If the Cardinals are being 100 percent candid and accurate in their assessment of Sonny Gray’s “mild” hamstring strain, there’s no reason to reach for the panic switch … which, of course, does not stop people from grabbing the panic switch.

We know how these sort of things go with the Cardinals. My standard reflex skepticism in these situations was formed over three eye-rolling decades of monitoring Cardinals injuries. My policy: ignore the spin, disregard all estimated timetables for a player’s return, put a cap on optimism and wait for the outcome. When a guy is absolutely ready to pitch, we’ll see him out on the mound in a real game, working effectively and without distress signals going off.

Gray will almost certainly miss the Opening Day start on March 28 at Dodger Stadium. After that, who knows? It’s best to assume nothing. And it would be even better to see the Cardinals reinforce their rotation depth.

And no, I won’t have a hallucination about seeing Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell show up in Jupiter, FL. Pardon the metaphor, but Cardinals management doesn’t venture into those high-limit blackjack rooms. That said, the fantasy is alluring. Better to dream of Jordan Montgomery than, say, Rich Hill.

This will be an unpopular opinion … but rather than bring in a Jake Odorizzi, I’d rather see a pitcher with upside get a shot in this 2024 rotation when needed. Isn’t that the point of drafting and developing pitchers? Isn’t that the objective in acquiring good prospects in trades?

Zack Thompson is a former first-round draft choice that has displayed promise in his brief auditions as a starter. Matthew Liberatore has a 5.72 ERA in 18 big-league starts, but I wouldn’t dismiss him as a candidate. He’s still only 24 years old. Prospects such as Tekoah Roby, Tink Gordon Graceffo, Tink Hence (and others) could figure into adjusted rotation plans during the season. And there’s always the trade deadline in early August.

The Cardinals need Sonny Gray, their designated No. 1 starter. They could also use additional protection. But I don’t base that on birth certificates – as many others seem to be doing. Most observers see an extra, extra, vulnerable St. Louis rotation of 30-somethings. I see a sport where too many pitchers crack apart physically at any stage of their careers.

As for the ‘24 Cardinals, the potential for hazardous injuries is there, sure. But we don’t need to overstate it just because of the ages involved.

Consider the number of starts over two different three-season stretches by MLB pitchers age 34 and older:

2017-2019: 1,460 for an average of 486.6 starts per season.

2021-2023: 1,598 for an average of 532.6 starts per season.

Older pitchers are making more starts now. They’re lasting longer but aren’t fossils. They make a strenuous effort to avoid becoming broken-down machines in constant need of service. They’re more dedicated to training. They have more knowledge about food and nutrition and eat healthier. They’re more open-minded about utilizing technology and analytics. These guys love to pitch and compete and the money is great. Starters are determined to extend their careers. And … they know how to pitch. They aren’t throwers who rely on velocity but don’t have the complete arsenal.

I do understand the age-related anxiety with the planned 2024 five-man St. Louis rotation that averages 35 years. I’ve aired my concerns as a writer and a talker.

Gray (age 34), Miles Mikolas (35), Lance Lynn (37), Kyle Gibson (36) and Steven Matz (34) have lots of miles on them.

Then again, so do Volvos.

And they keep going.

Gray, 34, hasn’t avoided the injury sting during his career. He was limited to an average of 25 starts and 127.5 innings across the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Over the two years, injuries put Sonny on the IL on six different occasions, and he missed 106 days over the two campaigns.

Most notable were two hamstring injuries in 2022 – one early in the season, the other late in the schedule – that caused him to miss 34 days. In the two seasons Gray also endured injuries to the groin, pectoral muscle and rib.

Gray rebounded in 2023 to start 32 games, supply 184 innings, craft a 2.79 ERA and finish second in the American League Cy Young voting. It was an excellent season – the best of his career – and Gray did it at the ancient pitching age (sarcasm) of 33.

There’s some irony here.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

* Gray had three IL stays and missed 97 games over 2016 and 2017 while pitching at age 26 and 27. Back then, did anyone talk about Gray’s aging curve and point to his physical problems and say he’s getting old? Of course not.

* Lance Lynn: His worst injury was a torn ligament in his right elbow that required surgery and prevented him from pitching at all in 2016. Well, this is what happens to old codgers on the mound, right? No. Wrong. Lynn was 29 years old at the time. Since missing the ‘16 season, the big man Lynn ranks eighth for most starts and innings pitched among MLB starters. He’s done that between the ages 30 to 36. The only notable interruption was a knee injury – not an arm – that limited Lynn to 21 starts for the White Sox in 2022. Yeah, injuries are part of the game and Lynn is the opposite of feeble.

* Mikolas had his best season in 2018 at age 29. He was still only 31 when a sequence of events – the Covid season (2020), a serious forearm injury, and a sore shoulder – essentially wiped two full seasons at age 31 and 32. Not exactly a pitching geezer at that time. Still plenty young. Mikolas returned without restrictions in 2022. Over the past two seasons Mikolas ranks first in the majors in starts and is fourth for most innings pitched. Could he pitch better? Yes. But Mikolas didn’t have much of a defense behind him in 2023. And his fielding independent ERA (4.27) last season was better than the major-league average of 4.42 FIP for starting pitchers. Mikolas has given the Cardinals 403 and ⅔ innings over his last two seasons and provided that volume at ages 32 and 33. So if he was so compromised by advancing age, then why has he been so durable over the past two seasons?

* Kyle Gibson has started more games (284) than any pitcher in the majors since 2014. And over those 10 seasons only Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke have pitched more innings than Gibson. And only 10 major-league pitchers have more quality starts than Gibson over that time. He’s missed only 70 injury days in 11 MLB seasons. That total is only 24 days missed over the past five seasons. You may prefer to see a more high-voltage pitcher in the St. Louis rotation than Gibson. That’s a reasonable desire. But Gibson is as steady as they come, and there’s value in bulk innings. That’s why Gibson ranks 28th among 269 innings-qualified MLB starters in WAR since 2014. Gibson’s age should have nothing to do with how you view him as a Cardinal in 2024.

* Steven Matz: Injuries have been a hindrance to his career since his first big-league season (2015) at age 24. He was 26 when more injuries held him to 13 starts in 2017. Injuries restricted Matz to an average of 13.5 starts in his two seasons as a Cardinal. Getting hurt has caused Matz to miss 439 days in his big-league career. But we can all agree that Matz’s age has nothing to do with his injury pattern. The problem for the Cardinals was ignoring the lefty’s injury history and signing him to a four-year, $44 million deal before the 2022 season.

* Jack Flaherty was 25 when a plague of injuries hit him in 2021, and he never really got back into peak form. Wasn’t an old guy.

* Alex Reyes pitched in five games – total – from 2017 through 2019 while suffering during a cruel sequence of injuries. He was in his early 20s. His career appears to be over. He last appeared in a major-league game at age 26.

* Carlos Martinez was 26 when his right shoulder started getting cranky in 2018, and he last pitched in the majors at age 29.

* Chris Carpenter was 28 when his right shoulder needed surgery in Toronto in 2003. He had Tommy John surgery as a Cardinal at age 32. But Carpenter was the ace that pitched the Cardinals to a World Series title in 2011 at age 36. Say what? Age 36? Old pitchers can’t do that!

* Matt Morris had Tommy John surgery at age 24. Adam Wainwright went through Tommy John surgery at age 29. Alan Benes had shoulder surgery at age 26 and was never the same after that. Mark Mulder had shoulder surgery at age 28 after suffering an injury that prematurely ended his 2006 season – and he would return and pitch only 13 and ⅔ innings before retiring.

When we reveal our fears over STL’s rotation for 2024, why do we link the worry to the group’s age? This isn’t about age. It’s about making sure to have enough quality depth to cover for injuries when starting pitchers go down. And that applies to starters that get hurt at age 24, and starters that have surgical repairs at age 34.

Because of their unfortunate habit of downplaying injury risk, the Cardinals have scrambled to fill vacated rotation spots during each of the last three seasons. And if anything about the Gray injury jumps out, it’s this, and it has nothing to do with the number of candles on his birthday cake: the Redbirds are still vulnerable in this crucial area. This team must have good starting pitching in 2024. And they need more than five guys to get that done.

Gray’s absence – hopefully – will be minimal. But what if it isn’t? What if there’s a recurrence and the hamstring becomes a nagging type of injury that bugs him through the season? What if two or three other starters spend considerable time on the IL? Since the start of the 2021 season the Cardinals have lost 972 man games of starting pitching because of injuries.

For now, I’m going to hold off on the “The Cardinals Still Haven’t Learned From The Past” lecture, even if it’s true. But I’ll keep the panic switch next to my desk in case I need it during the regular season.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.


Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.