A slew of former Memphis Redbirds are making the St. Louis starting rotation look promising, but first here’s a quick quiz.
What pitcher who came from Japan to Major League Baseball chalked up 18 victories in the big leagues last season?
Shohei Ohtani? Nope. Masahiro Tanaka? Nope. The correct answer is Miles Mikolas, a 30-year-old right-hander from Jupiter, Fla., who spent five years in the Padres’ and Rangers’ organizations before spending three years with the Yomiuri Giants in the Japanese Central League, where he did quite well.
Mikolas returned to the United States last season and promptly ran up an 18-4 record with the Cardinals, tying him with Jon Lester and Max Scherzer for the most victories in the National League. Mikolas was sixth in the NL Cy Young Award voting and looks primed to be the ace of the staff for the Cardinals this season.
And another quick quiz:
What pitcher threw 19 of the top 25 fastest pitches in the big leagues last season? Aroldis Chapman? Nope. Joe Kelly? Nope. The correct answer is Jordan Hicks, a 22-year-old Cardinals relief pitcher who struck out 77 batters in 70 innings of work last year as a rookie. In fact, Hicks was credited with the two fastest single pitches thrown, one of 105.1 mph and another at 105 mph. He has simply supplanted Chapman of the Yankees as baseball’s top flamethrower.
Unlike Mikolas, Hicks is a product of the Cardinals’ farm system. He didn’t play in Class AAA Memphis, but he did begin in Tennessee, with the Johnson City Cardinals, in the rookie-level Appalachian League as a 19-year-old. He spent other time in Class A ball and the Arizona Fall League before pitching in the big leagues. Hicks was drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 draft out of high school in Houston.
But even at that, there is much more to the St. Louis pitching story than Mikolas and Hicks.
The Cardinals’ starting rotation is getting a lot of attention, and the bulk of it, young and old, did play in Memphis at one time. That includes ageless wonder Adam Wainwright, who pitched in Memphis in 2005 on his way to a stellar career of 13 seasons with the Cardinals that has resulted in a 148-85 big-league record.
Wainwright is 37, yet he may very well be the fifth starter in a staff of homegrown talent that includes another veteran, Michael Wacha, who pitched in Memphis in 2013 before becoming a six-year mainstay on the Cardinal staff. Wacha’s big-league record is 53-32.
Then there is Jack Flaherty, who has quickly become a dependable young strikeout artist. Flaherty struck out 182 batters in 151 innings last season in St. Louis after making his big-league debut in 2017. Flaherty, 23, is from Los Angeles and was drafted by the Cardinals in 2014. He started 20 games in Memphis in 2017-2018 before being called up last season.
Enter Carlos Martinez, from the Dominican Republic, who has built a 54-38 record in six seasons with the Cardinals, in a career that included stops in Memphis in 2013 and 2014. Then finish it off with the Cardinals’ top prospect, Alex Reyes, who began with the rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals at age 19 and worked his way up the system before missing all of 2017 with a right elbow injury. He has started six games for the Cardinals with a 4-1 record with a 1.44 ERA. Reyes pitched in Memphis in parts of 2016 and 2018.
Another notable prospect is Dakota Hudson, a Chattanooga native who played at Sequatchie County High School. Hudson was 13-3 last year with Memphis. Baseball America ranks him the third best Cardinals prospect. MLB.com ranks him the fourth best among Cardinals prospects.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt is entering his first full season as the Cardinals’ manager after replacing Mike Matheny during the season last year. Under Shildt, the Cardinals were 41-28.
And like many of his pitchers, Shildt came up through the Cardinals system. He managed the Johnson City Cardinals from 2009-2011, then Class AA Springfield in the Texas League in 2012-2014, then in Memphis 2015-2016.
The Cardinals have a tendency to do things that way. Most of these guys don’t come from Japan.