Bernie: Jordan Hicks Was Fine. Until He Wasn’t. Why Can’t the Cardinals Tell The Truth About Injuries?

Losing Jordan Hicks to an elbow injury is a wallop of a punch to the Cardinals’ bullpen and the team’s chances of returning to the postseason.

Members of the Cardinals’ bullpen have formed the most fiercely competitive area of a team, showing none of the mental softness and excuse-making weakness that permeates other sections of the roster.

The bullpen has valiantly pushed through a challenging season and difficult set of circumstances, constantly required to compensate for a shortage of innings and quality from a thin starting rotation.

Management’s offseason failure to strengthen the rotation has added extra responsibility and workload to the bullpen. And relievers have been going down with injuries, one after another: righthanders Mike Mayers, Alex Reyes, Ryan Helsley — plus a potential bullpen piece in Memphis lefty Austin Gomber.

Lefthander Brett Cecil, one of the worst free-agent signings in franchise history, is an injured-list irrelevancy. RH Dominic Leone, acquired from Toronto to be a strong bullpen asset, has never approached the anticipated level of shutdown-class reliever. Leone currently housed in Memphis, trying to get back on track.

The Cardinals were so desperate for bullpen help that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak even tried to revive the carcass-stage career of faded RH reliever Luke Gregerson. (Yet another example of an awful free-agent signing by Mozeliak.)

Stout, quality relievers such as John Gant and John Brebbia have been beaten down in recent appearances. They’ve been worked hard this season, and it’s natural to wonder if fatigue is an increasing factor here.

Gant has a 7.27 ERA and 5.1 percent strikeout rate in his last seven appearances. In 10 relief gigs this month, Brebbia has 10.00 ERA with 11 strikeouts, five walks and two homers yielded in nine innings.

Despite all of the wear, tear and chaos the St. Louis bullpen ranks ninth in the majors, and fourth in the National League, with a 4.15 Fielding Independent ERA (aka FIP.) As a group STL relievers have the No. 1 strikeout rate (27.5%) among NL bullpens. And the ‘pen is 12th in the majors, and sixth in the NL, in Win Probability Added.

Had this bullpen imploded, the Cardinals would be in much worse shape than they are right now. Though May was a little rough (4.90 ERA) the bullpen has played a substantial role in keeping the Cardinals (40-37) above .500 and in a close stalking position in the NL Central standings.

And now, this: losing Hicks?

And this won’t be a brief IL stint. Hicks could be gone for the remainder of the season if it’s necessary to have Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Hicks was rolling this season, converting 14 of 15 save opportunities this season with a 3.14 ERA, an improved strikeout rate (28.2%) and spectacular 67.2 percent ground-ball rate in 28.2 innings.

The elevated walk rate (10%) is still a problem for Hicks but it’s important to remember that he’s 22 years old and still evolving. This is a painful injury for Hicks, and a painful loss for a bullpen that’s already under duress because of management neglect.

The Cardinals have multiple options for closers: Gant, Carlos Martinez, Andrew Miller, and the ridiculously underrated righthander Giovanny Gallegos.

(A brief sidebar on Gallegos: he’s underrated because of his 36 percent strikeout rate against LH batters, and a 39% K rate vs. RH batters. Plus his low walk rate. And his ability to limit home runs. And then there’s his 0.92 ERA in his last 17 appearances covering 19.2 innings. Over a stretch that began May 14, Gallegos has struck out 24 with only one walk. He’s barely been touched by hitters, allowing a .154 average and .423 OPS. You may be wondering about Brebbia. Hey, I like and respect him. But Brebbia gets clobbered by LH batters. He needs to be used in a matchup-heavy role.)

Even with some good closing candidates in house, the Cardinals need more pitching depth. They need insurance and protection. They cannot afford a bullpen collapse.

It’s time — way past time, actually — for Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch to get busy. The Cardinals’ ongoing complacency and absence of urgency should infuriate every paying customer.

This bullpen requires a transfusion. And there is absolutely no justifiable reason to hold off on making moves. Not just a bullpen move, either. Reinforce the bullpen and do something about the rotation. Go get a starter who can supply innings, an acquisition that would ease the bullpen’s burden.

The Cardinals haven’t said for sure that Hicks will have TJ surgery.  But before putting out a bad-news statement on Monday, the organization embarrassed itself — again — with a misleading, absurdly optimistic injury diagnosis. In comments made over the weekend the Cards downplayed the extent of Hicks’ injury, portraying it as tendonitis and a minor concern.

And if the Cardinals speak on Hicks’ situation before Tuesday’s home game against Oakland, and wave off  the need for surgery … well, say a little baseball prayer for Hicks. Because as soon as the Cardinals dismiss a worst-case scenario for an injured player, it means we can count on a worst-case outcome.

Same as it ever was.

We’ve been down Mulder Road many times before. It’s of the most befuddling things I’ve ever seen in sports — the way the Cardinals almost always minimize the significance of the latest injury. They tell the fans and media that the player is fine and just needs a few days off. And then … out for months, or the entire season.

For those who may not understand the “Mulder Road” thing… it’s in reference to former Cardinals’ lefthanded starter Mark Mulder, who was tormented by a bad shoulder over a three-season period, 2006-2008. He was able to make only 21 starts during the three years, and was essentially helpless in fending off hitters — as his 7.73 ERA indicates. But in just about every step of way, Cardinals management insisted that poor Mulder was fine, making great progress, looking good, and will return to the rotation. And this pattern has been repeated many times with other injured players.

So when the Cardinals concoct another fabrication or fantasy about a player’s injury status, I refer to this as going down that “Mulder Road.”

It’s truly bizarre. I don’t know whether these folks are habitual fibbers, insanely optimistic of just plain stupid.

But these constant misdirection plays in publicly assessing injuries is a disservice to the Cards’ medical staff, which gets ridiculed every time “tendonitis” becomes Tommy John surgery.

This isn’t the fault of the medical staff. The problem is with Mozeliak, Girsch and manager Mike Shildt. Instead of waiting for the tests to be done and having the full report come back, they put a happy-talk spin on the initial injury read.

Here’s what I don’t understand: why?

How in the hell does this help the team to lie — or otherwise take a Pollyana make-a-wish stroll into Cuckoo Land — when initially dispensing injury information to the public?

What is gained by this communication malpractice? Does the front office and the manager somehow believe that their home-remedy optimism is a potion that will suddenly heal an injured player?

Question: when a player — such as Hicks — leaves a game because of a physical concern, what’s so difficult about saying something along these lines:

“Jordan is important to us, and we’re hoping for the best. Right now we’re keeping our fingers crossed. But we really won’t know until we run the tests and have a more conclusive understanding of what we’re dealing with here. As soon as we get that information, we’ll be happy to discuss it.”

That’s a reasonable, logical and honest answer. But the Cardinals know best, of course. Management and the manager must really believe that their fans are imbeciles, or they wouldn’t continue feeding this utter nonsense and offering servings of crazy delusions to their audience.

The project of getting the Cardinals to react to injuries by telling the truth — or at least avoiding stepping in their own mess of propaganda — can wait.

The only priority right now is to secure pitching help.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie