The Cardinals, if they reach the postseason, must pick from an underwhelming bunch to start their playoff games. Who do they choose?
As the end of the regular season draws closer, the Cardinals are, as usual, playoff contenders. Though this year, many people might not refer to them as that. A remarkably mediocre year from a team fresh off of a 100-win season has, in large part, been caused by the dramatic drop in the quality of the team’s starting pitching. This year, however, even after a long string of mediocrity, the Cardinals still may find themselves in the postseason for the sixth year in a row. And as opposed to last year, the question is now who can we trust on the mound.
Adam Wainwright had an incredible year in 2014, leading the Cardinals to a division title and an NLCS appearance for the fourth year in a row. In 2015 fans were optimistic about what the staff could accomplish with him at the helm again. But that optimism turned sour quickly as he tore his Achilles tendon at the beginning of the season, which at the time seemed season ending. The Cardinals’ rotation responded by having one of the best rotations of the modern era. Every pitcher was counted on to provide a quality outing, and this pitching helped make up for a lackluster offensive year. At the end of the year, however, the staff tired and the team struggled in their first round defeat to the Cubs.
Fans had little reason to worry about the pitching staff entering 2016. Sure, John Lackey was gone, but the Cardinals’ ace of the past 5 years was returning from an injury, and it was thought that the signing of Mike Leake would make up for Lance Lynn’s season ending Tommy John surgery. But, outside of Carlos Martinez, the pitching staff struggled all season, and now as we look forwards to a potential Wild Card game followed by a series with the Cubs, who can the team trust?
Ask any Cardinals fan you know, and they’ll be sure to tell you what a huge disappointment of a season this has been. Between an unfathomable number of injuries, unexpected underperformance from many positions, and Mike Matheny’s nightly shenanigans, it’s easy to say they’re lucky to still be within striking distance of a playoff spot with just 13 games to go in the season.
Typically teams use a three or four man pitching rotation in the playoffs, as travel days and a more relaxed schedule allow arms to heal without a five man staff. So, for the purpose of this article, let’s assume that the Cardinals want a four man staff in order to give young arms like Carlos Martinez extra time between starts, and allow starters to pitch deeper into games to allow the remarkably thin bullpen more rest. Who do the Cardinals start, and in what order?
The team should go with Carlos Martinez as their number one starter. Although Adam Wainwright is the team’s more battle-tested postseason veteran, Martinez pitched a little bit in the postseason (albeit out of the bullpen). In 16.2 innings, Martinez has pitched himself to the tune of a 3.24 era, which is remarkably solid considering the level of competition in postseason play and Martinez’s youth. Plus, this season Martinez has been one of the only Cardinals pitchers to reliably keep the team in the game. No 6 run blowups in the first inning like Jaime Garcia, or surprisingly, Wainwright. If the offense provides proper run support, the team should be able to count on Martinez as a trusty pitcher in the number 1 spot.
— Mark Saxon (@markasaxon) September 19, 2016
After Martinez the rotation gets a little trickier. Garcia’s recent struggles and demotion to the bullpen rule him out for a role in the playoff rotation, so the Cardinals can choose between Wainwright and Mike Leake (both of whom have been underwhelming this year), and the rookies in Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver. Weaver has definitely struggled recently, giving up six runs in his two previous starts, while Reyes has dazzled in his opportunities this year, providing solid innings in relief, and more recently, seven shutout innings against the Giants in a crucial game.
But, Reyes just turned 22 last month, and Wainwright is the battle hardened veteran. The Cardinals should take that into consideration, and slot Wainwright in the postseason two slot, should the Cardinals make it that far. Slide Reyes right behind him at number three, and you have three pitchers who the Cardinals should trust at the front end of the rotation.
Behind them, pick your poison. I’ve got Mike Leake as of now, but that could change in the coming weeks. I am a strong believer in the impact momentum has in the playoffs. The Cardinals fell prone to it last year against Chicago, when the best team in baseball last year fell to the hottest team in baseball. In his last start against San Francisco, Leake twirled a quality start, allowing two runs over six innings. That game followed two beatings at the hand of the Giants, and Leake kept a dormant Cardinals offense in the game, which allowed for the blown save and the momentum shifting win.
Should Leake continue pitching those solid games to finish up his season, the Cardinals will need to trust him in a playoff series. But if Weaver is able to rebound from his two horrendous outings and finish out the year strong, he should get the start. I believe in Weaver’s potential, and know that he has the stuff to be a quality pitcher for the Cardinals, but as of now I don’t see him earning a spot in the playoff rotation.
So, does a playoff rotation of Martinez, Wainwright, Reyes, and Leake strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters? No. But it’s the best the Cardinals can do right now. Let’s just hope they are able to use it.
Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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