Not only has Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak seemingly taken care of the position-player side of his club for next year, he didn’t have to touch the pitching-rich side of it to make those offensive and defensive adjustments.
With lefthanded starter Jaime Garcia (shoulder) and reliever Jason Motte (elbow) expected to recover from in-season surgeries this year, the Cardinals’ 12-man staff — at least by May 1 — should be easy to project. When Motte returns, there will be only three pitchers on the staff older than 27: Motte, 31; staff ace Adam Wainwright, 32; and lefthanded specialist Randy Choate, 38.
Garcia is 27, with starting candidates Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha ranging in age from 26 to 25 to 23 to 22. The core of the bullpen is even younger, if possible, with closer Trevor Rosenthal, 23; Carlos Martinez, 22; Seth Maness, 25; and Kevin Siegrist, 24.
It is entirely possible that the Cardinals never have entered spring training with as young — and as talented — a group of young pitchers as they have now. All nine of the aforementioned, plus Motte, are products of their farm system, and Wainwright, who led the staff with 19 wins in 2013, spent two seasons in the minors himself with the Cardinals.
“We’ve never seen that many with great arms as we’ve got right now.” That was the assessment of Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, a special assistant to Mozeliak and someone who should know, inasmuch as he has been with the Cardinals’ organization since Alexander Cartwright and Abner Doubleday, it seems.
“We’ve had them here where they had a little more experience,” Schoendienst said, “but not as many great arms as we have today.
“If they can hold up, they’ve got a really outstanding chance.”
There hasn’t been this much young talent on a Cardinals staff since, at least, manager Schoendienst’s 1966 staff. That staff had Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, of course, at the top of the rotation but it featured the likes of 21-year-old Steve Carlton; Nelson Briles, 22; Larry Jaster, 22; and 25-year-old Ray Sadecki, before he was traded to San Francisco for Orlando Cepeda.
Carlton would become a Hall of Famer. Briles filled the breach the next year, a World Series championship season, when Gibson suffered a broken leg. He went on to win 129 games, including 19 in 1968, in a 14-season career. Lefthander Jaster would shut out the Dodgers five times while winning 11 games in 1966, although he would win only 24 other games in his career. Sadecki already had won 20 games as a 23-year-old in 1964.
“They didn’t have radar guns like they do today,” said Schoendienst. “They were throwing hard. I wonder what Gibson was throwing in those days if they had guns.”
Schoendienst recalled that most of that 1966 youth brigade “had pretty good command of their stuff.”
Briles, notably, was lauded in that area by Schoendienst.
“I had an argument (with the front office),” Schoendienst said. “They were talking about trading him but I didn’t really want to get rid of him,
“They were talking about his ERA being high. But all I know is that he’d win 1-0 and 2-1, and he’d also win 7-6.”
His ERA was up a little, but he had more wins than losses.
“And when Gibson broke his leg when he was hit by a line drive,” Schoendienst said, “we brought Briles out of the bullpen, and he won nine or 10 straight games. (Briles won 11 of his last 12 decisions.)
“He had a good idea how to pitch, and he moved the ball around to both sides of the plate.”
Carlton didn’t throw as hard then as some of the others in 1966 and probably not as hard as many of the current Cardinals. But, in addition to what would become a killer slider, Schoendienst said he found a lot to like about him.
“I remember in spring training, (pitching coach) Howard Pollet was talking to me about a couple of kids they had to protect (on the roster), and one of them was Carlton,” he said.
“He didn’t throw that hard at the time, but you could tell he was growing. It looked like he grew every day.
“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to give him a start.’ Houston had a darned good ball club with some young players. I told Carlton if I didn’t use him in relief an inning or two that day, I was going to start him a couple of days later against Houston.
“I sat down with Gussie (owner Gussie Busch), and I told him, ‘We’ve got this young pitcher, and I’m going to pitch him and see how he does.’ He said, ‘I like that.’ That made my mind up in a hurry.”
Carlton made five innings that day.
“You could tell his stamina wasn’t there yet,” Schoendienst said. “He was a young guy, and he hadn’t pitched that many innings. By the time the fifth came around, it was beginning to rain. They had a couple of men on, and then they hit a line drive to Maxie (shortstop Dal Maxvill), and we got a double play. I had to take him out after that. The game got rained out then. But he wound up the winning pitcher. From that game you thought he could be a good pitcher.”
Good, indeed. There would be 329 regular-season wins for Carlton.
The Cardinals also had a quintet of young, strong arms developed by the organization in 1975, as Schoendienst’s 12-year managerial stint with the Cardinals was winding down. Bob Forsch, 25, was 15-10; John Denny, 22, was 10-7; Harry (Eric) Rasmussen, 23, was 5-5; closer Al Hrabosky, 25, was 13-3 with a league-leading 22 saves; and righthander Mike Garman, 25, had 10 saves and a 2.39 earned-run average.
There were no Hall of Famers in this group, but three of them were very productive.
Forsch became the Cardinals’ third-leading career winner at 163 behind Gibson and Jesse “Pop” Haines. Denny won 123 games and a Cy Young Award, albeit with Philadelphia. Hrabosky had 64 relief wins and 97 saves. But Rasmussen, by any name, finished only 50-77. And Garman, whose best season with the Cardinals actually had been in 1974 when he had six saves, seven wins and a 2.64 ERA, was out of the majors after the 1978 season.
Nearly 20 years later, the Cardinals had a foursome of young starters 26 or under, but they didn’t match the 1966 group, the 1975 group or what the current group might achieve.
Under manager Joe Torre, who had 17-game winner Bob Tewksbury as his ace, the rest of the rotation included lefthander Rheal Cormier, 26, who was 7-6; Omar Olivares, 25, who was 5-3; Donovan Osborne, 24, who was 10-7, and 22-year-old lefthander Allen Watson, who was 6-7.
That foursome showed promise, but it largely was unfulfilled. Osborne, Olivares, Cormier and Watson would amass 248 big-league victories among them, or three fewer than Gibson.
Matt Morris, 22, and Alan Benes, 25, formed a potentially lethal 1-2 punch in 1997 when they combined for 21 wins as a rookie and second-year starter, respectively. But only Morris, who became an All-Star and 20-game winner, lasted. Benes was dogged by shoulder problems from 1997 on and never really pitched in a rotation with Morris after that.
And now ... perhaps the best of the youngest.
“They’ve all got great heads on them,” said Schoendienst. “They’re well up on everything they have to do to work at it. And you can see them work at it.
“They want to do well, and they like the game a lot. They aren’t there just to be pitching. They’re very serious about everything.”
Schoendienst, who praised pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley for instilling confidence in the young pitchers and for gaining the pitchers’ confidence in return, probably could handle a staff, or even a club, like this. That’s even though he is just five weeks from becoming 91 years old.
“I’m going to let Mike Matheny handle it,” Schoendienst said, laughing.
“I’m just going to sit back and enjoy watching it. It’s a pretty good group.”