Cards relying on veteran stars ... and one special prospect
JUPITER, Fla. -- Not long after Cardinals cornerstone Adam Wainwright was scratched as Opening Day starter -- a role he has held six times during his 17 MLB seasons -- the 41-year-old pitcher almost immediately shifted his focus to other ways he could help the ballclub.
Part prognosticator, part pitching savant, Wainwright said St. Louis should have more than enough pitching firepower to overcome the groin injury that will force him to open his final MLB season on the injured list. Wainwright stated his long-range desire to be Team USA’s pitching coach for the 2026 World Baseball Classic, but first he wants to use his time away from the mound assisting other Cardinals hurlers as a quasi-pitching coach. He thinks the Cards have the kind of pitching this season that could again make them World Series contenders.
“I think everybody knows what Jack Flaherty is capable of, and everyone knows what Miles Mikolas is capable of, but I don’t think they know quite how great Miles is yet,” Wainwright said. “But I don’t think people know about our two big lefties [Steven Matz and Jordan Montgomery] and how good those guys could be.
“I think if I’m given a full season to speak into their abilities and help them along the lines while we’re on the bench and talking, I think we’re going to have two superstars there in our lefties, I really do. Their stuff is the best on the team. We’re going to face some lineups with big lefties, and those guys can hopefully neutralize them.”
When chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oliver Marmol addressed the Cardinals prior to the first Spring Training workout, they told the group that few changes were made to the roster because they believed in the talent already in place. National League MVP Award winner Paul Goldschmidt and MVP finalist Nolan Arenado will be joined in the lineup by new catcher Willson Contreras and 20-year-old slugger Jordan Walker. The Cards are hoping that those stars, combined with some of the best starting- and bullpen-pitching depth, will be enough to help the franchise make its first deep playoff run since reaching the NL Championship Series in 2018.
“We’re betting big on our guys,” Marmol said. “We think we have enough talent in the [clubhouse] to win, and we’re about to find out.”
Here is a look at some of the major keys for the Cardinals in the season ahead, one that will eventually include the injured Wainwright.
What needs to go right?
Obviously, the Cardinals need Goldschmidt and Arenado to continue their dueling MVP-type production. But they also are counting on big bounceback seasons from Tyler O'Neill, Dylan Carlson and Flaherty. O’Neill and Carlson spent most of the offseason in St. Louis bettering their bodies, and both have shown signs of progress. The Cards are hopeful O’Neill and Carlson can be closer to their homer totals from 2021 (34 and 18, respectively) instead of '22 (14 and eight). Flaherty is as healthy as he’s been since the start of the 2021 season, when he opened 8-1, and the Cardinals want to believe that he can still be a staff ace. He will be a free agent at season’s end, so he should have plenty of motivation to be a stopper.
How much fuel does Wainwright have left in the tank? Wainwright, who will miss “several weeks” because of the groin strain, according to Marmol, was embarrassed and motivated by not pitching in the playoffs last fall. Now, he hopes to end his career with a flourish -- much the way legendary slugger Albert Pujols did in 2022. But how effective can Wainwright be with fastball and cutter velocities that have been mostly in the high 80s and low 90s in Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic?
Said Marmol boldly: “I wouldn’t bet against Waino.”
Team MVP will be …
Arenado. Despite being an MVP finalist, a winner of a 10th straight Gold Glove Award and a Silver Slugger honoree for a fifth time in eight years in 2022, Arenado somehow still isn’t talked about as one of the game’s greatest all-around players. MLB Network ranked him as only MLB’s fifth-best third baseman. That’s quite low for someone who will likely go down as the greatest defensive third baseman in history. Throw in the fact that he’s had seven straight 30-home run, 100-RBI seasons -- minus the COVID-impacted 2020, of course -- and Arenado should be mentioned with Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts as the game’s greatest players. An MVP performance in 2023 could finally cement his rightful place among the greats.
Team Cy Young will be …
Flaherty. The 27-year-old right-hander has about $150 million reasons to pitch like the Cardinals' staff ace. There’s a popular theory floating around Cards camp that goes something like this: If Flaherty is the team’s ace in 2023, the Cardinals can seriously compete for a World Series title. If he’s their third- or fourth-best starter, the Cards could be looking at another early playoff exit. Flaherty is finally healthy, and he showed up to Spring Training in phenomenal shape. While he hasn’t come close to looking like the dominant ace of 2019 when he fanned 231 batters over 196 1/3 innings, Flaherty is once again hitting 95 mph on the radar gun and using his wipeout slider to keep hitters guessing. He has experimented with a cutter -- a pitch that could serve him well against lefties.
Not only will the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Walker win the NL Rookie of the Year, but he will join the 20-home run, 20-stolen base club in his first MLB season. The Cardinals' No. 1 prospect came into camp with all eyes on him, and somehow, he still managed to exceed expectations. His stellar Spring Training performance evoked memories of 2001, when a 21-year-old Pujols hit his way onto the roster despite never spending a day in Triple-A. Now, the 20-year-old Walker -- a sensation last season in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League -- could be on the verge of repeating the feat. Already he’s shown he has the patience and maturity of someone well beyond his years, and he just might use his rookie season to prove that greatness is in his future.