Ten years ago (or was it four months?) in mid-March, baseball froze in time. Games were halted, the opening of the season was delayed, and it was all reminiscent of one of those cheesy To Be Continued intertitles that show up at the end of TV episodes from time to time. As Jerry Seinfeld astutely observed, nobody likes To Be Continued. The To Be Continued episode brings you up to a cliffhanger, then it simmers for a week as viewers wonder whether or not Bo and Luke will successfully jump across stuff in their car without ending in a fiery, Boar’s Nest barbecue sauce-infused wreck (Spoiler alert: They made it. They always did). In some particularly cruel cases, the cliffhanger makes you wait until the next season. Eventually, the next episode arrives- RESOLUTION!- but before it starts, the show has to bring you back up to speed. What happened a week ago, or months ago? Enter Previously On, the yin to To Be Continued’s yang in the world of serialized, non-streaming TV. Usually it’s a star of the show whose voice chimes in with “Previously on Fox Force Five...” and then they hit you with a montage of stuff you’re supposed to remember from the previous episode (perhaps Uma Thurman telling the dumb tomato joke... CATCH UP!), all before leading you to the glorious action-packed conclusion. After all of these months without Cardinals baseball, we all need a Previously On. What were the key issues facing the Cardinals when baseball stopped?
The Health of Miles Mikolas
It seems like every year, a Cardinals starting pitcher arrives at Spring Training and is immediately sidelined with an injury for some extended period of time. In fairness, fans of other teams probably feel the same way. This year, Miles Mikolas was the bedeviled pitcher. A strained flexor tendon put him on the shelf for nearly a month of Spring Training and the club was bracing for some part of the season without him until he regained his health. It was a small note early in the chaos of the quarantine, but Mikolas resumed throwing almost immediately after spring sessions were cut short.
At this point, Mikolas is working out regularly with the team (insofar as anything is “regular” right now) and, per Jeff Jones, is expected to be part of the rotation when the season begins.
The Freewheelin’ Dylan Carlson
Carlson entered spring competing for outfield playing time. He sprinted out of the gate fast, somehow making an even bigger impression than he had during his meteoric rise through the farm system. However, his playing time slipped a little bit at the end of Spring Training and it was starting to look like- right or wrong- the Cardinals were going to start the season with Carlson in AAA, with the caveat that he would surely come up at some point.
Everything is different now. For starters, the National League will have the designated hitter this season. What was previously a crowded outfield situation suddenly has an additional 11% of plate appearances to spread around. This opens up countless possibilities for playing time for Carlson. At least two potential rivals for playing time in the outfield- Dexter Fowler and Tommy Edman- could be affected by the DH. Fowler may be used as the DH himself, freeing up right field for Carlson. Matt Carpenter could DH with Edman moving in to third base, giving Carlson playing time in lieu of Edman the Outfielder. For that matter, Carlson himself could be used as the DH.
And the Rest of the Outfield
This one is a multi-parter. Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas were competing to replace Marcell Ozuna while Harrison Bader was trying to reaffirm the team’s faith in him. Dexter Fowler was also looking to lock down playing time. Austin Dean was vying for playing time on the periphery and Justin Williams had the unique advantage of offering left-handed balance. Spring Training stats are useless... but Dean (.931 OPS), Thomas (.963 OPS), and O’Neill (.796 OPS but some mammoth homeruns with gaudy exit velocities) all raised eyebrows. Fowler struggled mightily and Bader’s numbers look a lot like his career numbers, but again- these stats are meaningless. They’re meaningless in a normal year, let alone one in which there’s a four month gap between Spring Training and Opening Day. There really wasn’t any separation made in the spring, and it’s all set back to zero anyway.
With the DH, the Cardinals now have four positions to distribute plate appearances to some combination of Bader, O’Neill, Fowler, Thomas, Dean, Carlson, and Edman (if he’s not playing third or second base). The expanded rosters early in the season will allow them to carry one more of these than normal, but that amounts to likely pinch-hitting duty. More than ever, the hot hand theory seems likely to dictate playing time.
Kwang-hyun Kim vs. Carlos Martinez
For a brief minute, it looked like the Mikolas injury would resolve the competition for the final rotation slot between the newly acquired Kim and Martinez in his return to the rotation. Kim looked incredible in Jupiter, and Martinez looked solid as well. When Mikolas was presumed injured, the Cardinals could have used both Kim and Martinez in the rotation. It gets tricky again with Mikolas back.
On the other hand, this seasons lends itself to creative pitching staff usage more than any before. Pitchers haven’t had game action since March, implying some level of innings protection may be needed. The truncated season means that each game carries more than twice the leverage of a game during a 162-game season. It’s time to maximize innings from your best pitchers, as long as they’re fresh, instead of playing around with the 14th man on the roster to get a pitcher through the long grind of a season. Throw in John Brebbia’s injury and suddenly there are extra bullpen innings, plus the possibility of a six man rotation to help appease the required innings for Jack Flaherty, Mikolas, Martinez, Wainwright, KK, Dakota Hudson, and the bullpen allotment. And don’t even get me started about Daniel Ponce de Leon, who opened some eyes by doing some dirty things on the mound in the spring.
The Closer Role
It’s been almost twelve months to the day since closer Jordan Hicks went down with Tommy John surgery. In a regular year, he’d be approaching his return, presumably after a minor league rehab stint. Hicks says he plans on playing this season (who wouldn’t say that?), and the team wants him to play... as long as it makes sense for his health. Still, with the uncertainty, there’s no telling what will happen with the closer role. Brebbia’s injury eliminates one option. They still have Giovanny Gallegos, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley, and Andrew Miller as contenders to varying degrees, and that’s to say nothing if Hicks is ready to go. Nothing was resolved here in the spring and Hicks’ likely return only complicates things, in a good way.