While victories over Cincinnati put them among the elite teams in the National League in runs scored and home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals are riddled by rough starts and questionable bullpen use. These are some of the questions the team must answer soon to move forward.
It is clear as day that both the St. Louis Cardinals‘ starting rotation and the bullpen are full of holes, but they seem to be artificial more than anything. The Memphis Redbirds, the team’s triple-A affiliate, carried arguably the best minor league pitching staff in 2017, loaded with major league level talents with sub-3.00 ERA’s in Triple A like Jack Flaherty and John Brebbia that don’t see much major league action.
While there have been injuries here and there that have caused questions, many of the problems seems to come from the management of these pitchers, and the lack of direction in that management. Just as it was in 2017, there still seems to be no roles in the bullpen, and there are questions about the starting rotation. Here are the biggest questions that Matheny and the Cardinals need to answer soon.
1. Should Adam Wainwright be the fifth starter?
I think that this is the most pressing need to address, not just for the Cardinal’s short-term success, but for the long-term development of potential starter prospects. In particular, Jack Flaherty has excelled at the minor league level for several seasons, and has proven that he has both the arsenal and the mental toughness to pitch in the major leagues.
So why isn’t he there? Simply put, the Cardinals believe they already have five starters. However, it goes without saying that the rotation certainly has shown room for improvement this year. However, there is one in particular whose age and velocity over long outings are major concerns: Adam Wainwright.
Wainwright has been a staple in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation as an elite number one pitcher for over ten years, but Father Time is undefeated, and he certainly seems to be taking his toll on St. Louis’ beloved son. Ever since his epic performance as a rookie in the 2006 playoffs, Wainwright has been a leader, an inspiration, a friend, and in some cases, a hero to St. Louis fans. He has taken that role in stride, acting as a selfless leader for the team and the city.
It’s for these reasons I believe the best course of action for the team would be to promote Jack Flaherty and allow him to start at the major league level, while moving Wainwright to a bullpen role. With his ability, experience in the closer role, and proven clutch gene, there is no reason Wainwright wouldn’t be able to seamlessly transition into a late career reliever role. For a bullpen that needs veteran leadership who can control sharp pitches, this would be priceless.
If not for Flaherty, what do you do when Alex Reyes is slated to return in May? Do you keep Reyes in a reliever role as well to continue to allow Wainwright to start? At this point, we can’t be sure if he can even get to 100 effective innings this season as a starter with the way his fastball velocity has varied so far this year, and there is nothing left for Flaherty to prove in the minors. It just seems like now is the perfect time to make the switch.
2. Why use relievers when you do?
This is a problem that is an extension from the issues that occurred within the bullpen last season. It is no secret relievers have not been given solid roles for several seasons now, and Matheny seems to just plug and play as he sees fit. This results in a lot of inconsistent time for many relievers, whether Matheny plays Matt Bowman every game for a week or doesn’t play Sam Tuivailala or Brebbia at all for two.
Brett Cecil was vocal about how the lack of roles was detrimental to the bullpen’s performance, but that point hasn’t seemed to register with Matheny yet. Not only that, his preference for certain pitchers is making it more difficult for the entire team to succeed.
The two guys who have appeared in the most games so far, Tyler Lyons and Bowman, are arguably the worst pitchers in the bullpen this year. Bowman has had flashes of decency, but has been awful overall, and Lyons just doesn’t have good enough stuff to stop major league hitters from getting hits consistently. Matheny needs to understand how much talent or lack there of his pitchers have, and use them accordingly.
While I understand trying to develop the 27-year old Bowman, Lyons is already 30. He is what he is, and he’s not very good. On the other hand, talented younger guys like Sam Tuivailala, Mike Mayers, and John Brebbia were not used for three to five days at a time. I understand trying to save their arms, but getting them consistent appearances ahead of older players who aren’t particularly talented in the majors will both help their development and the team.
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Dominic Leone is another concerning piece who, while having 10 strikeouts, has looked far more like his 2016 self that had a 6.33 ERA and 2.11 WHIP than his 2017, where he recorded a 2.56 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.
While he too has had he moments of decency, he has clearly struggled with control, throwing breaking balls in the dirt and getting lucky with batters missing some meatball fastballs. He has already given up three homers, and its a miracle he hasn’t given up more.
If Leone continues to pitch like this, Matheny is going to be forced to handle him in a more careful manner. Whether that means pitching him early in games or giving him some time in the minors, the Cardinals don’t have the leverage to continue to trot out a pitcher giving up 4.76 HR/9 consistently. Leone has a lot of potential at just 26, but his strong 2017 could easily be an anomaly for a pitcher who has recorded a career 2.00 WHIP in the NL.
Whether Matheny and co. can discern these pitcher’s uses properly remains to be seen. Either way, a bullpen that has given up 17 runs in 43 innings (3.56 RA/9) just hasn’t been good enough, and Matheny can’t be allowed to keep losing late in games.
3. When will the team get Greg Holland going?
The integration of Greg Holland is another issue. Holland clearly looked like the lack of training camp was affecting him; he had trouble gripping his slider and looked stiff in his motion. While he worked reps in agent Scott Boras’ facilities during training camp, he didn’t get game reps at either the free agent Spring Training event or this year’s actual Spring Training, and the impact of the lack of that has really shown.
As I mentioned in the previous point, the Cardinals don’t have much leeway to lose games that they shouldn’t if they want to reach the playoffs, and the team filled many of the holes that it needed to in order to make a return to the playoffs.
While part of the blame lies on the front office for not being able to make the move for Holland sooner and allow him time to prepare, Matheny has to do a better job of getting him involved in lower leverage game situations. At the end of the day, there is nothing that can truly simulate game reps, which is why Spring Training has it’s importance. Without it, Matheny has to get Holland ready in another way.
Whether that’s getting him in earlier in games, or putting him in with a nice cushion and no runners on, Matheny has to allow Holland to pitch and get back in proper form. He can’t just relegate a 14 million dollar player to a sporadically appearing bench player and expect Cardinal fans to sit put and be ok with it.
Holland is a great player, and he has the potential to be a top closer in the league, but it will be too late if he doesn’t get enough reps in time and the bullpen flounders as a result. This team has the talent to make the playoffs, but Greg Holland has to get in the game.
How long should Adam Wainwright start this year? What do you think about the bullpen’s performance so far? Will Matheny help Greg Holland so that Greg Holland can help the Cardinals? Is pitching the problem or is it something else all together? Feel free to leave your thoughts below.