Dealing Joe Kelly to Boston last season and Shelby Miller to Atlanta in the offseason did little to damage the pitching depth the St. Louis Cardinals had stockpiled.
The Cardinals, who were concerned about their rotation as spring training opened and had been linked to free agent Max Scherzer and trade option Cole Hamels, instead found themselves with a solid top four and three quality candidates vying for the fifth spot.
The return to health of Michael Wacha, thus far, has proved to be a game-changer. Wacha had no restrictions and experienced no setbacks in Grapefruit League games. Ace Adam Wainwright recovered quickly from an abdominal strain and is ready to pitch the season opener April 5 in Chicago, and Lance Lynn bounced back easily from a hip-flexor strain.
John Lackey, in his first spring training with the Cardinals, slowly and steadily built himself into condition and showed remarkable efficiency in his outings.
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The unknown heading into the final week of camp was which candidate would emerge from the competition for the fifth-starter spot. It was being waged by Carlos Martinez, rated a slight favorite, often-injured left-hander Jaime Garcia and 2013 No. 1 draft pick Marco Gonzales, another lefty who surfaced at the big-league level for the first time last season.
“You’re either going to get a very polished, bulldog pitcher in Marco, you’re going to get a disgusting, hard-to-catch lefty in Jaime Garcia or you’re going to get a disgusting fireballer who throws 100 mph in Carlos,” Wainwright said. “One of the three is going to make the team. Whoever it’s going to be is going to make us better.”
The Cardinals won’t need a fifth starter until mid-April, giving them ample time to make their determination. Manager Mike Matheny doesn’t want Gonzales, 23, pitching out of the major-league bullpen, which means Gonzales could be a member of the Class AAA Memphis rotation and be on alert for a recall should an injury occur.
Martinez, 23, has committed himself to a season of excellence after the sudden death of close friend Oscar Taveras. Martinez was 2-4 with a 4.03 ERA in 57 games and seven starts last season. Garcia, 28, is determined to return from thoracic outlet surgery in what could be his final season with the Cardinals. Martinez and Garcia pitched well enough in camp to earn the job.
But can the Cardinals put any amount of long-term trust in Garcia? He’s pitched in just 16 games and logged 99 innings in the last two years.
“I think it’s more of a hope at this point,” Matheny said, citing Garcia’s unusual surgery last summer and his track record of injuries. “You just go out and watch each outing and hope it looks like the previous one and hope he keeps getting better and keeps feeling stronger. But we don’t really know exactly how it’s going to play out.”
Wainwright remains the anchor. The 33-year-old was 20-9 with a career-low 2.38 ERA last season as he continued to bolster his Hall of Fame resume. He is 119-66 in nine seasons, and in the last five years he is 92-50 with a 2.83 ERA, averaging 226 innings, 52 walks and 201 strikeouts.
“Waino’s the same guy,” Matheny said. “We know what we’re going to get. He’s going to go out there and he’s going to compete.”
Wainwright’s offseason elbow cleanup procedure wasn’t even a topic in spring.
“I’m fixed now. I’ve got a bionic arm, right?” Wainwright said. “I should be good to go for a few more years. I’ve got four more years (on my contract) and these guys don’t need me at half-speed. There are guys that are better than me if I’m half-speed. But if I’m going full-out, I don’t feel like there’s many of those. I’m going full-speed until they tell me to stop.”
As with Garcia, the Cardinals will cross their fingers that Wacha remains on the active list. Wacha, 23, was 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA in 19 starts last year, missing most of June and all of July and August with a stress reaction in the back of his right shoulder.
Wacha returned and pitched in four September games, but the last thing he saw was Travis Ishikawa’s three-run homer sail over the wall in right in the ninth inning to give San Francisco a 6-3 victory in the deciding Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. It was Wacha’s first appearance in 20 days.
“I wanted to be out there in that situation,” Wacha said. “As a competitor, that’s when you want, to be out there when the game is on the line (and) everybody is depending on you. Things didn’t work out the way everyone wanted them to and we ended up getting beat. ... (Matheny) said he put me out there because he trusts me. I told him I appreciated it.”
Wacha looks forward to what would be his first complete season.
“I want to go out there and compete every single time I get the ball,” Wacha said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to stay out there every fifth day. That’s the plan right now, to go out there and stay healthy throughout the whole season and go out there and pitch, eat up as many innings as I can. That’s my main goal right now. Also, staying healthy right now and continuing to stay healthy through the season. Everything will be good (if I do that).”
The no-nonsense Lynn gives the Cardinals’ rotation an obvious edge. He’s a man of few words, but backs them up on the mound.
Lynn, 27, has made gigantic steps in the last two years. He has gone from a pitcher unable to control his emotions to an unflappable sort that could be even better with the addition of a changeup he can employ to negate the success left-handed hitters have enjoyed against him. He’s been pretty good without the changeup, going 48-27 in the last three seasons.
“My favorite thing is the three big righties are ready to go now,” Lynn said late in camp, referring to the return to Grapefruit League action of himself, Wainwright and Lackey. “They’re getting ready to get into games now. That’s the exciting part. Whatever happens at the end will happen, but we’re starting to get ready to go and we’re starting to get healthy. That’s all that matters.”
Lackey, 36, will earn just $500,000 this season, a bargain for a pitcher with his pedigree. He was 14-10 with a 3.82 ERA last year with the Red Sox and the Cardinals, and he has won at least 10 games in 11 of his 12 seasons.
“I take pride in that,” Lackey said. “I take pride in trying to go deep into games and throwing a lot of innings. Being there 30-some times and being reliable, I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Lackey said this spring has been “different for a lot of reasons.”
“(It’s my) first full year in a new league and a new team,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on. But I still feel like I can pitch a little bit, so I think the rest of that stuff kind of takes care of itself.”
Matheny said Lackey’s command reminds him of former Cardinals right-hander Woody Williams. Lackey works in and out with pinpoint control, altering a hitter’s strike zone and occasionally getting swings and misses at pitches off the plate.
“John brings consistency and he’s a proven (guy) who knows how to handle the struggles as well as the successes,” Matheny said. “Those are things you don’t necessarily completely check the box on some of these other young pitchers. Lance is definitely working his way into that status as well. There’s a level of stability there.”
Should the Cardinals need to dip deeper into their system to find some arms, there is an abundance of options. Left-handers Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons and right-hander Zach Petrick have caught Matheny’s attention in the past and did so again this spring.
Lyons, 27, was optioned to Memphis ahead of Cooney, meaning Cooney, 24, could be a call-up at some point this season. He earned accolades last year by going 14-6 with a 3.47 ERA in 26 games, all but one of them starts, at Memphis.
“He’s got good velocity, he’s got good movement, he’s got a real nice breaking ball,” Matheny said.
Lyons has pitched in 23 games, 12 of them starts, over the last two years in St. Louis. Petrick, 25, was 9-6 with a 4.04 ERA in 27 games, including 23 starts, at Memphis and Class AA Springfield.