What will Cards' rotation look like in 2021?

December 15th, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- For the first time since the 2014-15 season, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martínez will start a Dominican Winter League game on Friday for the Águilas Cibaeñas. The Cards gave their permission to the veteran to get some innings in his home country after a bout with COVID-19 and a left oblique strain led him to pitch only 20 innings in 2020, posting a 9.90 ERA across five starts.

The former All-Star can use the Winter League starts to begin to build up his workload, because heading into his final guaranteed year on his contract, Martínez’s role is no longer guaranteed.

“He has to come in and earn a spot,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said last week. “Our rotation can be very competitive given all the different arms that would like to start. Right now, we’ve guaranteed nothing. Hopefully he’s taking advantage of his offseason … and when it comes time to get to Jupiter, [Fla.,] he’s ready to compete.”

Since the 2018 season, when Martínez's role as a starter and reliever began to blend, he has posted a 4.49 ERA in 23 starts (120 1/3 innings) and a 2.70 ERA (66 2/3 innings) as a reliever -- including 29 saves. His success out of the 'pen offers a valuable relief option for the Cardinals, especially if potential closer Jordan Hicks (Tommy John surgery and COVID-19 opt-out) is slowed at all coming back from close to two years off the mound.

But if Martínez is able to earn consideration as a starter -- and the Cardinals don’t trade him -- his ability to cover innings could offer a valuable option for the club, considering the challenge that will be presented to teams in the coming season: handling a sharp increase in pitchers’ innings. Clubs try to avoid huge increases in workload from one year to the next because of injury risk, but whether the coming season features a full 162 games or something shorter, starters could see their innings doubled in some cases. Another challenge is at the Minor League level, where some prospects could go from throwing zero innings in 2020 to a full season’s workload.

“I think we both can count on one hand or less how many times you go through a season with just five starters,” Mozeliak said. “So planning-wise, the more inning depth you have, the better.”

In 2020, Adam Wainwright led the Cardinals with 69 innings pitched, including the playoffs -- less than half of what he pitched in '19 (171 2/3). Jack Flaherty logged 46 1/3 innings in '20. Tripling his workload would get him to 139 innings.

With Wainwright unsigned and Dakota Hudson out for 2021 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, Flaherty will join lefty Kwang Hyun Kim in the rotation next season, barring injury. Miles Mikolas, who missed '20 with a right flexor tendon strain, has made progress to be ready for a normal Spring Training.

Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo are candidates to come into Spring Training as starters and help cover innings along the way. Mozeliak also said that he’s expecting Alex Reyes to make a push for the rotation. Even Matthew Liberatore, the Cardinals’ No. 3 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, or Zack Thompson, the No. 5 prospect, could get some Major League innings at some point.

This is where the Cardinals have value: options for the rotation and bullpen that add elasticity and length. There are players who can start, pitch in the middle innings and enter in high-leverage situations based on need.

The obvious candidate is Reyes, who ended 2020 as the Cardinals' closer but showed he can pitch multiple innings during his time in the bullpen. His goal, he stated at the beginning of the season, is to be a starter. Martínez could also fill this hybrid role, depending on how his winter goes.

Having a variety of players pitch in a variety of roles allows the Cardinals to meet the challenge of increasing starters’ workloads slowly while also allowing the back end of their bullpen -- Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Andrew Miller, Ryan Helsley -- to focus on the later innings without stretching them too thin.

“When you look at the group of pitchers we have, probably 70 percent of them have the ability to be stretched out,” Mozeliak said. “That’s a good thing.”