Breaking down Cards' rotation candidates

February 18th, 2021

Carlos Martínez wants to start. Jack Flaherty is hoping to be the ace. Adam Wainwright is wearing the birds on the bat.

It’s another Cardinals Spring Training, and some things never change.

St. Louis’ rotation, a Top 10 unit by ERA in 2020, did so by utilizing 10 starters. Save for Dakota Hudson (Tommy John surgery) and Austin Gomber (traded to Colorado), all those faces are back for 2021. The Cards could always bolster their pitching with a signing or trade, but they feel incredibly confident in the depth they hold.

“One of the things that drew me to the Cardinals in the first place when I came back from Japan was their depth,” said righty Miles Mikolas. “A lot of guys to challenge and push each other is always something that's appealing to me.”

Let’s dive into the state of the rotation at the onset of Spring Training, ranked by newsiest candidates.

First off, the sure things:

Storyline: Return from year-long injury

Coming off surgery to repair his right flexor tendon, Mikolas feels good early in Spring Training. He’s dealing with soreness that he might not have had in year’s past, a consequence he said is due to rising age (32) and general wear and tear.

“It feels a lot better than it did this time last year,” Mikolas said. “Going forward, I think it's just learning to listen to it, how it feels, not trying to overdo it too early in camp.”

Storyline: Looking to rebound from rough 2020

Flaherty has the full backing to be the ace that he was from 2018-19. He continued to excel in missing bats, but he's coming off a 4.91 ERA in 2020. The righty bookended the year with strong Opening Day and Wild Card Series starts -- something he’ll hope he can carry over with a likely opener nod this year, too.

Storyline: Second go of MLB competition

Kim was the Cardinals’ biggest revelation of 2020, pitching to a 1.62 ERA across eight outings (seven starts) in his first season in the U.S. The question now becomes, with a year of MLB data to work off, will teams start to figure him out? The lefty excelled at limiting hard contact, but he doesn’t strike many out. Working to his favor is that he still is yet to face anyone outside the Central divisions.

“[I learned] from last year that command is really important in this league,” he said Wednesday. "... To better get the command [this offseason], I focused on my lower body, so that when I pitch, my upper body and lower body flows like water.”

Storyline: Can he be the rock he was in ‘20?

The Cards’ rotation wouldn’t have been as successful without Wainwright last season. That’s partly obvious: He compiled a 3.15 ERA across a club-leading 65 2/3 innings. But he also provided a steady presence -- on and off the field -- as the club dealt with its COVID-19 outbreak. It was Wainwright who allowed one run over five innings for a win in the return to action.

And those on the bubble:

Storyline: Mission unchanged

Of all the unsure cases, Martínez owns the most illustrious track record. Now 29, he’s received two All-Star nods as a starter and returned to the rotation in 2020 after a season and a half as the closer. But his intention is clear: He wants to start if the Cards let him.

Storyline: Starter or closer?

The hopes for Reyes, a former top prospect, has always been to start. He’s seen to have too much talent to limit to just one or two innings, though by the end of 2020 he found himself closing games -- and excelling. Injuries have sidetracked him for years, but now, he has two consecutive healthy offseasons to work off.

“It's a lot of adrenaline,” Reyes said of closing. "... I have fun also starting, so wherever my name is called is where I'd like to pitch.”

Storyline: Early camp favorite a dark horse?

Few players have received more unprompted praise early this Spring Training than Oviedo. The 6-foot-5 prospect (ranked No. 11 in the system) made five starts last season at just 22 years of age in his first MLB showings after the club returned from its outbreak.

Storyline: Do Cards prefer the innings?

Ponce de Leon has made 33 appearances, 20 of which have been starts. If the Cards elect to ride with someone they know in that role -- someone who had a great run of starts at the end of 2020 -- the right-hander may have an inside track. A 12.4 strikeouts-per-nine mark last season also doesn’t hurt.

Others in the running: RHP Jake Woodford, RHP John Gant.