In his finest start yet of the season, Cardinals righthander Daniel Ponce de Leon did everything within his power Wednesday to earn a right to stay in the rotation, from assertive use of multiple pitches and the efficiency that followed to a grip on the opponents’ timing.
The only thing he couldn’t command was the calendar.
The Cardinals returned Ponce de Leon to Class AAA Memphis on Thursday to clear a roster spot for that night’s starter, Adam Wainwright, and signal what could be a downshift to a four-man rotation for the coming weeks. The Cardinals do not need a fifth starter until the final days before the All-Star break, and they could use three off days in the coming 11 days to rearrange, adjust, or shrink the rotation.
“We’ll probably be rolling down to four,” general manager Michael Girsch said. “We’ll manage around that. Ponce will be back at some point. That’s just part of the process.”
The Cardinals will have to make another roster move on Friday as they ready for the Los Angeles Angels visit to Busch Stadium. Yairo Munoz’s travel from the Dominican Republic was delayed in New York, and he was not scheduled to reach St. Louis until after game time. The Cardinals had to move him off the paternity-leave list and onto the restricted list. (He won’t be paid for Thursday, by rule.) On Friday, the Cardinals can move Munoz to the active roster and reset their bench.
Manager Mike Shildt said they’ll continue to carry 13 pitchers on the roster through the weekend, but with off days Monday and Thursday of next week, that could invite an addition to the bench.
All Ponce de Leon did to merit the demotion was pitch well enough to assure a return – and another start in the majors. After 90 pitches, six innings, a quality start, and six strikeouts Wednesday night, Ponce de Leon would not be available to pitch again until Sunday, at the earliest. He had options and because the Cardinals next have a possible opening for a starter in early July the schedule worked against Ponce de Leon. Michael Wacha, who starts Friday against the Angels, is trying to re-earn a solidified spot in the rotation, and his performance will influence the use of a four-man rotation in the near future. Ponce de Leon could sub-in if the Cardinals want to use the break to get young starters Jack Flaherty or Dakota Hudson an extra day of rest.
“Clearly, it’s not personal,” Shildt said. “It’s the composition of the roster. Great opportunity moving forward for Ponce to come back up and get a start. Actually, makes a lot of sense for everybody.”
There has already been one trade of significance – Edwin Encarnacion going from Seattle to the Yankees, with other teams interested in the slugger – and talks have been percolating throughout baseball, but it’s unclear, Girsch said, if the hard July 31st deadline will nudge the market earlier.
“I’ve had some conversations with teams and I know (John Mozeliak) has,” Girsch said. “It doesn’t feel a lot more than normal. It sort of feels like it’s 10 days after the draft and everybody’s got most of their draft signings done. We all start calling each other. None of the conversations I’ve had have had a lot of urgency on either side with one way. My sense is there’s not a dramatic difference.”
The timing of the talks means the Cardinals have not narrowed their shopping list or targeted any specific players. The Cardinals entered the season expecting to keep tabs on the market for top-tier starting pitching, should any, like San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, prove healthy, productive, and become available via trade. The Cardinals have not been active acquirers in recent deadlines, often fine-tuning their bullpen or shedding depth, such as last year when they traded Tommy Pham and Luke Voit to AL East teams.
The Cardinals expect to be buyers; price is the question.
“We expect to continue to play well and be in this thing,” Girsch said. “We’re in it now. Why would we say anything else?”
Nolan Gorman, the Cardinals’ slugging prospect from the first round of the 2018 draft, received his first promotion of the season Friday, advancing to High-A Palm Beach. After a raucous start to the season that included six homers and a .650 slugging percentage in April, Gorman has cooled and slumped, batting three-for-37 (.081) with 16 strikeouts in his final 10 games for the Low-A Peoria. The promotion was scheduled more than it was forced, as the Cardinals wanted Gorman to get half a season at Peoria and then advance, with the possible look late this year at Class AA Springfield.
“It made sense to keep moving him forward,” Girsch said.
Gorman will be the priority third baseman for the PB-Cards, who play in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Gorman will also benefit from the access to spring facilities and several of the coaches that call the Jupiter, Fla. area home, like infield instructor Jose Oquendo.
Mike Mayers (shoulder) and Ryan Helsley (shoulder) threw bullpen sessions Thursday and will face hitters in a simulated game situation Sunday before taking a stride toward returns. Their rehab assignments could start the next week. Mayers, who said he welcomes the feedback from big-league hitters that will follow Sunday’s throws, will have to start a lengthier rehab assignment than Helsley because he’s missed more time. … Austin Gomber (shoulder) has relocated his rehab to Jupiter, Fla., where he’s going through a throwing program that puts him a week to 10 days away from facing hitters. He will have to build arm strength before being returned to the Class AAA rotation. … Malcom Nunez, the Cardinals’ 18-year-old prospect at third base and Triple Crown winner in last year’s Dominican Summer League, had his start at rookie-level Johnson City delayed by back soreness. He hit .183/.247/.197 in 21 games at Low-A Peoria before an assignment to the JC-Cards.