Bernie on the Cardinals: With the Miles Mikolas Injury, Cards Pitching Depth Faces An Early Test

The news popped out over the weekend: Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas experienced forearm discomfort. He’d take a break. Wouldn’t throw for a few days.

Yeah. OK.

Following their predictable pattern, the Cardinals initially downplayed the seriousness of the Mikolas injury. (A strained flexor tendon.) But that wasn’t the case on Tuesday morning in Jupiter, when the team offered an update.

Mikolas will be shut down for several weeks. He’ll open the regular season on the injured list. He could miss the first month of real baseball.

After that, who knows?

I hate to say that most of us saw this coming — but we saw this coming.

It’s easy to overreact in these situations, but not now. This setback should cause anxiety for the Cardinals and their fans.

If Mikolas benefits from extended rest and is good to go sometime in May — well, all things considered, that would be a fairly positive outcome.

That said, it’s really important to remember this: the team’s immediate remedy was to give Mikolas a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right arm, near the flexor tendon. Then he enters the rest mode.

This sounds logical and reasonable. It’s a sound plan. If all goes well, Mikolas could be cleared to start a light-throwing program in mid-to-late May.

And, no surgery!

Except …

Mikolas received a platelet-rich plasma injection at the end of the 2019 postseason and was ordered to rest the arm through the offseason. But when Mikolas reported to spring training and gave his arm a vigorous test run, Ouch. The forearm barked.

And here we are.

Again.

Obvious question: if Mikolas shut it down for this past offseason to give the flexor tendon a chance to cool down and heal — only to have the pain resurface after a hard-throwing session in the first week of spring training — then why should we be confident that a few weeks of rest will take care of it this time?

To repeat: a full offseason of rest didn’t cure the problem. But now the Cardinals hope to get Mikolas right after a substantially shorter recovery period. A few months of rest didn’t work — but a few weeks of rest will have Mikolas back to normal?

You’ll have to excuse my skepticism. And I sure as hell hope that my skepticism turns out to be unfounded. Because if the planned break from throwing doesn’t fix Mikolas, he could be headed to a more extreme outcome.

Forearm weakness is often a precursor to significant elbow injuries. And though the Cardinals say that this week’s scan of Mikolas’ right elbow checked out fine … “encouraging” was the word of the day — we’ll see how this plays out.

Mikolas had an outstanding performance during his 2018 debut season for the Cardinals. The positives included a 2.83 ERA and MLB’s lowest walk rate by a starter. But Mikolas wasn’t as sharp in 2019, pitching to a 4.16 ERA. He was ripped for 27 home runs after yielding only 16 in 2018. The slugging percentage against Mikolas jumped from .350 in 2018 to .449 last year. After posting 4.2 WAR in 2018, Mikolas dipped to 2.5 WAR in ‘19.

Two things about that: (1) A regression for Mikolas was likely if not inevitable. And (2) you have to wonder if the flexor-tendon issue was a factor in his 2019 performance.

But Mikolas was durable and reliable for the second consecutive season — and that’s a valuable asset for any MLB starting rotation.

Mikolas gave the Cardinals 184.2 innings during the regular season, battled through challenges to crank out a 3.34 ERA in September, and was nicked for two earned runs in 12 postseason innings.

In his first two seasons with the Cardinals, Mikolas led the rotation in starts and innings. His 6.7 WAR was second to Jack Flaherty (7.0 WAR.) And his strikeout-walk ratio, 4.75, was the best among Cardinals starters over the two years.

Among all qualifying MLB starting pitchers in 2018-2019 combined, Mikolas ranked ninth for most innings pitched, 10th in starts, 14th in ERA (3.46), 20th in WAR, seventh in K-BB ratio, and had the 12th-lowest home run rate.

Make no mistake: If Mikolas remains out of action for an indefinite period, it would be a blow to the Cardinals. A team that depends on strict run prevention for overall success can’t have a gauzy rotation.

The Cardinals were fortunate in 2019; they required starts from only eight pitchers. And 92.6 percent of their regular-season starts were handled by the five-man rotation that began the season: Flaherty, Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson and Michael Wacha.

As the Cardinals discovered this week with Mikolas, it’s unlikely for any team to count on rotation stability for two years in a row.

The Cardinals can lean on good depth. Carlos Martinez is set to return to the rotation, lefty K.K. Kim was signed out of Korea, Alex Reyes is hopeful of a successful comeback, lefty Austin Gomber is healthy, Genesis Cabrera has raw talent, Daniel Ponce de Leon provides insurance, John Gant is capable of starting, and the team may consider reliever Ryan Helsley as a potential starter.

But questions abound …

Jack Flaherty is a pitching barbarian, but is it fair to expect him to replicate his historically dominant second-half performance (0.91 ERA) in 2020?

Carlos Martinez possesses abundant talent but still has much to prove in terms of pitching health and endurance. He hasn’t been a healthy starter for a full season since 2017.

Dakota Hudson had shiny surface numbers in 2019, but trouble absolutely will find him if he can’t improve on his 18 percent strikeout and a 11.5% walk rate.

God bless Adam Wainwright, who rebounded from injury-related torment to give the Cardinals an uplifting comeback season in 2019. But he’s 38. He’ll be 39 by the end of August.

K.K. Kim has a nasty slider, and was excellent over his final two seasons in Korea. One way or another, we’ll find out a lot about him early on in 2020.

Alex Reyes, still only 25, is overdue for prosperous pitching health and luck, and his talent is formidable. But can he hold up physically? Moreover, the Cardinals seem determined to utilize him in the bullpen.

Ryan Helsley has a closer’s edge and a blazing fastball. Is he better off in the bullpen?

John Gant helped as a starter in 2018, but didn’t go deep into games because of an 11.6 percent walk rate that quickly elevated his pitch count. And as a reliever in ‘19, Gant had an ERA of 6.15 from June 8 until the end of the season.

Ponce de Leon walks too many batters. Unless that changes, he’ll be on the fringe of the competition.

Gomber is intriguing, yes. But injuries limited him to only 49 innings pitched last season, all in the minors.

Genesis Cabrera — pardon the pun — is a wild card.

Left-handed prospect Zack Thompson, the team’s first-round draft choice last June, could emerge as a starter candidate at some point in 2020 — especially if the rotation takes additional hits.

All the Cardinals can do is hope for the best-case scenario for Mikolas. But the rotation is this team’s primary strength, and the Cardinals can’t afford to have it weakened.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie