JUPITER, Fla. • At times it’s almost comical, the way the Cardinals trot out one young pitcher after another, the next one more impressive than the last. I was talking to a scout from another MLB franchise at Roger Dean Stadium the other day who didn’t believe me when I told him Carlos Martinez could be headed for assignment in the St. Louis bullpen.
“That kid is amazing,” the scout said, shaking his head. “In my opinion, he has the best arm on that staff. He’s the most talented of all of their young guys. He’d be starting for every other team in the majors.”
Martinez, 22, will start for the Cardinals, too. Maybe soon. Maybe later in the year. Maybe in a way that limits his innings pitched. It’s just a matter of time. But the Cardinals’ 2014 rotation will include Michael Wacha, age 22, and Shelby Miller, all of 23. With two seasons of big-league starting to his name, Joe Kelly, 25, qualifies as a salty veteran. Lance Lynn, nearly 27, is an AARP member compared to some of these guys.
If Martinez begins the season in the Cardinals’ bullpen, he’ll be firing his way through the eighth inning to set up Trevor Rosenthal, the 23-year-old closer. Lefthander Kevin Siegrist, 24, will quell dangerous lefthanded bats late in games.
And the Cardinals have more in stock. Sunday, lefthander Tim Cooney, 23, was dazzling in striking out four of the six Mets that he faced. The scouts in attendance were buzzing over Cooney’s curve and his abilty to bust righthanded hitters inside with a crisp, well located fastball.
Zach Petrick, 24, made a positive impression in the same contest. Lefty starter Marco Gonzales, 22, won’t be in the minors for long. Off in the distance are two exciting 19-year-old pitching talents, righthander Alex Reyes and lefthander Rob Kaminsky. And we could mention others.
The pipeline continues to produce power pitching, precision pitching, Cardinals pitching.
“If you ask managers or general managers what they’d like to have more than anything, most would tell you they want power arms,” Miami Marlins manager Mike Redmond said earlier in camp. “And the Cardinals seem to have more of those guys than anybody.”
From what we can tell, there’s only one problem with this picture: paying them all one day, as they reach salary arbitration, then free agency.
Remember what Boston DH David Ortiz said after the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals in the World Series?
“I feel sorry for the St. Louis Cardinals when they have to sign all of them at once,” Ortiz said. “They’re going to have to bring a lot of money to the table, because you have a whole bunch of cats out there performing at that level on that stage. You’re dealing with an unbelievable pitching staff. I tell you what, man, those guys, they’re legit.”
Led by Wacha, the 2013 Cardinals set a major-league record for most innings pitched by rookies in a postseason, with 67. And that’s with Miller — who would finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting — working just one October inning.
In the 2013 regular season, Cardinals rookies made 52 starts and 256 relief appearances, won 34 games and pitched 554 innings. And most are back for more as sophomores in 2014.
I’ve noticed a bit of a thread in some of the preseason forecasts out there. In analyzing the 2014 Cardinals, pundits note and extol the Cardinals’ considerable talent. But that’s often followed by concern over the team’s dependence on young pitching.
That's understandable. Younger arms generally are more fragile.
I looked at the probable rotations in the NL Central and accounted for an extra pitcher where there was competition for the fifth spot. The Cardinals have the division’s least experienced rotation. Barring injuries, here’s the breakdown:
• Milwaukee: five starters; a combined 823 starts.
• Pittsburgh: six starters; combined 720 starts.
• Chicago: six starters; a combined 706 big-league starts.
• Cincinnati: five starters; a combined 567 starts.
• St. Louis: six starters; a combined 322 starts.
Cards ace Adam Wainwright has made 185 of those starts — meaning that Wacha, Miller, Lynn, Kelly and Martinez have combined for only 137. If Jaime Garcia (90 starts) can get through shoulder discomfort and back into the rotation, the Cardinals’ collective experience level would jump. But they’d still have the least experienced rotation.
Young pitchers can break apart physically, lose confidence or be taken down by their own immaturity. The Cards’ rotation and bullpen will be filled with youngbloods this year. Is that a potential problem?
“No, I don’t think so,” Wainwright said. “I think it could be, depending on the person. But I think what we have in our organization, as a whole, are a bunch of guys who are working hard and doing as much as they can to stay healthy and be on the field.
“I think there are lessons to be learned, obviously. These guys are learning on the fly, as I am. But I think that experience they got last year in the postseason will prove to be invaluable. That helped our young pitchers and position players so much in 2011, and it helped me so much in 2006, and it will help the guys who had the chance to handle pressure situations last year. When you go through a postseason, and when you go through a long season, you learn a lot.”
Wainwright is right. The Cardinals can count on their young pitchers for a simple reason: They put trust in a bunch of rookies last season, and the kids came through — frequently in extraordinary ways.
That said, Lynn wasn’t wrong in a comment he made during the Cardinals’ Winter Warm-Up. Though not speaking directly about teammates, Lynn said: “Some young guys in this league need to show they can do it two years in a row.”
That’s true. But doesn’t that apply to all pitchers? Every season, they must they prove themselves anew. Moreover, there’s extreme competition for pitching jobs in this organization. No one can afford to slack.
“I think it helps,” Cooney said. “Someone in my shoes, I’m looking at these guys as pitchers who have been there and gone through what I’m going through now. Just because they’re a little further along, and are more proven, that’s just more motivation to step your game up and try to improve every day.”
On the flip side, the Cardinals haven’t hesitated to throw rookies into the pit to challenge big-league hitters. The Cardinals prospect who strives to do everything possible to prepare knows the call from St. Louis could come any time. How’s that for motivation?
“They preach that in the minors,” Wacha said. “They tell you to be ready, but it isn’t enough just to get called up to the majors. Once you’re there they don’t accept anything less than winning.”
That’s a big reason the Cardinals’ pitching experience can’t be adequately summed up by age or seasons played. This organization understands something valuable: Young pitchers can succeed if you raise them, and treat them, like adults.