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Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, and St. Louis Cardinals postseason bullpen purgatory

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Last year, Shelby Miller watched from the bullpen bench as his fellow rookie Michael Wacha grabbed a place in Cardinals postseason lore with an amazing run of postseason starts. This October, it will be Wacha watching from the bullpen as Miller starts.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Shelby Miller threw 173 1/3 innings during his rookie season a year ago, posting a 3.06 ERA (84 ERA-) and 3.67 FIP (99  FIP-), but the righty's performance faded as the season progressed and when October rolled around the St. Louis Cardinals had to set their four-man postseason rotation, Miller wasn't in it. The Cardinals relegated Miller and fellow rookie Michael Wacha to the bullpen for each of the NLDS's first two games as, per Jenifer Langsoch of MLB.com, manager Mike Matheny held off on naming the club's starters for either Game 3 or 4. Matheny called on Miller out of the pen in Game 2 and the righty allowed two runs (both earned) on three hits and a walk over the span of 1 1/3 innings.

When it came time for the Cardinals to name a starter for NLDS Games 3 and 4, the club went with Lance Lynn and Wacha over Miller. Wainwright started Game 5, pitching the Cardinals to the NLCS, where the question of who would start once again arose. And Matheny chose the same pitchers he did for the NLDS rotation—leaving Miller the odd man out of the rotation and in the relief corps. At MLB.com, Langosch reported manager Mike Matheny's explanation of the decision to go with Lynn over Miller (Wacha's spot was a given) at the time it was announced:

"I think it's a young player, for the first time in his life, going through a complete Major League season," Matheny said, discarding the notion that Miller is fatigued while still acknowledging that he is in unknown territory. "That affects everybody. Your body is just getting used to it. It's a demand. I didn't see the fatigue, but also realized that we were asking him to do something he had never done before."

Of some concern with this decision, though, is how Miller reacts to it. A 15-game winner during the regular season, Miller has said all the right things about the move to the bullpen. It is not, though, the role that he would prefer.

Matheny and Miller have had several conversations this month during which Matheny has reminded Miller how highly the organization still thinks of him.

"I see him as a frontline starter," Matheny said. "He can be a top-of-your-rotation starter. But right now, we're just trying to take all the information with it being his first full long season with kind of how he pitched compared to the other guys through September. I don't want this to ever be translated to him or anybody else that we don't have high, high confidence and high expectations for him."

The questions swirled. Was Miller nursing an injury? Fatigue? Had the Cardinals instituted an innings cap? The Cards ignored such inquiries with haughty disdain, refusing to offer much in the way of insight to their rationale for handling Miller in the way that they were.

Ultimately, St. Louis wound up not only opting to leave Miller in the bullpen. Matheny did not call on him relief once during either the NLDS or World Series, though Miller did get loose in the bullpen during the Red Sox' decisive Game 6 victory. Derrick Goold wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Cards' usage of Miller during the World Series, quoting Matheny:

Miller was put on the active roster as a long-relief option, but Matheny said only an extreme situation would bring Miller out of the team-imposed mothballs.

"It would have to be a situation where we were pushing into a tight spot, and that’s just not fair to him without having much action to this point," Matheny said. "He’s been exactly what we’ve needed up to this point. Fortunately we haven’t needed that long outing. He’s that safety valve for us at the end of the game, and we had a couple games that were right there, just about ready to go. We were fortunate to have a pitcher of his ability sitting there, waiting if that happened.

"The unfortunate side of that," Matheny added, "is you sit and grow cold."

Goold also quoted general manager John Mozeliak in the article:

General manager John Mozeliak said "second-guessing the roster doesn’t have traction."

"His role was always that insurance," Mozeliak said. "There were a lot of question marks as we were going into this on exactly how our rotation was going to unfold. The fact that everybody has stepped up changed the dynamic. Having the extra pitcher when your starters are going five, six, seven innings sort of neutralizes that need."

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"He’s knows his importance to this club," Mozeliak said. "More importantly he knows his future importance to this club. He was one of our top pitchers all year. He did, toward the end, have some inconsistencies. He’s still an elite-type pitcher. We saw that at times this summer. …

"They had him lined up for an emergency," Mozeliak concluded. "That emergency never happened."

For his part, Miller said that he felt fine physically and then dropped the bomb that neither Mozeliak nor Matheny had told him why the team wasn't using him to pitch during the postseason. Again from the Goold piece:

Miller insisted that his elbow and his shoulder were fine, and that he hasn’t been limited in his workouts or preparation during the postseason. Miller was not told of any innings limit that he reached.

"There could be something that I don’t know about going on," Miller said. "Maybe I’ll have some understanding in the offseason. I think it’s more they’re just looking out for me, innings-wise. I don’t feel fatigued. I don’t feel tired. I feel really good. There is probably some answer that I don’t know about. I’ll wait to hear it."

Then Goold shared during a chat that Miller had experienced issues with his throwing shoulder. Could this be the answer to the question of why the Cards effectively shut him down during the postseason? At the Winter Warmup, Miller shot that rationale down. From an ESPN report in January:

He says there were no injury concerns with this shoulder and he wasn't tired.

"Physically, I felt amazing," he said. "I felt good. I didn't feel any better or worse than I did during the season."

No one in the organization told him why he was put on the shelf. Nor did he ask for a reason, either.

"The season just kind of ended and I just kind of put it in the past really," Miller said. "I was a little upset I didn't pitch but I just put it away. After the season ended, I just wanted to be ready for a big offseason.

"I didn't want to dwell on the past and why I didn't pitch in October. I'm not worried about it anymore. I'm just going to let it be a mystery. A mystery unsolved."

So the mystery of the Cardinals' effective shutdown of Miller has never been solved. Only Mozeliak and Matheny know and they have not seen fit to share—even with Miller—why the righty went all but unused last postseason.

This October, the shoe is on the other foot. It's Miller who will make the start in NLDS Game 4. Wacha appears to have been given the emergency-reliever-who-we-will-never-use relief role occupied by Miller a year ago.

With Wacha, the Cards' decision to shift him from starting to relieving is understandable. After a start to the year in which Wacha pitched even better than he had while winning the 2013 NLCS MVP, he hit the disabled list in June with, as Aaron Finkel analyzed at the time, a rare shoulder injury: a stress reaction from throwing. For months he sat on the DL, not playing or even throwing. The Cardinals understandably played it cautious with their young righthander.

After one rehab start with Double-A Springfield, the Cards thrust Wacha into the rotation in the heat of the division race. But Wacha didn't feel quite right and Matheny felt he didn't look just right, so the Cardinals gave the righty a turn of the rotation off. After the break, though, Wacha didn't look much, if any, sharper. So the Cards opted to go with Miller in the NLDS rotation and Wacha in the bullpen.

At STL Baseball Weekly, Brian Stull reports on Matheny's explanation of what Wacha's relief role will be:

"I think Michael is just going to be used as an extra asset down there for us," said Matheny, noting he really liked how the back-end of the bullpen was put together. "We know he can go long, we know he can come in and get a big out if we needed him to. He just is pretty versatile. The fact that we have seen him, just like we have talked about a couple other guys on this stage, pitch about as good as he could possibly pitch."

The "extra asset" categorization sounds a bit like the job Miller had a year ago. Wacha will be in the bullpen as the extra insurance policy reliever that Matheny doesn't want to use and therefore will not use. Why the Cards would want to go into any postsesaon series with a reliever tied behind their collective back like that is anyone's guess but they appear intent on doing it for a second straight postseason.

With Wacha watching from the bullpen bench and occupying Miller's relief role from last October, Miller will attempt to follow the path Wacha blazed a year ago: Beat Clayton Kershaw in an elimination postseason game at Busch Stadium. The shoe is on the other foot. Hopefully the result is the same.

Correction: This post initially incorrectly gave Miller's 2014 ERA and FIP as his rookie year ERA and FIP. It has been corrected to list his 2013 ERA and FIP.