The Cardinals finally started hitting like a playoff team after the waivers-free trade deadline passed.
They briefly pulled even with the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central and they tightened the wild card race as well. Their sudden power surge raised the stakes for their final six weeks.
But an arms crisis threatens to ruin everything.
Their bullpen fell back into disarray. So did their once-steady starting rotation, leaving impending free agent Lance Lynn to hold it together after stepping off the trade block.
Reliever Kevin Siegrist landed back on the disabled list, this time with forearm tendinitis. Closer Trevor Rosenthal broke down, too, and faced the ominous threat of elbow surgery.
Yesteryear ace Adam Wainwright went on the shelf with a recurring elbow injury that may require clean-up surgery after the season. Mike Leake’s second-half decline accelerated, putting a giant question mark next to his spot in the rotation.
Suddenly, falling short in the Sonny Gray sweepstakes — with a reported offer of Stephen Piscotty and either Jack Flaherty or Luke Weaver to the Oakland A’s for the talented starting pitcher — stung that much more.
This team faces a near-term pitching shortage and a muddled long-term outlook.
The immediate challenge is bolstering the pitching staff for the stretch run. Weaver might be ready to step in for Wainwright, but this team needs much more.
While the Cardinals don’t want to put their most promising young hurlers under excessive duress early in their careers, why not give Flaherty or Dakota Hudson their first big league look?
Hudson threw 3½ shutout innings for Memphis on Sunday before a rain delay ended his outing. He is aligned to pitch in Leake’s spot and it’s worth a shot.
Flaherty has pitched 136 2/3 innings for Springfield and Memphis, a professional career high. But he may have a few starts (or several middle relief appearances) left in his arm this summer.
Once the Cardinals reach September, they should exploit the roster expansion to promote John Gant, lefty Ryan Sherriff and perhaps former New York Yankees prospect Mark Montgomery from Memphis.
Those three could at least handle low-leverage relief assignments. This would require clearing some room on the 40-man roster, but it could be done.
As Friday night’s nerve-wracking 11-10 victory in Pittsburgh proved, a team can never have enough relievers. Just throw some more chairs into the bullpen and order some more food for the charter flights.
Wouldn’t you just love to see manager Mike Matheny use a dozen pitchers in the same game?
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John Mozeliak, Mike Girsch and Co. must also rethink their view of Lynn and how to allocate future resources. Lynn seems willing to stay if the Cardinals respect his contribution and pay the full market rate.
This team needs his bulldog attitude. He is another in the long line of tough-minded pitchers who have kept the Cardinals in the hunt year after year.
Yes, there are big financial considerations. Wainwright has another year at $19.5 million left on his contract. Like it or not, the Cardinals are committed to Leake for three more years at $17 million, $16 million and $15 million — plus an $18 million mutual option or a $5 million buyout in 2021.
Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is leery of committing huge long-term dollars to pitchers, given their high attrition rate. Then again, he owes his success to perennially strong pitching and his highly profitable franchise can afford to boost payroll.
Wainwright has been pitching on fumes. Leake is threatening to finish with subpar numbers for the second consecutive year. Michael Wacha’s durability remains an issue, given his previous shoulder injuries.
Reliever Matt Bowman’s arm could fall off at any time. Alex Reyes will be no sure thing in his first season after Tommy John surgery.
As they have in the past, the Cardinals could also shift some lively young arms from starting to relief. Weaver’s fastball-changeup combination could make him a strong candidate for late-inning work if the team finds other rotation solutions.
Perhaps hard-throwing Sandy Alcantara could make the transition, too. He has allowed two runs or fewer during his last seven starts for Springfield and he could become a beast in relief.
The Cardinals have college-polished starting pitchers like Zac Gallen, Austin Gomber and Ryan Helsley pushing upward in the system, so they can experiment with roles.
The organization has spent years amassing a pile of good young pitching through the draft, international signings, trades and the occasional dumpster dive. It’s time to put that supply to work.