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Hochman: State of the Cardinals is frustrating, but state of team’s pitching is intriguing

Hochman: State of the Cardinals is frustrating, but state of team’s pitching is intriguing

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In regards to the Cardinals in 2021, the reality of reality is concessions — as in making them, because last season you couldn’t buy them. And that’s how the Cardinals and other teams are operating in this new reality — without ticket buyers in 2020, they don’t have the means to spend freely. So we make concessions — the Cardinals’ 2021 offense won’t be vastly improved, because the Cards imply they can’t afford to purchase the production of, say, a George Springer or other A-list free agents. The reality about the offense leads to much consternation around Cardinal Nation, and that’s fair. But because of the pitching, there should still be some optimism about the 2021 team, even if it appears that ownership is looking ahead, from a financial standpoint, to the spending possibilities for 2022.

If 2020 was categorically “as bad as it gets” from an offensive standpoint, and the Cards’ still finished fifth in the National League and made the playoffs, then why can’t pitching and defense get them into the playoffs in 2021?

And while hitting coach Jeff Albert returns with a searing spotlight on him, don’t forget that pitching coach Mike Maddux returns, too, and this guy is a guru. It can’t be said enough — the Cardinals (and Marlins) experienced tribulations with their bullpens and rotations that the other 28 teams just did not experience. Pitching is an occupation based on daily routines — the Cardinals pitchers essentially just stopped pitching for 17 days, and then went out there and faced Major League Baseball hitters that had been facing pitching for those 17 days. Oh, and the Cardinals staff was ravaged by COVID, be it before the season or during it. And what happened? The St. Louis staff had the fourth-best ERA (3.90) in the National League, as well as WHIP (1.23).

No, the NL Central wasn’t an offensive monster of a division. And the Cardinals’ FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 10th best (4.58) in the league. But the Cardinals’ pitching and defense kept them in the playoff race when their offense couldn’t win games by itself.

And Jack Flaherty will be better next season.

And the return of the corner-painter Miles Mikolas will help the rotation that should include Miles, Jack, Kwang Hyun Kim and Austin Gomber, and someone with an intriguing storyline to possibly fill the fifth spot. Such as, what if this is the year Alex Reyes becomes a sturdy starter? Sure, yes, it feels like we’ve been asking that question every year since the days of Dennys Reyes. But Alex, still only 26 years old, had a 3.20 ERA and 27 strikeouts in his 19 2/3 innings pitched last season. Incidentally, the 19 2/3 innings pitched is a reminder about how small the sample sizes really were in 2020. And just 60 total regular-season games (or 58 for the Cards). Consider that the Nationals finished in last place and with a 26-34 record. In the 2019 season, they at one point were 26-33 … and went on to win the World Series. Still, the stat totals of 2020 are all we have to go by, so we’ll analyze the heck out of them.

And in addition to Alex Reyes, the Cardinals have other captivating young options for a starter’s gig, such as Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford and Daniel Ponce de Leon. And top pitching prospects Matthew Liberatore and Zack (with a K) Thompson are on the cusp.

And of course, we’ll have to see what Adam Wainwright decides. The decision to not bring back Kolten Wong for $12.5 million will be a benchmark moment in recent Cardinals history, and possibly a hard harbinger for fans to accept. Wainwright was particularly good and gritty last season, and would be worth a fair contract — but this might be one of those concessions fans will have to make, even if it’s bitterly hard to take (and just as hard to fathom).

As for the St. Louis bullpen in 2020, this was a bunch of fire-ballers or, depending if there were inherited runners, fire extinguishers.

The team bullpen ERA was third best in the National League at 4.00. And consider that some of the runs contributed to that average were from fellows that in other years wouldn’t have pitched in the majors, such as Roel Ramirez. He was thrown out there to throw in an early game after the quarantine, a game in which he allowed back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs.

Oh, and triple-digit reliever Jordan Hicks could be back for 2021. He’d join Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Andrew Miller, Kodi Whitley, Ryan Helsley and perhaps the return of the ol’ reliable redbeard reliever, John Brebbia.

So, to use a sobering and realistic word, you could say that the Cards might be stuck with their roster next season. Maybe they’ll be able to afford a platoon outfielder such as Joc Pederson. Maybe others will hit better. We went through this exercise last winter, but maybe there’s 2021 optimism in the offense of Paul DeJong (just a .671 OPS last year). And in this column space, you’ve read about the belief in Lane Thomas’ abilities. The outfielder battled COVID-19, and the effects from it, during a lost 2020 season. Maybe Lane could live up to his potential in 2021? But yes, most of the usual suspects are back.

But most of the pitchers are back, too. And many of them are game-changers.

We’ll see if they can be season-salvagers.

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