The mandatory bar to clear for the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline was to find a starting pitcher who could be relied upon with more consistency than Dakota Hudson.
Having succeeded twice over, the team then had the luxury to use Monday’s off day to skip Hudson’s turn in the rotation, setting him instead for Saturday in Arizona with, they hope, a firmer baseline from which to deliver his own results down the stretch.
“We already got one good (bullpen) session in on the emphasis being more on the left-handed hitter,” manager Oliver Marmol said from his Busch Stadium office on Tuesday afternoon. “That’s where he has struggled the most with ... location on his pitches, and we thought it’d be important to skip him, address that and then give him another shot.”
Location, for Hudson, shows up in the walk column. A cursory glance at his stats for the 2022 season shows that he’s actually, by some measures, fared better against lefties than righties. Left-handed hitters are putting up only a .304 slugging percentage — 126 points less than righties — against him, suggesting he’s doing an admirable job of limiting damage on balls in play.
What should be minimal damage, however, has instead been maximized due to the number of free passes handed out. Lefties have 32 walks against Hudson and just 28 strikeouts, which is the sort of reverse ratio that portends serious trouble.
Hudson is in his first full season following Tommy John surgery in late 2020, though being nearly two years removed from the surgery, the Cardinals have minimal concerns about his physical encumbrance. Indeed, Marmol quickly dismissed those concerns, and instead pointed at the right-hander’s mindset on the mound as the likelier source of the trouble.
“I think the mindset part sticks out the most to me,” Marmol said. “You should be able to execute regardless of where somebody’s standing in the box, right? So I think it’s more of a mentality than a repeatability of mechanics.”
Cardinals tip their hand?
The deadline acquisitions of Jordan Montgomery and José Quintana have given the Cardinals space — along with the generous schedule — to sort through Hudson’s issues even as they evaluate their other options.
With Tuesday set for Jack Flaherty’s second of four planned rehab starts and Steven Matz approaching his first time throwing off the mound since tearing his left MCL in July, Hudson might have sufficient space to sort through his problems, but the clock is not ticking quietly.
Indeed, by keeping him in the rotation, the Cardinals have seemingly already tipped their hand.
The move of Andre Pallante back to the bullpen was met with skepticism and criticism, even as the Cardinals expressed a desire to monitor his innings and a belief that he offers more certainty as a reliever.
What went unsaid in that decision is that it also sets Pallante to more obviously be a contributor in the postseason. With only a team’s four top starters likely to get those assignments in the playoffs — the jam-packed new version of the schedule not withstanding — Hudson may well find himself on the outside looking in with the two new additions, Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright cemented in the top four.
More on Flaherty, Matz, Thompson
Flaherty’s contributions to this year’s club remain purely theoretical until he demonstrates both health and effectiveness, and while the Cardinals have been encouraged by the pace of Matz’s rehab, Marmol conceded Tuesday that it’s difficult to even draw the outlines of his potential contributions until he throws off a mound, which he has not yet done.
Even still, it’s hard to imagine either pitcher contributing much as a reliever, given both their career histories and the rehab path they’ve been set upon. Matz, perhaps, offers more in that area, given that Zack Thompson’s adjustment to back-to-back outings at Triple-A Memphis hasn’t gone as smoothly as the club hoped. Matz might offer a high-leverage end of game lefty option if he too finds himself boxed out by either the calendar or the new additions.
And, with left-handed hitters being an area of concern, it of course helps that both Montgomery and Quintana throw with their left arms. Those matchups work for the Cardinals, even if they work less clearly for Hudson.
Time to step up for Hudson in the desert
Without the luxury of leaning on the rehabilitation process and, paradoxically, without as much need for his contributions as the Cardinals may have had a month ago, Hudson could easily find himself without an obvious place at the end of a year which, ideally, would’ve seen him cement himself at the heart of the team’s current and future pitching plans.
In meeting their short term requirements, the front office created a complication that will have to be addressed in the offseason. There’s no such thing as too much pitching, after all, and Hudson still will be counted on to provide stability that the Cardinals need him to find this winter even if he can’t quite locate it in the short term.
Saturday, in the Arizona desert, will be his next, best chance. It will need to be seized.