Flaherty is Cardinals' biggest X-factor in '23

February 18th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. --  could have ducked the question, ignored the proverbial elephant in the Cardinals clubhouse and prattled off a rehearsed cliché about not having given any thought to his pending free agency following the 2023 season.

However, that’s simply not how the daring Flaherty operates. He holds himself to exceptionally high standards -- sometimes to his own detriment -- and he couldn’t live with himself for ignoring or fearing a milestone moment. So, Flaherty said he will confront his uncertain baseball future beyond this season the same way he would a hitter in a tight spot -- he’ll attack it full-bore. What Flaherty won’t do, he stressed, is pretend like his free agency following this season isn’t a big deal or is unworthy of his attention.

“I’ve had conversations with people about what to do and how to handle that, and I haven’t hid at all from that, so who knows what happens after this season,” Flaherty said on Saturday. “There are certain times you’re in big situations, and things come along in life or baseball, and you want to play them down, but that’s never worked for me, and I just own it. Technically it’s the final year of my contract and that makes it a bigger year, but you embrace it for what it is. Nothing happens until we get there, and the goal now is to win a World Series.”

Maybe no Cardinal has more riding on the season ahead than the 27-year-old Flaherty, who is eager to prove he can stay healthy, be an ace and lock up his long-term future when he hits free agency for the first time. No one is pulling harder for Flaherty to once again resemble the pitcher who dominated in 2019 and the one who started 2021 in torrid fashion than a Cardinals team desperate to be serious World Series contenders again. Their ability to do that depends on continued production from and and bounce-back seasons from and . It also depends heavily on Flaherty again being dominant -- a force that could have a slingshot effect on the Cardinals chances of rising to the top of a rugged National League.

“We’re betting on what’s in that clubhouse, and Jack’s a big part of that,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “We have confidence in what he’s going to bring. Everybody says, ‘Can he be the Jack we saw [in 2019]? … Jack’s trying to be better, and we’re hopeful he can. Can he be a big part of what we’re wanting to do? Absolutely, and he knows and embraces that.”

For starters, Flaherty is much healthier than last spring, when he needed platelet-rich injections and rest to alleviate shoulder pain that lasted throughout 2022 -- a season in which he was 2-1 over 36 innings. However, a late-season breakthrough -- a nine-strikeout performance in San Diego on Sept. 22 -- convinced Flaherty he was finally healthy.

“Before that start, I had a friend tell me to let it go,” he recalled. “He was like, ‘You have to trust you’re good and trust yourself!’ I was finally able to relax and realize it was there and I had it.”

Does Flaherty have it enough to get back to his levels of 2019 when he had a 2.75 ERA and 231 strikeouts, or his impressive 8-1 start to 2021 before oblique and shoulder issues sabotaged him? He thinks so, and his electric fastball and wipeout slider were on display on Saturday when he threw BP for the first time this spring.

Like the free-agency matter, Flaherty doesn’t run from knowing his success will likely correlate to the Cards' chances of contending.

“I’ll take that [expectation],” he said. “You want that to fall on your shoulders. … Every time I get the ball, I want the team to show up and feel we’re going to win. I think we’re going to feel that way a lot this season.”

How will Flaherty feel come free agency in the fall? Would he like to follow in the footsteps of mentor Adam Wainwright, and spend nearly two decades with the Cardinals? There are a lot of innings to be pitched before then, but the model appeals to him.

“I think it’s an awesome thing for people to do that,” Flaherty said. “Two guys I looked up to, [Derek] Jeter and Kobe [Bryant], were with one team for that long. Waino and others have done it and it’s awesome. You know the culture, you’re comfortable and you start to turn it into home, so it can be really good.”