All winter long, the Cubs were the measuring stick against which any move the Cardinals made was to be examined. That St. Louis finished 2017 significantly behind Chicago in the NL Central standings—again—meant the team’s supporters demanded real, substantial change. In the grand scheme of the Cardinals’ 21st century success, it’s only a recent development. But people are already tired of losing to the dang Cubs.
Without actual games to be played, winter baseball contests are carried out strictly on paper: we scour projected lineups for weak spots, dream up trades, free agent signings, position changes. We compare potential roster upgrades with the output of the guy who filled the spot last year, and we cite statistics to prove that anything short of a ‘big splash’ is an unmitigated failure because of what that other team is doing.
‘They spent ‘x’ on ‘z’, so we need to spend greater than or equal to ‘x’ on ‘y’ or it shows we don’t care about winning.’
Here’s the thing: We frequently have no idea what we’re talking about.
In Game 30 of the 2018 season, the Cardinals got their first chance to show their home fans how all that moving and shaking from the winter stacks up against the Cubs. As St. Louis won the game 3-2, the early returns are positive. The standings concur, as the 18-12 Cardinals currently edge out the 16-13 Cubs. At least so far, the brain trust responsible for the Cardinals roster seems to have constructed a capable, competitive club with a chance to challenge the Cubs. But it hasn’t been for the reasons we expected. It hasn’t been for the moves we unequivocally praised when they went down.
Marcell Ozuna was the Cardinals big ticket item of the offseason. Though he had a great nice at the plate Friday, his season numbers have been well below his career marks, as St. Louis hopes he’ll continue to heat up with the weather. So far, though, he isn’t one of the chief reasons the Cardinals look like a playoff team after a month.
But Miles Mikolas absolutely is.
The move people weren’t quite sure how to read in December was looking like the heist of the winter Friday as Mikolas held the Cubs off the scoreboard for seven impressive innings. The effort marked four consecutive starts of seven innings for Mikolas, a stretch across which his ERA has been 1.29. His ERA on the season is down to 2.70 to go along with a sterling 4-0 record.
His calling card during this stretch has been his ability to mix pitches, pounding the zone consistently no matter what he’s throwing.
“That slider-cutter today was good, he established the curveball early, which is a little different.” Mike Matheny said. “They’ve kind of taken a different recipe each time they go out there. Make it look a little different. Makes it hard to go up there and sit on one thing.”
Mikolas didn’t walk a batter Friday, which is a claim he’s been able to make in each start following an outing against the Reds on April 14th in which he walked two. Those are the only two walks Mikolas has surrendered on the season. That efficiency has allowed him to stack innings like few others in the league so far this year.
His 40 innings pitched are tied for 11th in the NL, but each of the pitchers above him on the list has made seven starts; Mikolas has made only six. Considering the departures of Lance Lynn and Mike Leake from the rotation over the past year, logging innings was to be a critical focal point of Mikolas’ debut season in St. Louis
So far, he’s giving the Cardinals exactly what they were looking for.
“That’s probably what I like to try to take the most pride in,” Mikolas said. “Going out there, eating up those innings, giving our bullpen a rest if I can, taking our team deep into a game and keeping it close. If it’s a close game, even if I’m not on the winning side of it when I come out, just giving our team a chance to win that game.”
Mikolas was the only outside addition to the pitching rotation for the Cardinals over the offseason. While the front office had a plan in place to further integrate some fresh faces with a few veterans of the staff, some fans weren’t sure adding a pitcher who had washed out of MLB just a few years prior was the answer. While the Cubs were adding Yu Darvish, the Cardinals were adding an unknown.
Obligatory ‘it’s still early’ warning, but the results of those two signings could not possibly favor the Cardinals any more handily than they currently do. Mikolas has shined. He hasn’t lost a game. Darvish has struggled to a 6.00 ERA, and he hasn’t won one.
The Cubs paid for the big name. The Cardinals stuck to their guns despite outside clamoring. And they may have landed on a diamond amidst all that rough.
“There’s nothing not to like about this guy,” Matheny said. “I keep watching him, how he prepares, how he competes, how he’s engaged with his teammates and constantly talking about getting better and helping others get better too. That stuff we make a big deal about, he’s right on the mark with it.
“Plus, he’s making nasty pitches, so who wouldn’t want that?”