The Cardinals’ Crowded Starting Rotation

Like the Atlanta Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals often have good problems. The Cardinals are likely to have a top 10 rotation in 2014, but they still have to figure out who is going to slot into the rotation, and who will be the odd men out. Men is the key word here, because the Cardinals don’t have just six options, or even seven, but rather eight legitimate candidates for the starting rotation. Let’s walk through it, shall we?

First, the sure things. Adam Wainwright tops this list. Since he came back for the 2012 season, only four pitchers have accumulated more WAR than has Wainwright — Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. There isn’t a rational argument for keeping Wainwright out of the rotation.

Based on the fact that he started Game 2 in both the National League Championship Series and the World Series, Michael Wacha would also seem to be a lock. Certainly, the rookie was impressive in both the regular and postseason. Of the 274 pitchers who tossed at least 60 innings last year, Wacha’s 80 FIP- ranked 52nd. He actually wasn’t as good as a starting pitcher as he was a reliever, but the outlook for him is still bullish in 2014. Both Steamer and ZiPS peg him to be in the discussion for second-best starter on the squad:

Pitcher Steamer IP Steamer ERA Steamer FIP Steamer WAR ZiPS IP ZiPS ERA ZiPS FIP ZiPS WAR
Adam Wainwright 193 3.24 2.94 3.9 208.3 3.2 2.93 4.0
Michael Wacha 155 3.75 3.51 2.1 155.3 3.53 3.65 2.3
Lance Lynn 160 3.7 3.51 2.1 173.7 3.52 3.41 2.6
Jaime Garcia 166 3.66 3.28 2.3 116.3 3.79 3.42 1.4
Shelby Miller 112 3.66 3.67 1.3 174.7 3.3 3.57 3.2
Joe Kelly 81 4.17 3.9 0.4 146.7 3.87 3.93 1.5
Carlos Martinez 83 3.65 3.69 0.3 108.3 3.74 3.79 1.3
Trevor Rosenthal 65 2.59 2.86 1.1 79.7 2.37 2.51 1.6

The others in that mix would appear to be Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller. Miller seemed to be underappreciated by his team during the postseason, and the fact that he never received an explanation for why he wasn’t being used was clearly frustrating to him, not to mention a good portion of the baseball Twitterati. As Mike Podhorzer pointed out in THT ’14, Miller did throw his changeup more in the second half, and introduced a cutter as well, and as a result saw his strikeout and walk percentages regress, but he didn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin.

While Miller was only unappreciated during the postseason, Lynn has been regularly underestimated. He was written off after his breakout 2012 campaign, as many observers said his problems with left-handed hitters would hold him back in 2013. But it didn’t. Whether you fancy ERA, FIP, xFIP or wOBA allowed, Lynn did better against lefties in 2013 than he did in 2012. He walked fewer of them on a rate basis, and he allowed far fewer homers as well. The differences weren’t major, but they were enough to make him a three-win pitcher, and three-win pitchers don’t exactly grow on trees.

Over the past two seasons, only 32 pitchers have been more valuable than Lynn. His 6.0 WAR is better than Jeff Samardzija, Ricky Nolasco, C.J. Wilson, Matt Cain, Mike Minor, Jose Quintana, Jered Weaver and Justin Masterson. He doesn’t fare as well in RA9-WAR, which is likely the reason why he ends up being shoved to the periphery, but even here he has done better than Samardzija, and the Cubs have been demanding a ransom for him. Still, Lynn has experience in the bullpen, and he was good there. Both his ability to pitch there and pitch well there make him a potential rotation victim.

Clocking in after these two is Jaime Garcia. Unlike Lynn, Garcia isn’t going to be flexible in his role. In fact, it’s an open question as to just what he has left. Projections are conservative, as they should be. Garcia battled shoulder troubles in October 2012, and decided to try and pitch through it. Now, he’s on the wrong side of both Tommy John and shoulder surgeries. He’s a lefty and just 27-years-old, and he’s had plenty of past success, but he’s one to watch in spring training. But whether or not he’s good, he can’t be used in any sort of high-leverage bullpen role, so he’s essentially starter or bust.

On a normal team, you’d slot these five guys into the rotation and do the dance of joy. But the Cardinals are not a normal team, and they have at least three additional candidates for the rotation. Carlos Martinez was twice ranked in the top 40 by Marc Hulet last year, and while there are concerns about him being able to be a starting pitcher long-term, you can’t know if he is a failed starter until you let him try to be a starter. Joe Kelly probably isn’t that good, but he had that shiny 2.69 ERA last season, and he shut down the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, and things like that tend to linger in a manager’s mind — even if he did give up four runs in five innings in and took the loss in Game 5 of the NLCS. Finally, there is Rosenthal, who is the real fly in the ointment and/or monkey in the wrench here.

Rosenthal has been told he will be the closer next season, but he wants to start. And as a 24-year-old with four-to-five years of control, an electric fastball and (ostensibly) a four-pitch mix, the only reason to not let him try to start is because you have too many qualified candidates for the rotation. But is that really a good reason? Jason Motte should be ready to come back and hold down the bullpen, and even if he doesn’t, someone else will step up. Someone always does for the Cardinals. The bullpen was supposed to be the way that Rosenthal broke into the majors, not be where he stayed. Things don’t always work out the way you plan them, of course, but what is the harm in giving him his shot?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the situation. Perhaps Martinez, Kelly and Rosenthal give St. Louis a deep bullpen that can toss multiple innings at a moment’s notice, and are happy to carry out the task. Perhaps Garcia will immediately be as good as he used to be. Perhaps Lynn is never considered for the bullpen. But perhaps Garcia won’t be the same, or be able to go at all. Perhaps people figure out how to lay off Wacha’s stuff. Perhaps Lynn gets relegated to the bullpen, or becomes trade bait. In any of those cases, the Cards will have plenty of reinforcements. And that’s a good thing, even if figuring out the pecking order gets complicated.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Ari Berkowitz
8 years ago

If you don’t feel comfortable relying on Garcia or Motte, the depth is pretty normal nowadays. Rosenthal and Kelly are relievers and they have six other guys, not including AAA fodder like a Tyler Lyons. All being considered, a team like the Mets, even with Harvey out have Colon, Niese, Gee, Wheeler, Mejia, Montero, Syndergaard, deGrom and just signed John Lannan are similarly positioned.

My point being, it isn’t uncommon to have lots of pitching depth these days.

8 years ago
Reply to  Ari Berkowitz

Tell that to the Phillies

8 years ago
Reply to  Jimmy

Hey now! Name one team that wouldn’t want to have Jon Pettibone in their rotation!

And then name another… and another… and do that about 26 times.

Sigh. At least their top two are great…

8 years ago
Reply to  Ari Berkowitz

This post is asinine.

Let’s go through some of your points.

First: you’re immediately discarding two guys “because you don’t feel comfortable relying on them”. We can play this game with a lot of teams. Removing two pitchers with serious upside from a list is obviously going to make it look worse. Are they going to be good? No idea, but they are still depth.

Second: “Rosenthal and Kelly are relievers”. Ok, what, exactly, leads you to make this assumption? Their demonstrated level of effectiveness as MLB players? Most (not all) MLB teams would be happy to get one of these guys and slot him into the end of their rotation right now.

Third: You’re comparing Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom to guys with proven MLB success? Please, I can dig in the farm system and find guys with high profile arms as well – Marco Gonzales, Tyrell Jenkins… the list continues. Is that a fair comparison either? No, I’m making it to illustrate how poor your comparison is.

Fourth: If you’re referring to John Lannan as depth and citing Tyler Lyons as “AAA fodder”, your player evaluation skills need some work.

8 years ago
Reply to  tehzachatak

Moreover, this is just one team that you chose (the Mets). Please find me more teams that have similar depth to even the Mets. Do they exist? Yes. Is is uncommon? YES.

8 years ago
Reply to  tehzachatak

Yeah, you just blew up that guy’s post. Pretty delusional he was.

8 years ago
Reply to  tehzachatak

I chortled at the John Lannan line.

8 years ago
Reply to  tehzachatak

Most teams would be excited about Tim Cooney or Zach Petrick getting some starts in the near future as well, but they aren’t even discussed. Obviously lower ceiling than the recent promotions, but there seem to be a ton of really high floors in this system.

8 years ago
Reply to  tehzachatak

As far as actual events, Garcia is on the same pace as other roster pitcher. His injury history is partly stubbornness, as he tried, in multiple years, to pitch through the injury without surgery. Assuming the surgery went well, he’s a potentially pretty valuable lefty.

Otherwise agree with your “takedown.”