While the Cardinals haven’t provided much in the way of specifics beyond classifying ace Jack Flaherty’s oblique strain as “significant,” MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports (via Twitter) that the 25-year-old righty could be sidelined for the remainder of the first half of the season. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also weighs in on the lack of a concrete timeline for Flaherty, similarly implying that he could be many weeks away from returning to the Cards. Jeff Jones of the Belleville News pegs Flaherty’s likely return at some point in August.
It was clear at the time of the injury that Flaherty would miss more than the 10-day minimum associated with his placement on the injured list, but an IL stint spanning into the season’s second half would wipe out as much as quarter of Flaherty’s season. Losing Flaherty for even a couple starts is a blow for St. Louis, but seeing him shelved for six-plus weeks would be a gut punch for a team that has been beset by rotation injuries.
The Cardinals lost young righty Dakota Hudson to Tommy John surgery last September, and they’ve received just four innings from Miles Mikolas so far in 2021 after he experienced renewed forearm discomfort in his return from a flexor operation that wiped out his 2020 season. The plan for Mikolas is to be reevaluated either in late June or early July, but there’s no clear timeline on a potential return for him either. Meanwhile, lefty Kwang Hyun Kim is out with a lower back injury.
With the injuries piling up in rapid fashion, the Cardinals’ rotation has dwindled. Adam Wainwright remains a rock for their staff, but Carlos Martinez has been inconsistent and was just obliterated by the Dodgers for 10 runs in less than an inning of work in his most recent outing. Righty John Gant has an impressive 2.63 ERA, but he won’t be able to maintain that production unless he curbs a sky-high 15 percent walk rate. In 54 innings, he has nearly as many free passes issued (37) as strikeouts recorded (41), and he’s also plunked three batters. Young righty Johan Oviedo’s control has been similarly worrisome in a smaller sample of 24 innings (five starts).
Meanwhile, as Goold notes in his column, top Cardinals pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore is slated to pitch for Team USA in the Olympics. He could be called back to the organization to help fill the need, but Goold writes that Mozeliak called this a “tough” decision while acknowledging that Liberatore’s Olympic aspirations could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
All of that makes Flaherty’s injury even more problematic for the Cardinals, though given his general excellence, it’d be a notable blow even if the rest of the staff were healthy and effective. In 62 innings so far this season, Flaherty has logged a 2.90 ERA with a hearty 26.3 percent strikeout rate and a better-than-average 7.8 percent walk rate. Since being ambushed for six runs in an Opening Day start against the Reds, he’s pitched to a 2.18 ERA in 57 2/3 frames.
Despite the fact that their rotation is in shambles, the Cardinals are hanging in the NL Central race at 31-29. They’re two and a half games behind the division-leading Brewers and a half-game back from the Cubs, with a Wild Card spot sitting just 3.5 games out of reach. So long as they continue to tread water and keep themselves within striking distance of a postseason bid, it feels safe to presume that rotation upgrades will be a primary focus for president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, general manager Mike Girsch and the rest of the front office as the deadline draws nearer.
It’s worth wondering whether the glaring rotation issues would be enough to make the Cards jump the market a bit — there ought to be plenty of available names from which to choose — but notable trades are far more commonplace in July than in June, historically speaking.