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Cardinals spring training

Starting pitcher Jack Flaherty warms up at Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. • A year ago as pitchers and catchers reported to the Cardinals’ Roger Dean Stadium complex, pitching coach Mike Maddux was as new to the team’s major-league conversations as rookie Jack Flaherty.

Maddux, in his first year with the team, had heard all about the ascending prospects, the power potential, the depth, and this young righthander, Flaherty, who the Cardinals felt, internally, could pitch atop their rotation in a few years. Maddux wanted to see for himself.

“Everybody said they liked him,” Maddux said. “I saw a guy throw a couple of times. Saw him compete a couple of times. And I went from like to love real quick. This ol’ boy – that’s the real McCoy there. And he’s young. Highly motivated. I think that’s one of Jack’s strengths. He’s not complacent being OK.”

As the Cardinals hold their first official workout of 2019 on Wednesday, Maddux’s eyes are open for the next young pitcher to make that kind of spring impression. Sitting at a table in the middle of the Cardinals’ clubhouse and interrupting his comments every so often to say hello to another pitcher arriving Tuesday, Maddux described how he starts this season with a deeper appreciation for the pitchers returning to the team and just as much anticipation for some of the new arms arriving. He said he expects to take 12 pitchers north, though the Cardinals remain open to 13 and going with one fewer bench player.

He marveled at how Carlos Martinez performed at closer but stressed the righthander is earmarked for the rotation. He talked about the communal leadership the pitching staff has, chaired by Adam Wainwright and his “50 years in the big leagues,” Maddux said. He then corrected himself. “Well, 47. Sorry.”

Maddux has his spring mapped out and a trouble area in early March spotted, and 12 of the 33 pitchers in camp will open “stretched out” on a starter’s program.

Nine of those 12 could be considered for a starting job in the big leagues, and a 10th, pitcher Alex Reyes, will begin a week behind his peers because of shoulder surgery. Still, “he’s in competition mode to break camp with us,” manager Mike Shildt said. Maddux said last spring that he had never been in an organization with as much pitching on the way. It’s here.

“One of the best things about spring training is five weeks from now when we’re sitting in the room talking about how do we pare down and you’re we’ve got 33 guys in camp and we’re going to take 12,” Maddux said. “Tough decisions are a good thing. That’s a real good thing. Unfortunately, I’ve been on other staffs that we had eight. And then we started giving out scholarships.”

The Cardinals’ pitching staff had the sixth-best ERA in the NL this past season, at 3.85, and that was buoyed by a rotation that had a 3.52 ERA, third-best in NL. During the Cardinals’ 22-win run through August, rookies Flaherty and lefty Austin Gomber combined to go 9-0 in their 11 starts.

Of the Cardinals’ 162 games, 117 were started by a pitcher age 26 or younger.

“I’m not going to sneak up on anybody, that’s for sure,” Flaherty said of this spring training. “We’ve got a young staff, and we still do, still do. (Growing up together) you know what every guy feeds off of, you know how every guy works, you know every guy’s little tendencies, and you also know where you have to hold guys accountable. It makes it a little easier from that aspect. They’ll listen to you. There’s trust. They’ll come to you – and they’ll hold you accountable very quickly.”

Flaherty, Martinez, Michael Wacha and All-Star Miles Mikolas are the favorites for four spots in the rotation. The Cardinals expect Wainwright, back on a one-year deal, to seize the fifth spot. In addition to them, some of the pitchers on a starter’s schedule will be Gomber, John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, possibly Ryan Helsley, and Dakota Hudson. Although he flourished as a reliever in the second half of last season, Hudson won the Pacific Coast League’s pitcher of the year award this past season as a starter.

And he won the Texas League’s award the year before that, as a starter.

“We’ve got to see that,” Maddux said.

The Cardinals want the spillover of starters to fortify a bullpen that could get crowded quickly if they take seven relievers into opening day. Righthanders Mike Mayers and Gant and lefty Chasen Shreve are out of options and either have to be in the majors or risked through waivers. Gant could serve in long relief, Shreve as a lefty specialist, and Mayers as late-inning power.

Maddux grinned as he fielded a question about entering the season with a stockpile of relievers but no true, designated closer.

“Looking forward to finding out,” Maddux said. “Will be fun to figure out. There have been many times on many ballclubs that your closer is not, per se, your best pitcher. You don’t want to pin your best pitcher into the ninth inning. It might be the middle of the order, ducks on the pond, in the seventh. You’ve got to bring your best guy in then.”

The starters re-purposed for the bullpen won’t come at the expense of leaving the rotation exposed with no spares at Class AAA Memphis. Ponce de Leon has “a swing-and-miss fastball,” Maddux said, that made the transition to bullpen. But the team could need him to start for the Redbirds, as insurance. Lefty Evan Kruczynski has been “fast-tracked,” Maddux said, to big-league camp as a non-roster invitee, and the coaching staff will look for innings to evaluate him in person for the first time. Same for Seth Elledge, a righthanded reliever whom the Cardinals acquired from Seattle. He had 74 strikeouts and 21 walks in 55 innings this past season in the minors.

On his plan, Maddux has several “squad” games scheduled in early March just so he can create some innings to review all the pitchers and give innings to pitchers building arm strength. In early March there are days when he’ll need 17 innings, not just nine in a Grapefruit League game.

The spring schedule is geared around getting pitchers ready — specifically starters, who need to build their stamina. They get in their pitches.

Coaches get their looks.

“This year,” Maddux started and then had to pause and stand up to shake the hand of Helsley, the Class AAA starter who could follow Hudson and Jordan Hicks to the majors as a power reliever.

“Yeah, there are going to be people who we haven’t seen that might wow us,” Maddux continued. “I look forward to that. I want to get wowed. The guys that we know …”

Maddux stopped again, this time to greet Hudson.

“… The guys that we know, you just want to see them be healthy, compete, and continue to excel,” the pitching coach said. “That wows you.”


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