Bud Norris has wavered in his last few outings as closer. Marcell Ozuna is back from the DL, but to what extent his shoulder continues to hamper him is a question. Adam Wainwright will soon return to the rotation.
It will be fascinating to see how Mike Shildt handles each of these situations.
We know what Mike Matheny would have done. All three - even Ozuna - were certified Mike’s Guys™, and therefore would remain in their role until they disintegrated into dust on the field or were traded to Boston for John Lackey.
That endless devotion to guys with Veteran Proveyness was one of the many flaws of the Matheny Regime. We’ve seen Mike Shildt reverse many of the ills of his predecessor, but how will he handle the tricky task of taking the ball from a veteran?
I’m not suggesting Shildt needs to remove these guys from their roles, but there are questions around each. And he will need to know the answers before we do.
Norris was knocked-around badly Sunday and Monday, and his peripherals have trended downwards a bit of late. It may be nothing more than a dead-arm period for the player who has been probably the most consistent out of the bullpen all year long. Or it could be more.
But even if it’s just a dead-arm that needs a bit of rest, sliding Norris out of high-leverage spots or even onto the 10-day DL shouldn’t be a big deal... except for the dreaded CLOSER TAG. Whereas shifting any other pitcher in the bullpen into different situations would be no big deal, to have Norris pitch anywhere but the 9th inning would require a press conference and an actual letter from the Queen herself.
If Mike Shildt is as Woke as we all hope him to be, this should be the easiest move for him to make. Teams across baseball are spreading save opportunities around more these days, and the Cardinals could easily play matchups with a variety of the arms in their bullpen.
Ozuna’s lack of power at the plate and weak throws from the outfield have clearly been the result of his lingering shoulder issue, which the team finally acknowledged with his recent 10-day DL rest. Now he has returned, but he wasn’t exactly missed given the production Tyler O’Neill provided in his absence.
Who is the better option in left field right now, Ozuna or O’Neill? I have no idea. We can look backwards at the numbers and even the raw performance via StatCast that each have produced so far... but while we can say with some accuracy who has been better so far, it doesn’t tell us as much about who should be starting TODAY.
If Ozuna’s shoulder is improved and he can perform more like he did last season - and he certainly looked pretty good when he hit two home runs yesterday - it’s hard to argue with reinserting him as a fixture in the lineup. And as good as O’Neill has been, it’s certainly possible that pitchers could make adjustments that sap his productivity in a hurry.
This is one of those instances where the coaching staff needs to be ahead of the fans and the publicly available data. Too often under Matheny, it felt like the manager was the last to know a change needed to be made.
And perhaps no decision will illuminate how different Mike Shildt will be than how the team handles Adam Wainwright, who is set to start for the Cardinals on Monday.
It certainly makes sense to give Waino a shot in the rotation. He has thrown 17 scoreless innings in his minor league rehab. His fastball has reportedly been in the 89-91mph range. That’s back up to a velocity where he showed some effectiveness over the past couple years, but is there enough stuff there - even with Wainwright’s considerable guile - to make him a better option than a John Gant, an Austin Gomber, etc?
I am absolutely rooting for Wainwright, but I’m also steeling myself for the possibility that it’s just not there anymore. Under Matheny, I think we all know Waino would continue to be sent out there until his arm actually fell off. What will Mike Shildt do in the event that it becomes clear an absolute Cardinal legend needs to be ushered off the field?
I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mike Shildt, but it’s worth noting that these next few weeks will present him with some very specific challenges he has not faced yet. I’ll be watching.