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St. Louis Cardinals need to get an ace pitcher if they want to contend this season

While the offense continues to sputter, the St. Louis Cardinals are at least getting a lot better work these days out of their starting pitching. But that doesn’t mean they still can’t use a front line starter.

Besides Michael Wacha’s slot in the starting rotation, which he lost and then minor league call-up Genesis Cabrera couldn’t hold in a two-game audition, the Cardinals are getting a lot more consistency. Because their hurlers are giving them a chance to be in position, the club has managed to convert victories in four of their last five games.

Because of this, I remain unconvinced that St. Louis will make a play for a veteran starter. But I think, if they are serious about landing a spot in the playoffs for the first time in four years, that’s what they’re going to have to do. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be Dallas Keuchel, who signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves on Thursday. But there are other options including St. Louisan Max Scherzer, San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner and others.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it was no surprise to see youngsters Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson have some growing pains at this point in their careers. They’re trending upward and that’s a good thing for sure. Miles Mikolas struggled terribly after signing his lucrative contract extension. But he’s looking more like his old self as the season wears on. Even veteran Adam Wainwright, who causes some fans terrible anxiety because of his lack of velocity and inability to overpower hitters like he did earlier in his career.

Why, if things are looking up, do the Cardinals need a hurler? They don’t just need an innings eater to fill Wacha’s spot. They have warm bodies they can throw out there night after night. What they lack is a top of the rotation starter who can dominate the other team for seven innings and be a leader by example for the kids. Wainwright is a great mentor, but he is a serious risk to blow up at any minute because of his age and his injury history. Despite his eight great innings last start, he’s only pitched more than six innings in two of his 12 games so far this year. Wainwright is at the point of his career where everything you get from him is gravy. If he wins 14-15 games, that’s a bonus. But it would be reckless for the Cardinals to count on him to be their best pitcher.

Let’s assume Hudson and Flaherty will also struggle some more, too. Major League Baseball is about adjustments and they’ll both surely be tested again. Professional hitters will figure out something about their deliveries and take away a strength, then the young pitchers will have to come up with another way to get people out.

I believe both young hurlers have a bright future in front of them. But the way to develop pitchers is to graduate them from one role into a bigger one and then an even more important one after that, not to tell a 22-year-old kid he’s the new ace, so go get ‘em.

If the Cardinals were in the wild card game tomorrow, who would pitch? Mikolas? I guess so, unless he had to pitch the last game of the season just to get St. Louis there. But does he match up with the aces of the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs or the Braves? Not really. Who would pitch the first game of the NLDS if the Birds won the wild card game? Right now, I’d have to say it would be Flaherty. I have visions of the Rick Ankiel blow up in my head, and I would hate to see that happen to another top pitching prospect.

A lot of people seem to be counting on Alex Reyes or Carlos Martinez to ride in to save the day. But I don’t think that seems likely. Reyes has had terrible command dating back to spring training and I am convinced that he’s one of those guys who is going to take a year after coming back from Tommy John surgery to get the feel for his pitches back. Martinez could have been stretched out to be a starter after being sidelined in spring training. But the Cardinals seem to be handling Martinez very carefully, most likely out of fear that his shoulder can’t handle the wear and tear right now from being a starter. He’s pitched in eight games, never going more than an inning, so it doesn’t look like the club is building him up.