When Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol professes he’s not being evasive when he largely opts out of discussing the potential makeup of his team’s pitching staff in a short series, there’s every reason to believe him — for now.
Without clarity around who the Cardinals’ opponent will be in the best-of-three Wild Card round, and indeed before they’ve officially clinched their own spot there, there’s a limited number of reliable decisions which can be made, up to and including the number of pitchers likely to be on the club’s 26-man roster. By rule, that number can be no more than 13 — but it can, and almost certainly will, be less.
“The idea of what you find importance in when it comes to how guys are trending, I get it,” he acknowledged Tuesday in his office at American Family Field. “I’d ask the same question. I’d just hate to overreact to two weeks one way or another.”
The clearest giveaway of the direction the wind is currently blowing is in the realignment of the rotation for the two-game set against the Brewers. With only one win needed against Milwaukee to lock up the National League Central, St. Louis shifted around off days to align Miles Mikolas and José Quintana to pitch the two most important games of their season to date.
Bank on those two to be assigned two of the best-of-three games in the Wild Card round, in which the Cardinals will almost certainly be playing as the division winner with the best record.
After that, every decision is a tough one.
What’s next for Wainwright?
Adam Wainwright is slated to pitch Sunday’s home finale at Busch Stadium in what could potentially be the last regular season home game of his storied career. Could it also be his last appearance in St. Louis at all? Given his struggles in September, it would be hard to make a coherent argument for his seizing that final spot.
And yet Marmol, explaining Wainwright would use his time in Milwaukee to work through several mechanical adjustments that both pitcher and team have identified as necessary, lightly chided a room of writers for their pessimism when it comes to evaluating what the right-hander may provide.
“I guess I’m more optimistic than this room when it comes to Waino,” he said with a half smile and a half. “Yes, it’s been trending in a direction that he’s not happy with, nobody’s real happy with. But I’m not going to bet against this guy.”
Wainwright’s three-inning start on Sunday in Los Angeles was his shortest of the season; indeed, it was his shortest since his first start of 2021. In five September starts, he’s pitched just 24 innings with a 6.38 earned run average. He does, however, have two wins among those five games, and his 4.16 fielding independent pitching mark does suggest that he hasn’t had the support from his defense to which he’s been accustomed.
Contrast that with lefty Jordan Montgomery, whose five September starts have yielded a 4.67 ERA, but a 4.34 FIP. The best defense in baseball can’t do much to bring back home runs.
And still, past Montgomery and Wainwright, Jack Flaherty lingers. The one-time ace and current-time bounce back hope finished his most recent start with three of the strongest innings he’s provided in three seasons, including flashing a swing-and-miss tool that his manager professed to “love.”
All the while, with only three starters needed for the Wild Card round and the opportunity to reset the roster before the Division Series should they advance, it’s challenging to see how the current pieces on the pitching staff all could fit. The two most likely matchups for the opening round are Philadelphia, with lefty sluggers Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber, and San Diego, more balanced between Manny Machado and Juan Soto.
If indeed the decision does come down to matchups, it may not be so simple to determine who matches up best, and who should slide out to make room.
Mix and match
Marmol did concede the team sees the wisdom in carrying a defacto fourth starter who would be available to take over a game on short notice should one of the scheduled three run into trouble early. Even so, eight available spots in the bullpen should provide plenty of flexibility.
Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Steven Matz and Andre Pallante are all but guaranteed spots, should they remain healthy. A starter left out of the mix — Flaherty, for instance, with top velocity in short stints, would have appeal. And the Cardinals continue to be intrigued by Génesis Cabrera, who has recovered his missing velocity at Memphis while putting up five consecutive scoreless outings.
Beyond that, the ability to mix and match and cover both sides of the plate as well as innings — Dakota Hudson, Chris Stratton, Zack Thompson, Jake Woodford — will have value. And ultimately, if the 14th pitcher in a bullpen determines the outcome of a series, then things have likely gone far off the rails.
As of yet, the rails aren’t laid. Within a week, Marmol will need answers. Today, they haven’t yet arrived.