Much of Cardinals’ success rides on performance of their many young arms
Of the many attributes exhibited by the Cardinals’ young pitching, most impressive is not that some of them throw fastballs that approach 100 mph. Nor is it their aptitude to learn on the job at the major-league level. It’s not even the remarkable coolness they have shown on the postseason stage.
With regards to the ace apprentices, the No. 1 quality is the sheer quantity of them. Seven members of the Cardinals’ 12-man Opening Day staff are 25 or younger and entering their second year in the majors. That just doesn’t happen.
No other team in the majors included as many 25-and-under arms on their Opening Day roster. Not the Rays or the A’s, who typically generate the greatest buzz for their young pitching. Both teams count only three 25-and-unders. The (alleged) up-and-coming Pirates have only two. The rival Reds have just one, 24-year-old lefty starter Tony Cigrani, which is the same number as those rebuilding Cubs. The Brewers, believe it or not, match those three NL Central teams combined, with four.
The Marlins, Braves and White Sox come closest to equaling St. Louis’ youth with five 25-and-under pitchers. Their youth isn’t as young as the Cardinals, though. All five of the White Sox youngsters are at least 24 and the Braves have no pitcher younger than 23 on their big-league roster. The Marlins, who boast the majors’ youngest (and possibly best) starter in 21-year-old Jose Fernandez, come closest to St. Louis with three pitchers under 24, including St. Louisan Jacob Turner.
As for the Cardinals, it’s almost like the younger they are, the better they are. Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha are 22, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller 23, Kevin Siegrist 24, and the "old men," Seth Maness and Keith Butler, are 25.
At some point in their sophomore seasons, you have to figure that one, two or even more of the youngsters will show their ages and actually slump. Won’t they?
"I expect them to be at least as good as last year," says Harold Reynolds, the lead analyst for MLB Network and the replacement for Tim McCarver on FOX Sports. "Rosenthal’s going to be great at the end of the bullpen. His stuff is dynamite. You’ll see improvements in Little Pedro because he’s going to get a chance to pitch more. Shelby Miller is going to be that much better because he’s learned what it takes to get through a season. And Wacha is going to figure out he just can’t throw fastball and changeup. They’re going to be good, no doubt about it. They might be even better than last year."
History says differently, though. The odds of seven young pitchers on the same team all improving — and staying healthy — are not in the Cardinals’ favor. Hitters will adjust and balls will bounce the wrong way. As much as manager Mike Matheny cautions about complacency, it would not be surprising if at least one or two copped a big-league attitude. Youth is, after all, wasted on the young.
"You never know how that plays out," ace Adam Wainwright says. "These guys are 22, 23 years old. It’s so impressive to see them up there and what they’re doing. When I was that age, I was nowhere near ready compared to these guys."
As Wainwright points out, there are a couple of ways to view their rapid ascents. Wainwright was not called up for more than five years after he was drafted.
"When you go through minor-league seasoning like we used to do, you learned along the way," he says. "You learned how to get through the mental grind of a full season. When you go from high school or even college to playing every day, to playing on the road, it’s just a tough process. It’s a weeding process, really."
But, he adds, there is a flip side. When you don’t throw upward of 800 innings in the minors, as Wainwright did, you reach the majors with an arm that is raring to roll. "You’ve got a lot of bullets saved up because you didn’t have to grind through all those minor-league seasons," Wainwright says.
What matters most, as the Cardinals’ youngsters have proven, is the quality of those bullets.
"You take some of these guys, like Shelby, Trevor, Carlos, like Mikey, I mean, how much seasoning do they need?" Wainwright asks. "They’re just ready."
It’s not like they believe they’re finished products, either. Rosenthal showed a changeup against the Reds in the opener that will make his fastball seem even faster. Wacha spent his spring working on a curveball that the Reds will have to deal with in his first start Wednesday night. Miller continues to sharpen a cutter that he believes will lead to quicker outs and help him pitch deeper into games.
With All-Stars such as Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina showing them the way, the youngsters are not lacking for support. "It’s our job as veteran players to pass those lessons along without them having to go through it," Wainwright says.
When you listen to the youngsters, you can see the veterans are getting through. From Miller starting to take on leadership responsibilities to Wacha talking about having to prove himself in spring training, they say what they’re supposed to say and they behave the right way.
"Of course, I enjoy going out there and having success, but deep down, you know there’s stuff you can also get better with," says Wacha, who started his first game in the majors less than a year after he was drafted. "There’s always something you can work on."
Such a perspective makes his manager as proud as does Wacha’s pitching.
"You never know how a kid is going to respond when you get him up to this level that quick," Matheny says. "He’s got a maturity to him for as young as he is to handle the distractions. Last year was a great experience for him and, from a team standpoint, we needed somebody to step in. He did a great job of it."
For Wacha and the young Cardinals pitchers who stepped up in 2013, expectations are much greater now. How they handle them will be key to their performance in 2014, no matter how the balls bounce.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.