Cardinals have foresight not to trade depth
JUPITER, Fla. -- Right around the time Jaime Garcia was visiting Dr. James Andrews up in Pensacola, Fla., for a second opinion on his sore shoulder, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Tyler Lyons lined up in succession on the mounds that sit just outside the St. Louis Cardinals' spring clubhouse to begin a bullpen session.
This is how the Cards roll with the punches.
This setting, nestled in the quiet town center of a developmental community, is the Florida factory where this organization famously churns out quality arms. That it doubles, almost annually, as the spring source of at least one instance of physical anguish -- as Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jason Motte and, now, Garcia can certainly attest -- only hammers home the point of the process.
The Cardinals got good news on Garcia on Wednesday, but they won't know how good until they see how his shoulder, which reportedly has no structural damage, responds to a cortisone injection to treat inflammation. Garcia is an alumnus of both a labrum repair and Tommy John surgery, so, as general manager John Mozeliak so eloquently put it, "his days of feeling perfect are over," as are the days of the Cards counting on him as anything resembling a sure thing. But if we know anything about pitching attrition at the big league level, we can safely assume the Cardinals' days of falling back on their accrued depth in 2014 are probably just beginning.
"Any time you look at who you think can help your Major League club, you realize it's a fragile state," Mozeliak said. "And it's one you don't want to have to take advantage of."
That's precisely why the Cards didn't take advantage of their depth by dealing any of it this winter. If forking over four years and $53 million for 31-year-old shortstop Jhonny Peralta was the cost of keeping Miller, Lynn, Kelly, Lyons, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Tim Cooney, et al., well, so be it.
As a result, this club is stacked in precisely the area you prefer to be stacked at. Garcia's shoulder could prove continually problematic, Rosenthal has a sore groin, Motte might be just a little bit behind the Opening Day timetable as he recovers from Tommy John surgery and Martinez had a little off-the-field distraction in recent days. But these early spring issues aside, the Cardinals are counting on quality early, middle and late in games.
Equally important as the quality, though, is the resolve the Cards have shown with the use of their talent. How many clubs would have loved to thrust Miller onto the World Series stage? How many would mark down the likes of Michael Wacha or Lynn or Kelly or even the still-developing Martinez as absolute rotation locks in lieu of leaving them twisting in the wind in spring camp?
The Cardinals get that what is best for others might not always necessarily be best for them, and they get that competition breeds success.
They saw Miller's decline in sharpness as 2013 evolved and deemed him worthy of rest even when every out was of pivotal import. They view Kelly and Martinez, in particular, as fungible assets who can help them in either the rotation or bullpen, depending on what is the need at that particular point, and so they have them competing accordingly. Wacha was an October legend? OK, great. Prove it wasn't a fluke, kid.
And lest anybody, even Wainwright, get too satisfied with their strengths, the Cardinals are quick to point out oft-overlooked weaknesses, such as the K rate of last year's starters … at the plate. Cards pitchers posted their lowest collective batting average since 1986 last season, and that's been an area of emphasis in these early days of camp.
Now, everybody knows or otherwise assumes the rotation will include Wainwright, Wacha, Miller and Lynn, with Martinez and Kelly competing for the fifth spot, unless Garcia recovers in time to remain in the mix. But beyond Wainwright's Opening Day nod, the Cardinals only confirm what they're comfortable confirming, and they use spring instability as grounds for mental motivation.
"We don't take anything for granted," Miller said.
How could they? There are too many bodies in that room capable of bumping somebody out of a job.
"I think it's normal," said Kelly, whose 2.69 ERA in the face of injuries elsewhere essentially saved the Cards' summer last season. "You never want to be complacent with whatever you do. So it's always good. I don't care about the other guy. It's something you've got to work on for yourself. If you know you did your job and put the effort in, it's not in your hands after that."
All that's in Kelly's hands is the development of a curveball he'll need to help his K rate. All that's in Martinez's hands is the refinement of secondary stuff that would allow him to take his electric stuff into a starting -- and starring -- role.
And what's in manager Mike Matheny's hands is the pleasant problem of too many guys for not enough spots. Or innings, for that matter. Which is why the first two weeks of games, which begin Friday, are so important.
"Last I checked, we don't have a zillion 'B' games lined up, and we don't have a lot of split-[squads]," Mozeliak said. "At some point, when pitchers stop going two [innings] and jump to four or five, that's going to be hard."
Hard choices are good choices, and the Cardinals have more than most. Garcia presents a slight problem in that, aside from Lyons (who is likely to be either in long relief or down on the farm as depth), he was the only left-handed option in this assemblage of starters. But considering that St. Louis reached the World Series with a rotation that, for all intents and purposes, was all right last season, the Cards aren't too worried.
"If [Garcia] is right physically and in a good spot to make quality pitches, we'd love to have him out there," Matheny said. "If not, we're going to take whoever's best -- left, right or whatever."
"Whatever" doesn't really qualify. The Cards aren't so loaded that they have guys throwing with a newly discovered third hand.
But they are uniquely positioned to take a hiccup such as the Garcia news in stride.
Of course, late-February depth can morph into an April or May scarcity quite suddenly (ask last year's Dodgers all about that), which is why the Cardinals' higher-ups join their players in taking nothing for granted.
"The moment you think you have depth, you have to realize it's going to be tested at some point," Mozeliak said. "People might have thought perhaps we were overvaluing [the pitching depth this winter] or were just reluctant to move it. Either way, we felt we had a great set of assets and wanted to retain it."
The unsettled Garcia situation demonstrates the first of what, for all we know, could be multiple reasons why.