As the St. Louis Cardinals continue to win at a league-leading pace and their spot in the postseason becomes more and more likely, questions naturally arise about how far this team can go.
The Cards, who according to MLB.com have the best on-base percentage in the National League, as well as the second-best earned run average in the major leagues, may appear to be without a weakness. But the pressure of the postseason tends to cruelly expose the weaknesses of even the best teams.
Cardinal Nation should not expect September and October to be the easy breeze that the season has been thus far. A major question for the Cards that could possibly turn into a severe problem is the durability of the young pitchers whom the team has relied on heavily lately.
With Jaime Garcia out for the season with yet another injury and the uncertainty of Chris Carpenter’s status for the remainder of the season, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and possibly Tyler Lyons will continue to be an integral part of the team. Set-up man Trevor Rosenthal has pitched 34 innings in relief, third in the major leagues among rookies according to MLB.com, and Seth Maness also has been used seriously from the bullpen since being called up to the bigs. Many of these players are not used to the major league grind of 162 games and yet will be expected to perform well into October.
Lynn enjoyed a blistering start to his rookie season last year, earning him a trip to the All-Star game, but he was less effective as the year went on. Lynn was jerked from the rotation to the bullpen and back and forth from mid August until the end of the playoffs as his performance wavered. His fatigue and the club’s handling of the situation is exactly what all parties hope to avoid this year. Lynn is off to another great start this season, and the 26-year-old should be ready for the long haul this time around.
In his first three years of professional baseball, the most Shelby Miller pitched was 25 games, never reaching 140 innings according to MLB.com. Last year after 27 games in AAA, Miller was called up to St. Louis and appeared in 6 games including one start, followed by two relief appearances in the playoffs. Miller, 22, will be expected to start about 32 games and pitch around 200 innings this season if he stays healthy. In addition the Cardinals will count on Miller to make multiple postseason starts provided they follow through and make the playoffs and all goes well. Miller is off to a great start this year, but manager Mike Matheny will have to be cautious with Miller’s innings if he wants Miller to still be effective later in the season.
Trevor Rosenthal was in contention for a spot in the starting rotation this spring, but after that spot went to Miller, the 23-year-old has filled the role of set-up man nicely. The flame-throwing Rosenthal has a starter’s background, so the innings might not be a problem. But he has been used in high pressure situations to protect leads nearly as much as any other relief pitcher in the majors. If Rosenthal continues to thrive at this rate through the entire season and a postseason, it will be an impressive display of mental and physical endurance for a young pitcher.
Tyler Lyons, 25, has been adequate as the left-hander in the rotation since Garcia went down. Seth Maness, 24, and Kevin Siegrist, 23, have shown promise in the bullpen. It will be interesting to see if these pitchers can continue to be effective as opponents make more comprehensive scouting reports on them. For the Cardinals to have a successful season they will need these young pitchers to come through more often than not.
The Cardinals are in a unique situation in that they rely on so many young pitchers, yet are still an excellent team that expects to make a deep playoff run. They need these rookie pitchers to make it not only through the rigors of a full major league season, but also a full postseason.