The Cardinals will have plenty of young pitchers vying for innings during the 2021 season. Additionally, it appears that Carlos Martinez will re-enter the rotation, which makes him a possibl breakout candidate considering his struggles in 2020 and question marks that surround his arm. Finally, with Kwang-Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas dealing with some soreness, the Cardinals may need pitchers like John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Jake Woodford to step up.
To begin with, Carlos Martinez seems like the biggest breakout candidate. Even though Martinez used to be the ace of the Cardinals, he has dealt with arm issues and struggles in 2020. This makes him a breakout candidate, even though he has had success in the past.
One of the main factors that makes him a breakout candidate is the return of his fastball velocity. In Martinez’s last start, his fastball topped out at 98 mph while gradually increasing in velocity over the course of the start. This can be seen in the image below from Baseball Savant.
This increased velocity is an encouraging trend as his fastball average just 93.3 mph last season upon returning to the rotation. In the previous season, his fastball averaged 96.6 mph out of the bullpen, which was close to his 96.3 mph average velocity in 2017, his last full season in the rotation. If Martinez could increase his velocity to near 95 mph or better, then his results could improve dramatically this season. Additionally, Martinez seemed to get better as he got deeper into the game in his last start as he allowed two earned runs in the first inning, but then followed with three scoreless innings.
If he can build off his last start, then Martinez could be preparing for a strong 2021 season.
The next pitcher who could break out is John Gant. Gant has been a successful reliever for the Cardinals in recent years, but he has not started a game since 2018. With Kim and Mikolas missing an unknown amount of time, Gant may be asked to step into the rotation. If this happens, then he has the tools to perform as he can miss bats and also throws five different pitchers (although three are variations of a fastball).
If he can perform well in the rotation, then the Cardinals will have some difficult decisions to make when Kim, Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson get healthy. However, in the interim, Gant has a solid opportunity to show that he can be more than a solid bullpen option.
Besides Martinez and Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Jake Woodford also have chances to show that they belong at the big league level, and even more, in a big league rotation.
Daniel Ponce de Leon struggled in 2020 after spending parts of the previous two seasons at the big league level. In these three years, he has been asked to start and relieve for the Cardinals, but he has yet to truly establish himself as a key piece either in the bullpen or the rotation. He may get the chance to do this with the aforementioned injuries to Cardinals pitchers. However, if he wants to stick, he will need to prove that he can limit his walk rate as well as his pitch count.
Finally, Jake Woodford made his debut in 2020 and struggled to the tune of 5.57 ERA and 6.72 FIP in 21 innings. However, the 24-year-old has a chance to make the MLB roster, and he has been a starter throughout his minor league career. Thus, he may be the next arm in line to start if Gant or Ponce de Leon struggle. Additionally, he has thrown four scoreless innings this spring, and with over 200 innings of Triple-A experience, Woodford is likely looking to prove that he belongs at the MLB level.
2021 could be an important season for the Cardinals in terms of pitching development as both Martinez and Gant could prove that they belong in the rotation and Woodford and Ponce de Leon could prove that thye can be solid MLB pitchers as well.