As expected, the Cardinals reinstated Jack Flaherty from the 60-day injured list before this afternoon’s game with the Nationals. Righty Dakota Hudson has been optioned to Triple-A Memphis to create an active roster spot, while reliever Junior Fernández was designated for assignment in a corresponding 40-man roster move.
Flaherty makes his return to the Busch Stadium mound for what’ll be his first MLB appearance since July 11. The right-hander left his final start before the All-Star Break with shoulder discomfort, his second extended shoulder-related absence of the year. Flaherty’s season debut was delayed until June 15 due to bursitis, and the star hurler revealed in Spring Training he’s pitched through a labrum tear in the area for years.
It’s been the second consecutive injury-plagued season for Flaherty, who also had extended IL stints last year due to an oblique strain and shoulder troubles. He started 15 of his 17 outings last season but has been limited to three starts in 2022. The absences certainly seemed to have a deleterious effect on Flaherty’s performance earlier this year, as he was tagged for six runs in eight innings with nine walks and only six strikeouts. He averaged 92.1 MPH on his fastball, down two ticks from his 94 MPH heater of 2019-20.
With a month remaining on the regular season schedule, Flaherty will get a few chances to try to recapture that form. At his best, he’s shown ace-like potential and could be a postseason weapon. He finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting back in 2019, when he posted a sparkling 2.75 ERA with a 29.9% strikeout rate across a career-best 196 1/3 innings.
St. Louis holds an 8 1/2 game lead over the Brewers in the NL Central, having all but officially secured control of the division with a 25-7 record dating back to the start of August. They’re still 5 1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Mets for the second seed in the Senior Circuit, giving them an uphill battle if they’re to take hold of a first-round bye. If they wind up finishing in third place in the league, they’d host the final Wild Card qualifier in a three-game series. How manager Oliver Marmol deploys Flaherty in that set could well depend on the form he shows down the stretch. Adam Wainwright and deadline acquisition Jordan Montgomery have been brilliant and look like postseason starters, with Flaherty joining José Quintana and the struggling Miles Mikolas as options for a third start.
Flaherty’s return bumps Hudson from the primary five. While St. Louis announced last week that he’d pitch out of the bullpen, they’ll instead send him back to Memphis to work from the rotation there. Rob Rains of STLSportsPage tweets that the club still plans to bring Hudson back to make a start on September 17th, when the Cards will play a doubleheader against the Reds. Today’s demotion allows him to exhaust the required 10 days in the minors for optioned players, although it remains to be seen if he’ll stick with the big league club in relief from then forward or immediately head back to Triple-A.
A longtime member of the rotation, the sinkerballing Hudson has had an inconsistent 2022 campaign. He’s made 24 starts but posted a 4.43 ERA, striking out batters at a well below-average 13.5% clip. Hudson’s 52.8% ground-ball rate is still very strong, but it’s down from the 56.9% mark he posted in his best season back in 2019. He’s had a particularly rough go of things in the season’s second half, carrying a 5.52 ERA in 29 1/3 frames since the All-Star Break.
The demotion won’t have any impact on Hudson from a service time perspective, even if his return 12 days from now is a one-off recall. He’s already surpassed the four-year service threshold this season, meaning he remains on track to first reach free agency after 2024. The Cards would owe him a raise on this year’s modest $1.05MM salary if they tender him an arbitration contract after the season.
As for Fernández, he’ll now find himself on the waiver wire within the next few days. A member of the St. Louis organization since signing as an amateur free agent in 2014, he first reached the majors five years later. Fernández has bounced on and off the active roster for the past four seasons, tallying 50 2/3 innings over 47 cumulative appearances. He owns just a 5.51 ERA in that time, fanning 19% of batters faced with a very high 13.1% walk percentage.
The 6’3″ hurler has a 2.93 ERA over 13 MLB appearances this season, but that’s been paired with the more pedestrian strikeout and walk rates he’s posted throughout his career. He’s had a tougher go from a run prevention perspective in Memphis, where he’s allowed more than five earned runs per nine through 36 appearances out of the bullpen.
While Fernández hasn’t had a ton of MLB success to this point, the 25-year-0ld could generate some interest on the waiver wire. He’s averaged a blistering 98.8 MPH on his heater during his big league time this season. He’s also induced grounders on more than half the batted balls against him at both the major league and Triple-A levels. Any team that claims him off waivers could keep him in Triple-A for the rest of this season, but he’ll be out of options next year and would have to break camp with another team or again hit the waiver wire.
Katie Woo of the Athletic first reported Hudson would be optioned.