How Cardinals can navigate starting pitching surplus

Jack Flaherty #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at loanDepot park on April 07, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Jack Flaherty #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at loanDepot park on April 07, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /
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The St Louis Cardinals have dealt with injuries to the rotation all season, but suddenly are about to have a surplus of starters.

When Miles Mikolas took the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday, it meant that he was starting for the second time this season. It marked that the Cardinals had their top three starters healthy for only the second time this season. And it meant that the team, who has lost countless starting pitchers throughout the regular season, are finally starting to get healthy again.

“Look at us go, what a luxury,” manager Mike Shildt said, “starting pitching.”

Shildt is not wrong — and the Cardinals are about to have an even greater starting pitching surplus when Kwang Hyun Kim and Wade LeBlanc return from the injured list. Both are said to be making progress in their recoveries and should return sometime in the near future. And when they do return, Shildt and the coaching staff are going to have to make some tough decisions with the rotation.

Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright and Mikolas are firmly placed into the rotation. Kim, when he eventually returns, should have a spot as well. It leaves one spot for LeBlanc, J.A. Happ and Jon Lester, which will not be an easy decision. Lester, who has struggled since being acquired, figures to be relegated to the bullpen. But an argument can be made for both LeBlanc and Happ being in the rotation.

LeBlanc, 37, was considered an afterthought when the Cardinals signed him as a free agent, but has produced a 3.61 ERA and 23/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 appearances. Happ, 38, has a 1.62 ERA in three starts in St. Louis and looks like a relative steal at this point, though a 4.31 FIP suggests that there will eventually be regression.

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The most likely outcome is that Happ stays in the rotation and LeBlanc is moved to the bullpen. After all, Happ has extensive starting experience while the Cardinals signed LeBlanc to pitch out of the bullpen, with injuries quickly shifting him to the rotation. But it’s a good position for the Cardinals to be in, given what their season has looked like from an injury standpoint, and should only help their chances of not overworking the bullpen and trying to catch up to the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds for the second wild card spot.