Notes: Hudson update; Cards' rotation plans

February 20th, 2021

The Cardinals hold a firm confidence in their starting rotation for the 2021 season -- even though chances are slim Dakota Hudson, their head-turning young righty, will be part of the group.

Hudson underwent Tommy John surgery in late September after he exited a Sept. 17 start against the Pirates with discomfort following just two innings. He’s now with the rest of the club in Jupiter, Fla., going through the intensive rehab program required for pitchers returning from serious damage to their ulnar collateral ligament.

With a typical recovery period of about 12 months -- which would align him to return at the end of September -- the Cards are not currently bracing for Hudson to be part of the plans in 2021.

“I think that's unlikely at the moment,” manager Mike Shildt said Saturday. “I never say never.”

But the fact that there is a chance -- likely in a relief role if anything -- is giving Hudson light at the end of the tunnel for an infamously arduous rehab process.

“Mentally, I'm waiting on September,” Hudson said. “I'm waiting and I'm doing my work, trying to hit my marks. And then I'm just trying to stay on pace to where that's an opportunity to compete at the end of the year. Be available is the ultimate goal.”

That doesn’t make the time in between much easier. Physically, Hudson is a bit ahead of schedule by flexibility standards, Shildt said. Mentally, he’s leading on former Tommy John culprits like Jordan Hicks for advice. Now he’s building up strength with plyometric weighted balls; March 15 is circled as his return to catch.

But it’s been a doubly disappointing loss for the Cards, which could have used another rock in their rotation alongside a retooled, reinvigorated and Nolan Arenado-filled lineup. Hudson, 26, has excelled in his two years as a starter, leading the club in wins (16) in 2019 while compiling a 3.24 ERA across 41 games (40 starts) from '19-20.

“I'd be lying if I said that my energy level was the same this offseason,” he said.

“Dakota really has been able to evolve over the last couple years and taken off and really was able to look like he was about to even take that next step,” Shildt added. “… But most importantly, he's got the right mindset for what that looks like. Talk to him about it, he's got his head in a good place.”

The return of a Minor League season does help. If Hudson is not back to full strength for the Majors, he could at least get some in-game action back under his belt there before the calendar flips to 2022.

“He's super dedicated to what he's doing, how he's doing it,” Shildt said. “... He's on track for where they expect him to be, and he's doing everything he can to get back. But whether that'll be in the season or not, is to be determined, but not likely.”

Gant’s time in the shine

The tweets started frenzying one by one, filling the mentions of many Cardinals-adjacent accounts. Eventually, Adam Wainwright chimed in. Later, the Cards’ official social media handle. Then the man himself.

The question was simple: Is John Gant good at baseball?

“I did not know. I don’t have Twitter or social media or anything like that,” Gant said Friday. “But I had some friends tell me. I thought it was cool. I thought people had some nice things to say.”

Let’s look into it.

Gant owns a 3.80 ERA across 134 appearances (28 starts), including a 2.40 mark in relief striking out 10.8 batters per nine innings last season. In 2021, Gant, like many of the Cardinals’ 22 rostered pitchers, wants to be a starter. He’s one of several swingmen being stretched out for such a possibility, though his future -- and track record -- likely profiles a bullpen role.

“There’s nothing I can do about that, but I would really, really like to get a crack at that rotation and make some starts again,” Gant said.

So Gant at least seems to be decent at baseball. Does he agree?

“Well, you know, I can’t answer that on my own behalf. You’d have to ask somebody else about that,” he laughed. “But I’ll tell you, I really like baseball a whole lot.”

Talkin’ shop

At the onset of camp, the Cardinals were hopeful to play every Grapefruit League game a full nine innings as a way to give their plethora of arms as much in-game experience as possible to whittle down a rotation and bullpen for Opening Day.

Those expectations may need to be tempered a shade. President of baseball ops John Mozeliak said on Friday that he has heard from other clubs in the Cardinals’ East Coast pod that full games at the get-go may not be feasible on their end.

“We were hopeful to do nine[-inning] games, but we have to understand that some of the teams are dealing with other circumstances,” Mozeliak said.

According to the 2021 Operations Manual, Spring Training games played before March 13 are scheduled as seven-inning games, but can be shortened to five or extended to nine based upon an agreement between managers. Games played from March 14 onward are scheduled as nine-inning contests, but can be shortened to seven.

To make up for the potential loss of innings, the Cardinals plan to lean heavily on “B” games, intrasquads and simulated games -- all especially embraced by pitching coach Mike Maddux. The club has 22 rostered pitchers in Jupiter, a number that will need to be trimmed to around 14 should it carry five in its rotation and nine in the bullpen.