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The road to becoming an Opening Day starter

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Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Miles Mikolas was named the Opening Day starter officially, which threatens a little streak that I noticed. The Cardinals have had remarkable consistency with Opening Day starters. Since 2000, there have been six Opening Day starters, and every one of them started at least two Opening Days. That’s kind of amazing, right? All six starters took vastly different roads to earn the distinction. The Cardinals did not have a formula for how to develop a “Opening Day” starter, because not one of these guys became an Opening Day starter in the same way.

For the 2000 and 2001 season, and yes this is the sad part of the post, Darryl Kile was the Opening Day starter. Kile was drafted out of a community college at just 19 in the 30th round. He quickly rose through the Astros system, peaking at #11 in the 1990 preseason Baseball America Top Prospects list. While never bad, he didn’t really break out until he was 27, posting a 3.7 and 4 WAR season before entering free agency.

In the 1997-1998 offseason, Kile was a hotshot free agent and signed with the Colorado Rockies. He became the fourth-highest paid pitcher in baseball. Sadly, the perception is that Kile bombed with the Rockies but that’s really only true of his second season. It was Coors Field in the ‘90s and as such, Kile had a 3.2 WAR season with a 5.20 ERA in his first season. After his disappointing second season, he was traded to the Cardinals.

Kile ended up as the Opening Day starter because he was considered a huge free agent bust. His competition was really no competition at all, even though the 2000 rotation was very good. Rick Ankiel was 19 and was never going to get the gig. Pat Hengten, Andy Benes, and Garrett Stephenson all had solid seasons, but you can see why Kile got the spot despite being considered a free agent bust. His only true competition had Tommy John surgery. Right away, you see the contrast. Kile never once went on the disabled list in his career.

Matt Morris ended up returning in the middle of the season from TJ surgery and being solid in the bullpen. He then had the best season of his career in 2001. But let’s back up. Morris was drafted 12th overall and was more or less immediately a top 100 prospect. He peaked as the #25 prospect according to Baseball America before the 1997 season. He had a very good 1997 season and an injury-shortened second season before needing Tommy John surgery in spring training of 1999. Two top prospects, two vastly different ways of becoming top prospects. One became Opening Day starter because he had the worst season of his career with a different team, the other because he had the best season of his career in the only organization he’d ever been in.

Morris declined gradually for the next few years, but remained the Opening Day starter for three years. He eventually gave up the throne to an injury-prone 30-year-old who went on to win two World Series rings with the Cardinals. Wouldn’t it have been nice if Morris could have stuck around for just one more season and won a ring with the Cardinals? But alas, the Giants had stacks of money for him. But Morris was still on the 2005 season when he was forced to make room for Chris Carpenter.

Not many people became Cy Young winners the way Chris Carpenter did. For the third straight time, Carpenter was also a top prospect, and for the third straight time, he became one in a slightly different way. He was a 1st round high school pick and he was literally the #100 prospect the season after he was drafted. He rose his way up to #28, the year he also made his major league debut.

Carpenter had a solid, if maybe underwhelming, career with the Blue Jays considering his prospect status. He was a 2+ WAR pitcher in three seasons and really only had one bad year. He had a solid debut season and pitched less than half a season in his last season with the Blue Jays. The Cardinals knew he was going to miss the entire 2003 season and signed him to a multi-year deal. He was a reclamation project, but he wasn’t like Todd Wellemeyer. Carpenter had a solid career when healthy.

Of course, nobody expected him to do what he did. He won the Cy Young in 2005 and was the Opening Day starter for three years. On the third year, he got hurt after six innings, pitched 15 total innings the next season, and did not get Opening Day honors for 2009 when finally healthy. He had been overtaken as ace of the staff, at least for one year. Carpenter was back too Opening Day starter for 2010 and 2011.

Who took the Opening Day starts in his two-year absence? One of them was Adam Wainwright, and the other was Kyle Lohse. Lohse was never a top prospect. He was drafted by the Cubs in the 29th round out of high school. He was traded before he made the majors, with the major piece being a 37-year-old Rick Aguilera. He was not all that great with the Twins, posting one above average season and was traded twice before entering free agency for the first time.

He was not a coveted free agent. He signed on March 13 back when that was considered a really late time to sign someone. He only signed for one year. The 2008 pitching staff was not great. Outside of Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals did not have much competition for Lohse.* In a weird twist, Lohse was the best pitcher of the staff due to a midseason Wainwright injury. Dave Duncan deserves some credit, but fun fact: Lohse was a 3 WAR pitcher in 2007 and a 3.2 WAR pitcher in 2008.

*Wainwright pitched an opener that was rained out and the game was cancelled, allowing Lohse to be the Opening Days starter. Thanks to raisin1 for the tip.

Wainwright took over in 2009. Lohse is clearly the odd man out here, because we return back to a top 100 prospect. Like Carpenter, he was a 1st round pick out of high school. Also like Carpenter, he was pretty much immediately a top 100 prospect, appearing on Baseball America’s Top 100 four straight years.

Wainwright’s trajectory was clear cut. He was a Georgia boy drafted by his hometown team. He was the #49 prospect in baseball. And then he was traded. He only started 12 games in 2004 and fell off BA’s list completely. He wasn’t good in those 12 games either. He had an unimpressive campaign in AAA in 2005 too, but he did stay healthy and he did make his major league debut. He pitched two innings, struck out nobody, walked one and allowed a homer.

Not exactly the theme I was expecting, but there is a consistent trend among these starters. Kile seemingly lost his ability to pitch, Morris might not have returned the same from injury, Carpenter might not have been able to pitch at all, Lohse wasn’t even on a major league baseball team at the beginning of Spring Training, and Wainwright was looking like he might become a failed prospect. I know this writer here probably would not have been much of a believer in Wainwright after 2005. I wasn’t into prospects at the time so I can’t know for sure. You hear the saying “baseball is a game of failure” all the time but I never expected that to be so evident by looking at the successful guys.

Well, you know the Adam Wainwright story by now. He wasn’t a failed prospect, not even close. He became Opening Day starter for the 2009 season. Carpenter took back the throne for the next two seasons, and Lohse for 2012. Lohse has a similarly fascinating road back to mound for the first game, going from a bad free agent signing to a good signing really quickly. Judging by the game logs, it looks like Wainwright just wasn’t quite ready yet when Opening Day came around, since his first game was April 7 on the road. Starting in 2013, Wainwright started the most consecutive openers for the Cardinals since Bob Gibson with four straight.

Then of course, the last two Opening Days were Carlos Martinez. Martinez always seemed like he would eventually be the Opening Day starter. His unlikely road to the Cardinals was when he signed with the Red Sox. A routine background check led to questions about his birth certificate, the contract was voided, and he was suspended for a year. When the suspension was over, the Cardinals signed him to a $1.5 million contract. He became a top 50 prospect within just two years and debuted at 21.

And now Miles Mikolas takes the mound and he too provides a vastly different backstory than the rest. Mikolas was referred to as “Yet another live bullpen arm with strong statistical track record” by John Sickels and was the 27th best Padres prospect. He did not make an appearance on Sickel’s 2013 Padres prospect or the 2014 Rangers prospects list. He needed to learn his craft first by excelling in the NPB before signing with the Cardinals and becoming the Cards best starter last year.

Whether Mikolas ultimately stays with the Cardinals past 2019 and keeps this cool, but meaningless streak alive is not important. Martinez could return or Jack Flaherty could provide an ever so slight twist to the list of different pitchers. Or who knows, maybe the Cardinals sign a 40-year-old Pat Neshek, who comes to camp as a starter and the rest of the pitching staff gets food poisoning the day before the game. Anything can happen! I’m just looking forward to the next fascinating, winding story the pitcher will provide.