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Cards Gain Advantage with Wainwright as the #2. And What to Do With KK?

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Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt named Wainwright as the starter for the second game of the season. Why? Also, KK has impressed but what will be his role on the team?

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Cardinals cut short Adam Wainwright’s outing during Thursday’s intrasquad simulcast. The veteran righty went only three innings, not allowing a run and looked sharp. Why the early hook? Waino was elusive after the scrimmage.

“I think word is out, right?,” Wainwright said, according to MLB Cardinals beat reporter Anne Rogers. “I’ll let Shildt talk about it. I don’t want to be the guy who breaks news.”

The news is that Shildt has named Wainwright as the team’s number two starter. It was previously announced that Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty will pitch on Opening Day at home against the Pirates. Wainwright is now set to start the second game of the series.

This is a somewhat surprising development. In 2019, Wainwright started the fifth game of the season, also against Pittsburgh. He was behind Opening Day starter Miles Mikolas, Flaherty, Wacha, and even rookie Dakota Hudson in the pecking order as the team’s #5 starter.

What has changed this year? It might be nothing more than readiness.

“He’s the most built-up guy we’ve got,” Shildt said.

The unique training environment of the Cardinals “Sumer Camp” has raised questions about the staff’s readiness for 100 pitch, 5-6 inning outings early in the season. This shortened 2020 will be Wainwright’s 15th season, 13 of which he will have spent in the rotation. The veteran knows how to get himself ready, even under a time-crunch.

“He’s been pretty sharp,” Shildt reiterated.

When the announcement was made, I immediately wondered if there was some kind of statistical advantage the Cardinals would gain by starting Wainwright early in the season at home. After all, Wainwright has long benefited from the pitcher-friendly confines of Busch stadium.

In 2019, Wainwright had a 2.56 era at home, with an opponent’s OPS of just 712. On the road, that era skyrockets to 6.22 and the OPS to 866. In his long career, Wainwright’s era is a full run better at home than on the road.

A glance through the schedule indicates that might be part of the club’s thinking. Starting the second game at home puts Wainwright on pace for 12 starts, 6 at home and 6 on the road. If Wainwright occupied the 5th rotation spot – where he was placed in 2019 – he would also receive 12 starts, but 7 of those games would be on the road with just 5 at home.

During a 162-game regular season, a starter’s number hardly matters after the first few week, as off-days, injuries, and adjustments mix up the original alignment. That might not be the case in a 60-game season, so easily divisible by five starters, especially since the rest of the rotation is unlikely to go deep into games for at least the first month of the season. If Wainwright is likely to get twelve starts regardless of his place in the rotation order, gaining an extra home start and eliminating a road start is a statistical advantage the club is wise to recognize.

Why does one start matter so much? Fangraphs still has the Cardinals projected to finish in 4th place in the NL Central with 31 wins but they are just one game behind the on-paper champion Cubs (32 wins). The margin in the division is as slim as it has ever been and the Cardinals are adding ever so slightly to their odds by shifting one of Wainwright’s starts to Busch.

Such a tight margin also means the Cardinals would be wise to use their best pitchers in the highest impact roles as possible and as often as possible. That brings us to Cardinals import Kwang-Hyun Kim, the Korean ace who was the club’s biggest offseason addition.

Kim had a terrific spring. When Mikolas went down with an injury in March, the lefty seemed destined for a spot in the rotation in April. At the time I wondered how the club would ever be able to get him out of the rotation if they let him in. He looked that good!

Summer Camp has only added to KK’s mystique. On Thursday’s broadcast, the Korean southpaw’s velocity ranged from his typical low-90’s fastball to a high 60’s off-speed pitch. He located well. He mixed location. He threw his entire arsenal for strikes. He befuddled his teammates through five shutout innings of lefty slop that would have impressed John Tudor.

This guy has to start, doesn’t he?

Probably not. Carlos Martinez has the most tentative hold on a rotation spot because of his experience closing and the Cardinals’ obvious holes in the bullpen. Some writers have suggested that moving Martinez to the closer role would prove necessary. Mike Shildt, though, has not wavered in his commitment to Martinez as a starter.

Martinez should start. KK has earned a chance to start. The reality is that the Cardinals have more good options for the rotation than they have spots. Wainwright said as much.

“I don’t know how they’re going to make a decision on five guys honestly, with the arms that we have in the camp,” Wainwright said.

It’s a good problem to have. Along with KK, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber have also impressed this summer. I would be comfortable with any in at the back end of the rotation and I think there is an opportunity to make excellent use of these hurlers early in the season, even if they are not starting games.

If Wainwright is the only Cardinals starter stretched out enough to go 5-6 innings in the early portion of the season, Shildt would be wise to use these other three arms regularly as long-outing reserves. Let Mikolas, Hudson, and Martinez get 3-4 innings in, throwing at their max velocity. Then use a quick hook to bring in KK, Ponce, and Gomber to finish another 2-3 innings. With 6-7 innings in the books, it will put less pressure on a bullpen that is missing it’s top-end relievers (Hicks, Brebbia and Gallegos in particular).

(Update: just last night Mike Shildt indicated that Gallegos is on his way to Cardinals camp. He also expects Alex Reyes to join soon. This is great news for the Cardinals bullpen, even if it takes a few weeks for the pitchers to get up to speed.)

A month into the season the starters will have worked out the kinks and will be ready for longer outings. KK, Ponce, and Gomber will still be stretched out, ready to take a rotation spot if someone falters or to assume high-impact, late-inning roles if they have not yet been claimed.

Ponce could spend July and August earning 20-30 innings over 10 outings. By September, he could be closing or covering the vital right-hand fireman’s role previously occupied by a young Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. Gomber could do the same before pushing Miller and Tyler Webb as the club’s primary late-inning lefty.

And KK? Hudson, Mikolas, Martinez, and, yes, even Wainwright better be on their game because the former Korean ace is hungry to prove himself against major league competition and he has the stuff to make an impact in the rotation. If an injury doesn’t place him in the starting five out of necessity this season, his performance might do the job.

Again, from Anne Rogers: “The best-case scenario for me is pitching as a starter,” Kim said through interpreter Craig Choi. “But contributing to the team is the most important thing. If the team wants me as a relief pitcher, I should be ready to be a relief pitcher. The most important thing is contributing to the team’s victory.”