JUPITER, Fla. — The same pitching depth that, initially left unattended, depleted last season and nearly capsized the Cardinals’ ability to contend has its first significant test of the new year.
Jack Flaherty received an injection Friday to calm irritation in his right shoulder and will start the regular season on the injured list, his return to the rotation to be determined after two weeks without throwing. Flaherty traveled to Los Angeles to meet with a physician and have a pre-existing tear near his joint reviewed for the cause of stiffness in the shoulder.
He was diagnosed with bursitis, according to a source, and received treatment to soothe the inflammation. Mozeliak said the righthander was prescribed a platelet-rich plasma injection.
“(We) still think this is something he can pitch through,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “So our fingers are crossed that’s true.”
Flaherty has pitched with a “small” SLAP tear – the junction where the shoulder meets the biceps – for the past five seasons, including the 2019 season, a source described. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak noted the tear when announcing Friday’s treatment, and the team later confirmed its knowledge of the tear from past years.
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Addressing the inflammation within the shoulder joint was the focus of Friday’s procedure, which was overseen by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Dodgers’ team doctor. The goal is to alleviate the stiffness of the righthander experienced while throwing this offseason and give Flaherty and the team a better sense of a timetable for his return.
Once he’s cleared to resume a throwing program after at least two weeks, he will need to go through a spring training-like schedule, leaving the Cardinals with an opening in the rotation for much of April.
They signed righthander Drew VerHagen within hours of the lockout ending, and Mozeliak identified righthander Jake Woodford and prospect Matthew Liberatore as leading candidates to leave camp in the rotation.
Aaron Brooks struck out the final five batters he faced Friday during his two scoreless innings in the Cardinals’ 4-2 win against Houston. He has been a starter in South Korea and agreed to a minor-league deal with the Cardinals to make his bid for a big-league return.
“For me, it’s wide open,” manager Oliver Marmol said of the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation as the season opens. “It’s completely wide open. Everyone has a shot at it.”
The cascade of pitching problems that swamped the Cardinals in the first half of 2021 began in spring training as Miles Mikolas (forearm) and Kwang Hyun Kim (back) had setbacks. Then Flaherty, 8-1 at the time, tore his oblique at Dodger Stadium. When the team sided with its in-house alternatives instead of shopping for outside help, an innings crisis developed. The Cardinals sank from the division lead and did not reanimate their postseason chances until they acquired three veteran lefties — Wade LeBlanc, Jon Lester, and JA Happ — to shoulder innings and bring stability to the rotation.
Insisting they had learned that lesson, the Cardinals collected some reinforcements this winter, signing free agent Steven Matz for the rotation and later VerHagen and Brooks. The idea was to free up younger pitchers such as Woodford, Johan Oviedo, Liberatore and others to supplement the rotation, not save it. Alex Reyes also was identified as a potential starter, but a frayed labrum will delay his readiness by at least two months, Mozeliak confirmed Friday.
“Obviously, ‘Woody’ is going to get an opportunity, VerHagen is going to get an opportunity,” Mozeliak listed. “You saw a young lefty (Liberatore) today. Everybody is going to get chances. The more pressure it just puts on the other four to make sure we can count on them. Then the pressure starts to become, ‘How much can you take?’”
Options remain outside the Cardinals’ walls.
Happ, whom the Cardinals have acknowledged interest in, remains a free agent. There are several free agents such as Drew Smyly, a lefty, who have been starters and relievers in recent years. The Oakland Athletics are fielding offers for two of their starters, lefty Sean Manaea and righthander Frankie Montas. Manaea is a free agent at season’s end. In trade talks coming out of the lockout, the Cardinals have found teams asking for their leading prospects, such as Liberatore, and preferred the straight-cash cost of free agents.
“The reality is that group is thinking out quite a bit,” Mozeliak said.
Flaherty missed two months of last season because of the oblique strain, and when he returned he had shoulder discomfort that returned him to the injured list. The shoulder issue possibly was caused by his body reacting and adjusting to the oblique strain thus altering his mechanics and causing stress on the shoulder. Flaherty was able to return to the active roster for the playoff game and was ready to pitch in relief. After his exit examination, the righthander rested and then began his offseason training.
As he increased the intensity of his workouts, his shoulder became stiff and felt less free as he delivered a pitch.
Unable to communicate to the Cardinals because of to the lockout — which forbid team officials, including physicians, from communicating with players on the 40-man roster — Flaherty eased back from his throwing program. He adopted a conservative preparation for spring training. He agreed that the inability to talk with the Cardinals or the trainers limited what he could do, and that last weekend was the team’s first chance to discuss, explore, and examine the discomfort he experienced.
He went through a series of scans, re-scans, and reviews, and he sought a second opinion — which players often do because they can, by rule — that ultimately took him to LA on Friday. He met with ElAttrache, who works with LA-area teams such as the Dodgers and has done surgeries on athletes from Kobe Bryant (rotator cuff) to Chris Sale (elbow reconstruction).
This coming week, the Cardinals and Flaherty’s representative must reach an agreement on his contract for 2022 or exchange salary requests by Tuesday. The lockout pushed back the usual hearings, and they’ll now take place during the season. Flaherty won his arbitration hearing with the Cardinals a year ago.
Reyes is in the same spot.
Last week, Reyes sought a second opinion and treatment options for the shoulder pain that kept him from throwing off the mound during the offseason. He was unable to notify the Cardinals of that until the lockout lifted. Reyes received a stem cell injection this past week after meeting with Dr. James Andrews. The righthander will not throw for at least two weeks, and he will open the season on the injured list. The Cardinals do not expect him to be ready to return for more than two months, in late May or early June.
“We want to put him in a position to be successful,” Mozeliak said. “We’re not going to rush something for a week or two just to have him take a step back. Safety first.”