JUPITER, Fla. • As Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and his staff met to organize the throwing groups for today’s first official workout of spring training, they realized that even with an enviable abundance of pitchers, something was lacking.
There were so few veterans to choose from as group leaders.
The kids are taking over.
“Some of the guys we have as leaders in the groups don’t have a lot of experience. That’s just kind of the team we have,” Matheny said. “It also is a great compliment, too, and a great challenge. … Typically when you start putting those groups together you’ve got guys with six, seven, eight years of service that are out there trying to lead a group. We’ve got some younger players, and I know they’ll be ready for it.”
SLIDESHOW: CARDS' ROTATION CANDIDATES
The National League champion Cardinals open spring training this morning at their Roger Dean Stadium complex with pitchers and catchers in uniform, and position players set to join them next week. A total of 13 pitchers are scheduled to throw off the mound today in groups that Matheny prefers to design with one seasoned leader and pitchers that a veteran can influence. Among the Cardinals’ starting candidates, a pack that goes seven to as many as eight or nine deep, only one starter has at least 100 starts in his big-league career: Adam Wainwright.
Set to lead throwing groups through the workouts today are Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, who combined don’t have 100 starts in the majors. They each have fewer than three years of service time and Miller was a rookie last season, unsure of a big-league job 12 months ago.
“You have some guys who obviously haven’t even had a cup of tea yet in the big leagues,” Matheny said. “They’re not going to be out there setting the pace. … (But) we’ve got some really young guys, talented guys, and they’re going to have to step in and compete.”
The Cardinals expected all but two pitchers of the 28 invited to report by Wednesday’s deadline. All 18 pitchers on the 40-man roster were expected in camp today. Players only had to call to alert the team they were in town Wednesday, but Wainwright stopped by the field. Wearing an outfit ready for a round of golf with Miller, Wainwright ran onto Field No. 1 and “reported” by embracing Matheny.
“He’s a hugger,” the manager deadpanned.
The search for group leaders beyond Wainwright and veteran reliever Randy Choate speaks to the Cardinals’ youth movement as well as the most crowded competition of camp.
The Cardinals return all four starters used in the postseason and Miller, who won 15 games and finished third in the NL rookie of the year voting. Jaime Garcia, a former rookie of the year candidate, is back from shoulder surgery.
Of the 179 games the Cardinals played last season, including their October run, pitchers who started 150 of them are still on the roster. Gone are Jake Westbrook’s 110 2/3 innings as a starter, and lefty John Gast’s injury leaves him out of the mix. Wainwright is the cornerstone of the rotation. But including him, the seven pitchers with the best chances to take a spot in the rotation into the summer include five who have at least one 10-win season with a better ERA than league average. The other two are NLCS MVP Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, one of the top pitching prospects in the game.
Had everyone been healthy a year ago, the Cardinals would have broken camp with three starters at least 31 years old. This season, there could be a time when they have three starters in the rotation age 23 or younger.
“It is as you say — a crowded clubhouse of starters,” Garcia said.
“Our staff is loaded,” said Wacha. “You have to pitch well to get that spot. You could pick four or five of the relievers and they were starting in Class AAA. It’s crazy the number of starter talent. All of those guys deserve a spot.”
There aren’t enough innings for that.
Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist has mapped a schedule for the starters similar to what he used last season. Wainwright, for example, will throw three bullpen side sessions, like the ones at camp today. He will advance to face hitters in batting practice drills three times, and then he is currently scheduled to make five Grapefruit League starts. That can be adjusted down if he doesn’t want the innings, but Lilliquist called three starts “the minimum.”
Off days during the Grapefruit League schedule allow for the rotation to be shifted to accommodate starts for the challengers. As starters are expected to go deeper into the exhibition games — four, five innings or more — the availability of innings tightens. A year ago, the Cardinals wanted to identify the five starters before mid-March.
It doesn’t have to be, but it could be sooner this spring.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty good idea of what we’re looking at relatively quickly this year,” Lilliquist said. “I think so. I think it’s going to shake out in the first three weeks (of games). A lot of it is the history of what they’ve done.”
In September, Lynn (age 26) and Joe Kelly (25) combined for a 2.11 ERA in their starts, and Wacha (22) had a 1.72 ERA. Lynn had 200 innings, joining Wainwright as the workhorses for the rotation. Garcia has a career ERA of 3.45 and, if he proves healthy, “adds a pretty strong lefthanded component to” the rotation, Matheny said.
Kelly opened last season as the rarely needed long reliever but finished it as a starter in the World Series. Martinez, who arrived at camp Wednesday without last year’s visa issues, began 2013 as a starter in Class AA and ended October as the Cardinals’ eighth-inning firecracker. The versatility of Kelly and Martinez means they could be jockeying this spring for roles in the bullpen as well as rotation.
In the interest of monitoring innings and limiting workloads for young pitchers like Wacha and Martinez, the Cardinals have the depth to go with a six-man rotation or have a spot starter. Two off days in the first two weeks of the season make that unnecessary and neither has been brought up, Lilliquist said.
“Sometimes you have to think outside the box,” Matheny said, “and we’re not afraid to do that.”
Many of the players left the 2013 season with offseason assignments from Matheny or a member of the staff — something or things they wanted each player to work on. Matheny said in the spirit of the “non-stop competition” tone of camp he’d like to strike starting today, it would not be fair to have reserved spots for the young pitchers in the rotation without first seeing the work they’ve done and how it translates into games. Wacha and Miller have second pitches to refine. Garcia has health. Martinez has an impression to make. Lynn and Kelly have their performance. Wainwright is the given.
The leaders of the groups have been selected. The starters will emerge. The hope is that come March the rotation looks as deep and difficult to differentiate as it does now before any of them has thrown a pitch in an official jersey.
“I welcome that,” Lilliquist said. “I welcome the hardest decision possible.”