he is pitching well enough to get that far. If there was a knock to Wacha’s 2017 it is the up and down weeks he had.

A 4.13 ERA isn’t going to get it done this season. He needs to pitch closer to the guy the Cardinals had in 2015 with a 3.38 ERA in 180+ innings pitched. If Wacha can return back to that form, there is not telling where his ceiling actually is. Spring Training will be a test for Wacha to set the tone early for his season and expectations.

By comparison, Adam Wainwright struggled in 2017 with his pitching and struggled to stay healthy. An arm injury hampered Wainwright’s 2017 campaign to the point he needed surgery this off-season to clean up his throwing arm. The numbers don’t lie either. Wainwright threw only 123.1 innings with a 5.11 ERA. It just wasn’t what we, or even Wainwright, expected for the 2017 season.

Now we are left to wonder what Wainwright has left in the tank. In the final year of his extension, Wainwright has a lot to prove to the fans, but mainly himself. If he has truly left his arm injuries behind, I think the thing to watch for in Spring Training is the speed of his pitches. According to Fangraphs, every single one of Wainwright’s pitches saw a decrease in speed. If the surgery helps his arm strength, an increase in speed could help Wainwright be an effective pitcher again.

The only problem is his last two seasons have shown more regression than expected. Even if the surgery gives him arm strength back, he still needs to pitch better than he has the last two seasons.

You also have to wonder if the prospect of this being his last season a Cardinal or in baseball is a catalyst for the season he is going to have. There isn’t anything wrong with being honest with yourself in sports. If Wainwright thinks he doesn’t have it anymore, I fully expect him to tell the front office the time has come. But if this were my last season, I’d leave nothing on the table and give it my all. Knowing how Wainwright is, that’s exactly what he’ll do.

The ace

Carlos Martinez is the “ace” of this staff. There’s no doubt about it. He threw 205 innings to the tune of a 3.64 ERA with 217 strike outs and 71 walks. He also recorded his first two complete game shutouts last year. But for all the good he did, there were still some question marks that came about.

The biggest question was consistency. Martinez at times struggled to cruise through the first three or so innings, resulting in early hooks in the fifth inning or earlier. He only didn’t make it to the sixth inning nine times in thirty-two starts, but in those nine starts, he gave up 37 earned runs of his 83 total earned runs in 2017.

More from Redbird Rants

Martinez also allowed a career-high 27 home runs in 2017 after giving up only 28 home runs in 2015 and 2016 combined. The increase in home runs isn’t too alarming, but it certainly something Martinez will want to limit in 2018.

I am looking for Martinez to work on getting through the first couple of innings quickly in order to stretch his starts out. If the Cardinals can get a consistent six to seven innings out of Martinez this year, they will be in good shape.

I’d also like to see Martinez be more of a leader as well. I know he has veterans like Yadier Molina and Wainwright, but the torch will need to be passed soon. As the ace of the staff, Martinez can fill that role and be a teacher for those coming after him.

Next: PECOTA player projections

What are you looking for in the rotation this Spring? Let me know in the comments below.