Day eight of team workouts

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty (22) and other pitchers warm-up and stretch during Cardinals spring training at the Roger Dean Stadium complex in Jupiter, Fla., on Monday, March 1, 2021. The Cardinals have a rest day following their first game on Sunday, their next game is on Tuesday against the Marlins. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

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We don’t know Jack.

Not now. Not yet. And we won’t, until Jack Flaherty knows himself.

The 25-year-old pitcher with a right arm blessed by God has a blast furnace’s worth of motivation ready to propel him. What’s missing is the destination.

It could be fame, fortune and their luxurious trappings.

It could be championships and their permanence.

It could be creating change in baseball and beyond, if he truly dedicates himself to becoming an agent of it.

Whether it’s one or another or a combination of them all, this season will help determine Flaherty’s direction. His right arm will write a telling chapter. The success of the Cardinals in 2021 could come down to him.

Too far? Cardinals manager Mike Shildt would say so. He would prefer to spread that responsibility around. Even within the starting five.

“I don’t feel like he has to be the anchor,” Shildt said during camp. “Having that anchor there to take that ball and know what you’re going to get, I think we have several of them. And Jack’s a big part of that.”

With all due respect to Shildt and future Cardinals Hall of Famer Adam Wainwright, no. The Cardinals don’t have pitchers, plural, like the one Shildt picked to start game one of 162. Not if Flaherty pitches up to his potential, one showcased when he spent the second half of his age-23 season in 2019 making major leaguers look like Little Leaguers who had just graduated from batting tees to the pitching machine. Pitchers who can turn in a second-half ERA of 0.91 during a 33-start, 196.1-inning season are one in a million, not several in a rotation. Flaherty is a rare talent in what should be the beginning of his prime. Period.

“I feel good,” Flaherty said late in camp. “Ready to go.”

For the Cardinals to be the best team in the National League Central, Flaherty needs to be the best starter in the division. Yu Darvish left the Cubs for the Padres. Trevor Bauer left the Reds for the Dodgers. The best chance for the Cardinals to meet and beat the Padres and Dodgers is to have Flaherty waiting for them on the mound in October, the same month he turns 26.

A season like that gets Flaherty back on track to superstardom after the Cardinals wrapped him in bubble wrap and handled him with kids gloves in 2020.

A season like that forces the Cardinals to make Flaherty the kind of extension offer that gives Flaherty what he has to this point lacked — leverage — in what has become his annual debate with the team about his worth, one that boils down to Flaherty disagreeing with how an outdated, expiring collective bargaining agreement underpays young players.

A season like that sets up Flaherty for Cy Young Award consideration and propels the Cardinals from being one of baseball’s top-10 teams toward becoming one of its best.

If Flaherty wants to use his dominance on the mound to draw attention to the topics he feels called to lend his voice to, this is the season to turn up the volume on his megaphone. He has tested the waters of advocacy and influence on all sorts of topics. He says he wants his actions to speak louder than his words. His actions on the mound will give his moves off it more heft. That’s not necessarily how it should work. But it is indeed how it works.

If Flaherty wants to be a lifetime Cardinal like his late mentor Bob Gibson, this is the season to secure security. If he dreams of being a marquee free agent in the 2024 class who uses the whirlwind to build his brand, like Trevor Bauer, this is the season to dominate headlines before making more next spring, when baseball wonders why the Cardinals are welcoming another round of contentious arbitration with a homegrown star.

If Flaherty wants to be mentioned along with Shane Bieber, Lucas Giolito and Walker Buehler as one of the best young starters in his generation, this is the season to earn it. Each of those three were named All-Stars in their age-24 seasons. Flaherty is still waiting on his first.

Perhaps an All-Star nod would have arrived in Flaherty’s age-24 season if not for the pandemic colliding with it. There was no Midsummer Classic in the 60-game rush that was 2020. The Cardinals’ decision to handle Flaherty with the long-term in mind after multiple virus-caused interruptions limited his impact. He pitched more than five innings just once in the regular season after the team returned from its lengthy COVID shutdown. He got pounded by the Brewers for nine runs one time. It bloated his ERA to 4.91. But he didn’t allow more than three earned runs in any of his other starts, and he allowed two or fewer in 67 percent of them. His 2020 regular season was not a referendum. It was, unfortunately, a waste. Flaherty’s six-inning, one-run start against the powerful Padres in the postseason needs to be a preview of his 2021.

“We limited Jack’s pitches,” Shildt said about Flaherty’s 2020. “His ability to get built back up made sense for his health. I know Jack was competing, and had the hammer down the whole way. Was it a challenge for him? I’m sure. Absolutely. Because he is a competitor. No competitor likes limitations. Jack understood the limitations, but I can confidently say he didn’t enjoy being limited.”

The restrictor is no longer necessary. The Cardinals say Flaherty’s often off-the-grid spring training has left him built up and ready. He needs to be, because the rotation he headlines will arrive in Cincinnati with warning lights flashing. Wainwright was the only always-visible, reliable starter on display during camp. Miles Mikolas (shoulder) and Kwang Hyun Kim (back tightness) are working back from setbacks. Carlos Martinez got knocked around most of the spring. John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon stepped forward, but there are reasons they were on the outside looking in at spring’s start. As for Flaherty, he swapped Grapefruit League starts with backfield sessions, where few eyes could watch.

“We are going to go out there and compete,” Flaherty said. “Go out there and give it everything I’ve got, control everything I can control until Shildty tells me that it’s for the game.”

We don’t know Jack. Not now. Not yet.

But we’re about to learn a lot.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

YOUTH IS SERVED

Best MLB starters age 26 or younger who have made at least 10 major league starts:

Player Age Team Games started Quality starts Innings Strikeouts ERA
Sandy Alcantara 25 Marlins 45 23 281.2 230 3.71
Shane Bieber 25 Cleveland 64 42 406.1 499 3.32
Walker Buehler 26 Dodgers 61 31 365.2 420 3.15
Jack Flaherty 25 Cardinals 75 32 409 482 3.37
Zac Gallen 25 Diamondbacks 27 14 152 178 2.78
Lucas Giolito 26 White Sox 84 45 489 495 4.44
Dustin May 23 Dodgers 14 3 90.2 76 2.98
Shohei Ohtani 26 Angels 12 5 53.1 66 4.39
Chris Paddack 25 Padres 38 15 199.2 211 3.74
Mike Soroka 23 Braves 37 21 214 171 2.86
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