The Cardinals haven’t been to the World Series since 2013, haven’t been to the NLCS since 2014 and haven’t even been to the playoffs since 2015. Embarking on the 2019 season Thursday in Milwaukee, the talent on hand gives this group the best chance they have to get back to the fall classic since the 2013 team.
Why? Depth and pitching. Starting with the starters. I began spring training concerned about starting pitching. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty have done it for one year. How many times have we seen a pitcher have one great year and flame out? Michael Fulmer won rookie of the year for Detroit in 2016 but has regressed in each of the last two years. Detroit has also had one year wonders like Mark Fidrych in 1976 and Justin Thompson in 1997. Jason Jennings was never the same after winning the ROY for Colorado in the N.L. in 2002. And of course the Cardinals have had their fair share that have flamed out after a single good year for various reasons; Rick Ankiel, Kent Bottenfield, Silvio Martinez, Garrett Stephenson and Todd Wellemeyer have all had solid to great starting seasons and never been the same afterward.
So it’s fair to wonder whether the Cardinals’ top two can do it again. But Flaherty was as dominant this spring as he was in 2018. He struck out 22 and walked three in seventeen innings, pitching to a 2.12 ERA. Many numerous national observers, including Hall of Famer Peter Gammons of The Athletic, think Flaherty has what it takes to win a Cy Young award (subscription required) . In fact, one N.L. GM told Gammons — “If I bet, which I do not, I’d go to Vegas and put money down on Jack Flaherty to win the Cy Young.”
While Mikolas hasn’t delivered great spring stats, the ones that count for him have been the same as last year. Mikolas works in the strike zone and gets strike one. In thirteen innings he’s walked only three. He’s been bitten by the home run, but Mikolas’ success last year was based on amazing control within the strike zone. Until he starts walking guys, you have to think he’ll give the Cardinals what they expect.
The other three, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, were injured last season. Martinez, of course, already is hurt. But the club has gotten excellent spring work out of pitchers they saw as rookies last year. Dakota Hudson, who was the PCL pitcher of the year and the Cardinals minor league pitcher of the year, has dominated spring hitters. John Gant has been as workmanlike as he has been throughout his career. Alex Reyes…who has always had otherworldly talent…has been brilliant in spring training and will start the season in the bullpen. Both Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon, who won’t be on the opening day roster, provide depth in case of inevitable injuries to starters.
The bullpen, which struggled mightily last season, has a new, powerful look. Jordan Hicks has a year of big league experience, and he’s joined by one of the dominant relievers in baseball in Andrew Miller. A parade of power righthanders will set them up…working backwards with Reyes, John Brebbia, Mike Mayers, Dominic Leone and Gant.
Offensively, I’ll go back to my number one stat from last season. When the Cardinals scored three or more runs, they were 85-37. When they scored less than three, they were 3-37. And they had a problem in the middle of the order. Now they have Paul Goldschmidt, one of the premier hitters in baseball who has a career slash line of .297/.398/.532, so he will be an upgrade for an offense that was fifth in runs last season. Can he provide seven or eight more games in which the Cardinals score three or more? I would think so. The lineup should be able to improve upon their standing in runs scored simply because they have Goldy. Matt Carpenter is one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. Getting the best from among Dexter Fowler/Tyler O’Neill/Jose Martinez should give them enough from the right field. The depth in the lineup provides plenty of opportunities to score.
Other teams in the central division don’t have the overall depth that the Cardinals do. They’ll have a good team at Memphis for support when injuries occur.
Granted, there are concerns. Is there a closer? Can Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong stay healthy? What is Fowler going to bring to the table? Is Harrison Bader going to improve offensively? Can Marcell Ozuna match what he delivered last season? Even with all of the starting pitching talent, are there enough innings to get to and through September? How will Mike Shildt deal with adversity? There are plenty of questions.
From a talent standpoint, this can be a World Series team. Starting Thursday, we’ll find out if they have the intangibles that make up a champion.