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BenFred: Predicting the Cardinals’ postseason rotation? You could be surprised

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Cardinals, Brewers at Busch

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jordan Montgomery and catcher Yadier Molina talk with pitching coach Mike Maddux in the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 at Busch Stadium. 

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the Cardinals' chances -- real, or happy talk? -- of running down the Mets and Braves.

One of the earliest messages delivered to the Cardinals by their new manager before this season began is worth revisiting as we get a head start at discussing what postseason plans could look like, specifically the far-too-early but understandably ongoing conversation of the playoff rotation.

(And yes, if the Cardinals can’t score, none of this will matter.)

A player shows what kind of teammate he is, Oli Marmol told his team back at spring training, by how he responds to a decision that doesn’t go his way individually, but is best for the club as a whole.

It could mean getting called back to the dugout from the on-deck circle so a pinch-hitter could be inserted for a key at-bat.

It could mean understanding why certain playoff matchups are better for a certain starter compared to another.

There have been times in the past where a Cardinals postseason rotation — if health holds — could be predicted far in advance. This is not one of those times. Marmol is not one of those managers.

Too many factors, including how Jack Flaherty finishes the regular season, are still up in the air at the moment.

The Cardinals are basically a lock to win the National League Central at this point, but what could await them in the postseason is not so sure.

They could be hosting the Padres or the Brewers in a best-of-three wild-card series due to the new-look postseason.

Their chances of running down both the Mets and the Braves for the National League’s second spot and securing a first-round bye as a result are still in play, but let’s be candid. They are slim. Catching one is possible. But both? Wouldn’t count on it. But it can’t be counted out, at least not yet.

Another thing to factor in no matter what is Marmol’s willingness to go against the grain of old-school tradition if he feels it gives his team an improved chance to win. The Cardinals could wind up starting veteran leader Adam Wainwright and All-Star Miles Mikolas in games one and two. Assuming that will be the case just because they have been this season’s workhorses is an assumption that feels a bit rushed. Let’s see how both respond to some recent rockiness.

Marmol stressed before Friday’s game that he’s not as far down the hypothetical road as the rest of us. What he did concede is that some teams know their postseason rotation and order today — even if they are playing coy about it — and that the Cardinals are not one of those teams.

“I don’t think we are there,” Marmol said. “You are constantly evaluating.”

Some things to consider during the lively discussion and debate ...

• Trade-deadline addition Jordan Montgomery has been the Cardinals’ best starter since the deadline, and it’s not close.

The Cardinals have won seven of the eight games he’s started. He has a 2.05 ERA and an opponent batting line of .214/.255/.315 that has resulted in a meager .570 on-base plus slugging percentage. He has a staff-high 24.3% strikeout rate during that span and doesn’t walk many. This season, including during his time with the Yankees, left-handers against Montgomery are producing a microscopic OPS of .455.

• Matchups matter to Marmol, and you can expect him to lean into them in the postseason.

The Brewers own the National League’s third-lowest OPS against left-handed pitching (.662). Against right-handers, that Milwaukee OPS jumps to an NL third-best .751. Big difference.

The Padres, on the other hand, own a .699 OPS against lefties and a .694 OPS against righties. Basically neutral.

There is other information to consider.

Current Brewers have 158 career at-bats against right-handed Mikolas, but just a .599 OPS.

That’s not a small sample size. Neither are the home-game ERAs of Mikolas (2.38) and Wainwright (2.61) this season. Both are among the NL’s top-10 in that category here at this pitcher-friendly park.

Another element Marmol will consider is who is in his own lineup due to the matchups he likes and doesn’t against a playoff opponent’s starter. A groundball-getter pairs better with a lineup that takes some defensive risks in the outfield. A strikeout-getter is better paired with a lineup that takes some defensive risks in the infield.

• No matter who starts or the order in which it happens, how the Cardinals’ bullpen is weaponized could be just as if not more important to this team’s postseason fate. And starters who hop out of the bullpen in the playoffs could contribute to that reality. Not just Steven Matz, who is pushing to return as a reliever, either. The end-of-game arsenal of Andre Pallante, Jordan Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley will be tempting to go to for the back half of games. Could anyone else see Flaherty potentially contributing to that? I could.

• Marmol won’t fall into traditional, predictable traps.

If the homework suggests an alternative to the expected is best, he will take it and trust that this team has learned to trust him.

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