St. Louis Cardinals: Five keys to the 2018 regular season part one

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PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 22: Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 22: Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist /
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With Opening Day just days away, I take a look at five keys to the 2018 regular season for the St. Louis Cardinals.

With just days remaining before Opening Day against the New York Mets, the St. Louis Cardinals continue to do some minor preparation and trying to get everyone healthy. Come Thursday the Cardinals will start their journey back to the playoffs after two consecutive absences. For the team and fans, reaching the playoffs would mean a return to the norm.

However, by now we know reaching the playoffs is easier said than done.

Many experts and projections have the St. Louis Cardinals finishing second to the Cubs in the NL Central Division. They also have the team finishing in the first Wild Card slot, meaning hosting the play-in game for the rest of the playoffs. There is no doubt the Cardinals have a team capable of reaching the playoffs this year, but a lot must be done in order to secure a playoff berth come September.

Here is the first of five keys to the 2018 regular season:

Starting Pitching

Ok, let’s get the obvious one out of the way. You can say this about every team, but there is a heightened sense of curiosity and fear the Cardinals’ starting pitching won’t do as well as we hope. The St. Louis Cardinals are relying on a mix of veteran leadership and youth to navigate the team through a tough NL Central and National League for that matter. Veterans Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha will guide Luke Weaver and Miles Mikolas on a regular basis. If you feel like the team is playing this one close to the chest, I wouldn’t blame you.

However, even with the question marks surrounding the starting rotation, there is reason to believe they can succeed for a couple of reasons.

One of those reason is the depth the St. Louis Cardinals have. We have already seen some of it come into play because of Adam Wainwright’s trip to the DL due to a hamstring strain. Because of the injury, Jack Flaherty will take his spot in the rotation and slot in as the number five starter. But outside of Flaherty, the Cardinals also have some good arms waiting for their opportunities.

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John Gant has been very impressive this spring. At one point I considered him to maybe make the bullpen and be a spot starter if needed. However, that won’t be the case for now and Gant will continue to get work in Memphis.

Other names to include as depth options would be Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks. Both Hudson and Hicks were impressive in the last two days. You have to wonder how much longer either of them will stay in the minor leagues.

Lastly, there is Alex Reyes. His return is slated for May 1st, but is progressing very well. The Cardinals purposefully held him out of any play this spring for precautionary reasons, but you have to wonder how close is he.

If the Cardinals could get him back sooner than May 1st, there are endless possibilities for the young right-hander. My guess is the Cardinals would use him out of the pen to limit innings, but don’t be surprised if he gets a few spot starts towards the end of the year to keep others fresh.

Another reason for optimism is the start to the year the pitcher have had in spring training. I know it’s just spring training and we won’t pay too much attention to it, but everybody has looked really good, actually more than good.

We saw how Mikolas’ spring got off to a rocky start, but since then he has looked extremely sharp. I am not saying he is Cy Young material like our good friend Mo’s Algorithm on Twitter does, but if he can continue to hone his pitches throughout the season and keep his confidence up in his stuff, then he could have a really nice year for the Cardinals. I can’t rule out the real fear he won’t pan out as expected, but only time can tell that.

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Luke Weaver has been nothing short of spectacular this spring and probably had the best spring of any of the starting pitchers. It seems as if he has carried his performances from late 2017 into this year. With Adam Wainwright landing on the DL, Weaver’s role become that much more important to the team.

Michael Wacha is healthy and looks good coming out of spring as well. As the number two guys, Wacha will need to be at or best his 2017 numbers to provide quality throughout the rotation. If he can continue to show good results, he may just stick in the number two slot in front of Wainwright.

Speaking of Adam, I don’t how he is doing it, but he surely looks to be turning the page from 2017. He has looked good and has limited runs to a bare minimum this spring. Now the only issues are his health concerns. You wonder about the elbow, but hamstring issues can be very nagging. How much time will he need on the DL I still up in the air, but we hope he can continue his form from spring when he does return.

Last but not least, the Cardinals are riding everything on Carlos Martinez. I think the club made a pretty big statement to him when they decided not to get Jake Arrieta this off-season to be the ace of the staff. Instead, Martinez keeps ahold of that title and will use that as a chip to continue to be better. His spring hasn’t been the best, but he is one of the best pitchers in the game. I think when the challenge presents itself, he will rise above it.

It all boils down to this

It’s nice to have depth and good starts to spring to make you feel like the season is going to be just fine, but the St. Louis Cardinals cannot be just fine. There is no room for being an average rotation in the big leagues this year. MLB.com didn’t even put the Cardinals rotation in the top ten in baseball for 2018.

If there is anything I am going to hone with this particular pitching rotation, it is consistency. Each and every single pitcher on this staff has a question consistency attached to them. I’m not saying they are the best rotation in baseball, but they are capable of being an above-average rotation with the opportunity to be great.

It starts with Carlos Martinez. The questions of whether he is an “ace” needs to be put to bed. Last year his issues with consistency came in the first three innings or so. He will need to overcome those issues in order to stay in games longer. The longer he stays in games the better it is for the bullpen, especially days on short rest for the back-end guys.

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Michael Wacha will need to show he is still healthy and repeat his production from last year, if not best it. The one thing I think some are overlooking is his lack of success aginst the better teams in the NL Central. He posted a 7.77 ERA against the Cubs last season and a 5.79 ERA against the Brewers last season. He posted a 2.24 ERA against the Pirates and Reds combined. Think there is anything to see there?

Perhaps the most important pitcher regarding consistency at this point is Adam Wainwright. Last year Wainwright had his ups and definitely had his downs. So which will it be this year? Will Wainwright be the pitcher we see in spring training or will his injuries come back to haunt him this season? Either way the St. Louis Cardinals need him to be better than what he was last year.

As for the young guns anchoring the rotation, it’s hard to expect anything at this point considering none of them have logged a full season in the MLB (in Mikolas’ case since 2015 for a whopping 57.1 innings). but as I said earlier, if they can continue their upward trends from spring then it’s a good sign. the toughest part of the schedule, however, will be in the latter part fo the year when the arm is tired.

It’s going to take some Herculean efforts from Mikolas, Weaver, and Flaherty, but opportunity is all they need. The three veterans need to remain at the top of their game in the respective roles in order for this team to survive the gauntlet that is the NL Central’s other top two teams. With as good as the Cubs and Brewers will be this season, they will test just how good the Cardinals’ starting pitching truly is.

Next: Top-10 bold predictions for 2018

Stay tuned for part two and three tomorrow. Until then, let me know what you think is the biggest key to starting pitching this year.

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