This afternoon, the Cards announced the following transaction:
4/13/21: Optioned RHP Johan Oviedo to the ATS. Recalled RHP Kodi Whitley from the ATS.
In the ten games the club has played so far, the Cardinal pitching staff has thrown 88 innings, broken down into only 43.1 innings by the starters and 44.2 by the bullpen. We’ve been through the full 5-man rotation twice now, and the innings by the starters have been:
Flaherty: 4.1 and 6
Wainwright: 2.2 and 5
Martinez: 5 and 5
Ponce de Leon: 5 and 1.1
Gant: 4 and 5
Now let’s take a look at the status and usage of the members of the Cards’ bullpen:
Cabrera: 5 appearances, has 1 day of rest going into today
Gallegos: 5 appearances, pitched yesterday
Helsley: 6 appearances, pitched yesterday, would be 3 out of 4 days if used today
Hicks: 4 appearances: 1 day of rest going into today
Miller: 5 appearances, pitched yesterday, would be 3 out of 4 days if used today
Reyes: 4 appearances, last pitched on April 8th
Webb: 7 appearances, pitched 3 days in a row
Oviedo: Pitched 4.2 innings in relief on April 11th.
As you can see, this is unsustainable. Almost every pitcher has been used at least every other day. We don’t quite understand the club’s plan for Hicks, but the club has said they are being cautious with him. Perhaps there were a couple of other instances that Reyes could have been used, but he’s secured three saves in the three save opportunities that have arisen, and he was the 5th reliever used to preserve an 11-6 opening day win after Flaherty pitched 4.1 innings.
When Ponce only pitched 1.1 innings in his April 11th start and Oviedo had to come in for 4.2 innings of relief, I actually thought the club was going to option Oviedo yesterday. Why wouldn’t they just keep him on the roster, considering he looked better than some of our starters? A lot of factors are in play. The main argument is that having pitched 4.2 innings on April 11th, he wouldn’t be available, at a minimum, until Thursday, April 15th, at a minimum, and most likely until Friday, April 16th, and we need another arm up here. Okay, so why not send someone else out?
First, the club expects Kwang Hyun Kim to come back in the next series to take Ponce’s spot in the rotation. The issue ultimately revolves around Ponce. Ponce is out of options, and the club is simply not prepared at this time to DFA him, instead preferring to give him a shot in the bullpen. It’s a fair question to wonder if Oviedo wouldn’t be better going forward as a long man in the majors than Ponce, but the club envisions Oviedo as an important starter long-term and must feel that it is more important to keep him stretched out as such instead of stashing him in the major league bullpen waiting for either a piggyback or mop-up duty. With the way our starters have gone, the club could definitely use another reliever on the roster right now that can pitch every other day or even back-to-back days. In this case, Whitley was the obvious choice, as he’s the next right-handed reliever in the pecking order, had a strong spring and barely lost out to Jake Woodford for the last bullpen job to open the season. It is true that everyone in the major league bullpen can be optioned except for Tyler Webb and Andrew Miller, but the club believes it would be worse to be without the services of one of them for 10 days instead of a starter/long-man type.
One of our prominent commentators Kindred brought up the possibility in yesterday’s game thread of putting Ponce on the injured list. Why didn’t the Cards just do that and bring up Whitley? It’s definitely a fair question. After all, Ponce said after his start that his arm felt like it was 100 pounds. Clubs have definitely been “creative,” so to speak, in using the 10-day injured list with pitchers to get fresh arms, and that was the main reason behind the rule that was supposed to take effect last year to change the injured list from 10 days to 15 days for pitchers. Unlike in the minor leagues, where a club can just say a player has fatigue and leave it at that, the major league injured list requires a doctor’s certification. That hasn’t stopped clubs from coming up with something. The only response I can offer is that while Ponce said what he said after his start, he might have said he was fine the next day. And if a player says he’s fine, then the club can’t really force an injury on him. I’m not saying that’s a good argument, and I’m only speculating.
The last consideration to deal with is why the club didn’t just trim a bench player and go with 14 pitchers. I do think we’ll probably see this at some point in the season. In this particular case, I can understand why that wasn’t the move this time. John Nogowski theoretically should be one of our better pinch-hitting options, and while he hasn’t done a whole lot, at least he’s gotten on base in 3 out of his 8 tries. Lane Thomas gives the club at least another center fielder while Harrison Bader is out. Justin Williams is hitting the ball hard and at least right now is a platoon outfielder at a minimum. Austin Dean gives the club some right-handed sock off the bench. And while the club doesn’t appear to want to use Edmundo Sosa, he’s our best choice to back up short, and he’s also out of options. Finally, the fact that the starters are not going deep into games and that there is no DH should create even more pinch-hitting and double switch opportunities than was present last season.
The situation with Ponce and Oviedo is one to watch going forward. I think it’s fair to say at least for this season that Ponce is done in the rotation. If the club decides to go with six starters, if Gant falters or if Mikolas is somehow delayed, I think you’ll see Oviedo back quick. And if Ponce continues to struggle in his new assignment, his future on the Cardinal roster is in danger.
Cabrera (L), Gallegos (R), Helsley (R), Hicks (R), Miller (L), Reyes (R), Webb (L), Whitley (R)