By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
JUPITER — If not for the steady stream of professional baseball players stopping by his table to say hello, Mike Maddux could’ve been anyone’s husband, brother, or local baseball enthusiast in any old-school diner as he sat in the Cardinals clubhouse in Jupiter on Tuesday morning.
Fortified by eggs and buoyed by bacon, the Cardinals pitching coach held court for a wide-ranging discussion on the state of the pitching staff and what he’s hoping to see this spring as he enters his second year as the team’s pitching coach. All seemed right in Maddux’s world, though he did announce he was going to answer three questions only once – his family’s fine, he didn’t do anything exciting this winter and he didn’t lose any weight.
What he did do was spend the winter developing a plan for utilizing a pitching staff that comes with enough talent and potential redundancies to create some challenges. He was also a part of the team’s wide-ranging accountability initiative, joking that, “this is not a face for FaceTime” before describing his use of texts, emails, and even old-fashioned phone calls to keep up with his charges.
The Cardinals enter spring with a larger-than-usual number of pitchers primed to be a starter either in the major leagues or at Triple-A Memphis. Maddux suggested that he has, “nine guys getting fully stretched out. Maybe 10.”
“Eventually we’re gonna pare down to 12 [pitchers], I imagine.” Maddux said. “We’re gonna have to stretch some guys out. That’s the prudent thing to do. But just because you’re a starter in spring does not mean you can’t be a reliever during the season.”
That transition from starter to reliever was a process that Carlos Martínez underwent in the middle of last season as a result of lingering injuries and some inconsistent performance. While all indications are that the plan is for Martínez to return to the rotation this spring, Maddux left the door open for the potential for Martínez to be the one to close it.
“Pretty cool to watch him pitch out of the bullpen, wasn’t it?”
Maddux asked the question rhetorically and then glanced innocently around the table, leaving a pause so pregnant that it may be giving birth right around August 31st’s waiver trade deadline. “I liked him out of the pen a lot.”
“Right now,” Maddux conceded, “Carlos is in the rotation. But that’s a great thing about flexibility that we have. You might be a starter in spring training but you might end up in the bullpen.”
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt offered some clarification on Maddux’s thoughts, saying “our mindset is that [Martínez]’ll start the camp in that mode to be ready to compete.”
“The thing that we like about Carlos is the flexibility that he can bring and his demonstrated effectiveness in both roles,” Shildt said. “It’s not newsworthy to us, at least, to say ‘he’s in the bullpen’ because he’s just not. He’s being developed and expected to be, every opportunity to be a starter.”
Still, Shildt said he doesn’t “necessarily agree” with the assessment that Martínez’s presence in the bullpen would signal a problem elsewhere on the roster. “The reality right now is we feel really comfortable with the guys we have that could be at the end of the game.”
Maddux seemed energized by a sense of cohesiveness in his major league staff that, he says, should help boost the team’s performance. “One thing that [our team has] collectively,” Maddux explained, is, “the willingness to help one another.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Adam [Wainwright] with 50 years in the big leagues or if you’re Jack [Flaherty] last year coming in as a rookie – 47 [years], I’m sorry. But they all share, they all support, one another, and that’s really really cool.”
Wainwright wasn’t the only player to take some good hearted shrapnel from Maddux as he wound his way through the roster and the players walked in to say hello. John Brebbia was described as “all around free entertainment.” Tyler O’Neill, arriving to the clubhouse, was congratulated on the “solid hang time” of his heartily-gelled hairstyle.
A few younger pitchers received direct praise from the coach. Righty Seth Elledge and lefty Evan Kruczynski, both non-roster invitees to big-league camp, were cited by Maddux by name more than once. “They’ve been kinda quick [to progress],” Maddux said. “I’m looking forward to seeing them.”
Despite the need to stretch pitchers and then determine roles, Maddux conceded that Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty can be written into the rotation in pen. So too can Michael Wacha, assuming that his health remains sturdy.
Maddux wasn’t shy when it came to praising Flaherty. “I saw this guy throw a couple times, and I went from ‘like’ to ‘love’ real quick. I said, ‘this old boy, that’s the real McCoy there.'”
Flaherty has been cited as a leader on the staff by his peers on many occasions, and Maddux is of the opinion that the clubhouse atmosphere allows leadership to emerge naturally.
“Sometimes when you get into a situation in a clubhouse and you have a future hall of famer, everybody’s gonna look to him for leadership,” Maddux said. “Maybe that’s not their DNA. And I think with what we have, everybody’s even.”
“Everybody’s perched on that same bat. And that’s kinda refreshing. That’s the way it should be.”
Maddux may not have done anything exciting or lost any weight, but he spent his winter digging into analytics and coming out with a defined appreciation for WHIP – walks plus hits per innings pitched.
“If your WHIP is one or less, you’re dealing,” Maddux emphasized. “I don’t care what the earnie [earned run average] is. They get one batter an inning on you, you’re doing alright.”
“You’re hanging donuts.”
There were no donuts on Mike Maddux’s breakfast plate, but by the time he polished it off, he looked and sounded like a man hungry for the rest of spring.
Photo: Cardinals Insider