Of the nine players on the St. Louis Cardinals age 32 years and over, five have already come down with injuries during spring training. Should this be a lesson to the team to rely more on younger players going forward? Or are older players still a bargain?
As the old cliché goes, “injuries are just part of the game”. But they have been an even bigger part of the game for the older players on the St. Louis Cardinals’ roster, especially during Spring Training 2020.
Of the nine players who will see their 32nd birthday sometime this season, i.e. Miles Mikolas, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Matt Wieters, Yadier Molina, Andrew Miller, and Brett Cecil, fully five of them have become injured in just the last month.
These players represent 35% of the 26-man roster and 78% of the team’s payroll. If they fail, due to injury or any other reason, they are difficult to replace. 40-man roster spots are jealously guarded. Trading for a replacement will incur additional salary commitment that may test (self-imposed) salary caps.
These nine players include half of the eight starting position players, a rotation starter, and an erstwhile candidate to fill Carlos Martinez’s shoes at closer.
Let us take a look at these five injuries and each player’s recent injury history. And then we will see what backup-plan manager Mike Shildt has in place in the event injury or ineffectiveness plagues one of these vets in 2020.
Then we can posit a guess on how much – or little – the Cardinals should count on from each player and whether younger players might be the way to go for the future.
(One caveat: not all injuries listed here are strictly age-related. But where injuries occur due to impacts that could happen to a player of any age, it is reasonable to assume that age affects both the severity of the injury and the healing/recovery time. And at least anecdotally from the long list of injuries chronicled here, that seems to be the case).
First on deck – to be decked by an injury! – was right-handed pitcher Miles Mikolas. On February 15, 2020 he was reported to have had an issue with his flexor tendon in his right forearm, and “it’s possible” he might be delayed in spring games. But “possible” quickly turned into “certain.” A few days later the report was much more blackpilling:
Goldy came down with elbow soreness the day before the Grapefruit League season was to begin. Worryingly, the soreness did not just flare up on February 21st but actually dated back to the offseason. To the consolation of Cardinals fans, Goldschmidt was in the lineup as DH from day one but did not play his position for several days and only received one at-bat per game for the first week of play.
The elbow issue (presumably the same elbow!) recurred this week and on Wednesday, manager Mike Shildt said Goldschmidt would be “out a couple of days.” Then, of course, pause was pressed on the season.
The tale of Carpenter’s injury history the last two years takes us all the way back to Spring Training 2018 where the front office was described by one writer of this blog as “toying” with fans over whether Carpenter’s spring was in slow motion because of a back problem or a shoulder problem.
Carpenter had an incredible – though streaky – year in 2018 at the plate, even garnering MVP votes. And batting leadoff he amassed 677 PAs even with time off for the injured list in July for – you guessed it – lower back spasms.
Matt’s 2019 looked like this: Through July 2, he was hitting .216/.325/.381 with 10 home runs and was (mercifully?) placed on the injured list with a lower back strain that same day. He was activated on July 11th, but placed back on the IL after fouling a ball off his foot. He was reinstated from the IL on August 4th. And played great by the way, all the way through the NLDS.
Fast forward to 2020, Carpenter developed a back issue again in the very first week of camp which kept him out of action, even though he described it as “super-minor”.
Andrew Miller was having a disastrous camp. Wags were even saying that they’d prefer Miller stay back in extended spring training to get things right, but for the cognitive dissonance of his lavish contract.
And then … lo and behold … it seems Miller’s pitching hand was injured and he was having trouble even feeling the baseball. You don’t have to be Dr. Kildare to see that that could be serious. Nerve-damage or something. It all starts with gripping the baseball, if you are a pitcher. Wednesday, the picture looked brighter:
The 33-year old lefty missed all of last season with a wrist injury and was by no means a lock on sticking with the 26-man roster. On Wednesday, the penultimate game before the hiatus, in a game against the Mets, he suffered a right hamstring injury as he tried to cover first base in the sixth inning. I hate to say it, but that’s a typical older-body type injury.
Going back to 2018, Cecil was hampered by the injury/ineffectiveness tandem. He only pitched 32 innings and had an ERA nearing seven runs per game.
The veteran is potentially at risk of missing time again at the start of his season. Manager Shildt, in a conference call today, said, “I hate to put a time frame on it [Cecil’s recovery]. It’s fairly significant. It’s not a (full) tear, so that’s encouraging. But it’s going to require multiple weeks of treatment to get him back to close to being into baseball activities.”
Cecil is not someone the team was counting on. But he would have been a nice surprise comeback story. And every winning team needs a boost or two from an unexpected source. The Cardinals will likely need to look for serendipity to come from other nooks and crannies of the 40-man roster.
The Injury-free Four
But Wainwright was plagued by numerous injuries the prior two years. It would be a lot to expect him to remain relatively injury-free for two entire seasons, especially as he turns 39 in August. But I wouldn’t put it past him. His start yesterday, the last day before the hiatus, he looked amazing.
Going back to 2018, Molina was injured early in the season (May) and Carson Kelly (remember him?) took over primary catching duties. Yadi barely made it over the minimum number of at-bats that year to qualify.
Last year, Molina spent well over a month on the IL in July-August with a right thumb tendon strain. Moreover, the 37-year-old’s thumb had bothered him since May.
The time span during which Yadi was on IL was one in which the Cardinals rose from a .500 team to 61-55, and had their first dalliance with leading the National League Central, a fact the Cardinals are probably using – albeit delicately – in the contract extension talks currently going on with Yadi’s agent.
Backup plan for Molina: Matt Wieters, a switch-hitting four-time All-Star.
Backup plan for Wieters: Top 10 catching prospect Andrew Knizner.
Dexter Fowler was out in 2017 for a left-knee contusion and did not get a qualifying number of plate appearances. In August 2018 Fowler had to be helped off the field after he came up limping after reaching third base. He netted only 334 plate appearances that year.
Backup plan for Fowler: Vultures, too numerous to mention, circling.
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To a further point, Goldschmidt, Wieters, and Carpenter have received the 18th-, 19th- and 20th-most at-bats this shortened spring season. That is, not very many. 17 to 20 at-bats is only a four-game series-worth at Wrigley. That doesn’t seem to prepare you for a 162-game season.
Yes, Spring Training is mostly about giving the fringe guys some reps so that you can make some position and roster decisions, but one wonders whether the veterans Goldschmidt and Carpenter are really “ready to go” for their starting assignments and Wieters ready to go if Molina busts out another injury.
The Cardinals’ reliance on players over 32 years old seems to have ratcheted up in recent years… along with the salary-bite those players take of the overall payroll. The ratcheting-up process is likely one of the front office hitting the panic button over a certain team need, and acquiring that need in an experienced veteran in lieu of a bevy of cost-controlled younger players.
A few years later, the younger players are giving some other team good value while the older players are still with the Cardinals, supplying varying degrees of health and productivity. But even a veteran riding the bench can provide wisdom – multiculturally, and in both English and in Spanish – to the rookies.
A big generational shift will be coming in the next few years for the Cardinals. This is due to the inevitable retirements and contacts not being renewed. A key to their making the playoffs during this transition period will be the health of the “vets.”
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Human bodies break down. And we’re all human. No one is gleeful or even cavalier about these injuries. But the Cardinals have a baseball team to run. If all nine of these players went down at once, barring some miracle, the Cardinals’ chances of competing would be zero. Having so many eggs in the over-32 basket is a risk, as Spring training has already demonstrated.