Sizing Up the Rotation

In the wake of this week’s news of Adam Wainwright being done for the year, the Cardinals will start looking immediately for someone to slide in as the fifth starter for 2011. What looked like a great rotation a week ago barely occupies pretty good currently…and that’s if everyone stays healthy.

Replacing Wainwright’s production is impossible—everyone knows that. But Chris Carpenter is only a couple years removed from being the ace of this pitching staff. Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia are both two years removed from their own Tommy John surgeries; Westbrook threw over 200 innings between Cleveland and St. Louis in 2011 and Garcia should improve on his 163. And Kyle Lohse has topped 180 innings five times in his career, so if his forearm injury is truly healed he can be expected to make a contribution. It was a lot better with Wainwright leading this pack…but the Cards could do a lot worse than these four pitchers.

Starter #5 won’t be an ace, we know that much. Tony LaRussa and John Mozeliak are on the record saying they will look to fill the slot from within the organization first. That list of candidates likely includes Ian Snell, Kyle McClellan, Miguel Batista, Lance Lynn, PJ Walters, and possibly Brian Tallet. But what is the right answer? All have starting experience; some more than others. Snell, presumably, was signed by the Cardinals for this exact scenario and could benefit from that old Dave Duncan magic. But if McClellan takes the starting spot, that leaves a hole in the bullpen kind of like the one currently left in the rotation (relatively speaking). Batista last made 30 starts in a season in 2007; Tallet only has one season as a starter under his belt. Walters may have already spent his last chance at cracking the Cards’ rotation.

That leaves Lynn, who has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues. He has pitched well in the minors; last year at AAA Lynn went 13-10 with a 4.77 ERA and 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings (164 IP), and in 2009 at AA he went 11-4 with a 2.92 ERA and 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings (126.1 IP). Those may not be the numbers of a top prospect, but Lynn has shown ability at all levels.

Of course there’s always the possibility the Cards will go ahead and bring someone in from the outside. Kevin Millwood’s name was immediately circulated as a good target for the team; he has averaged 208 IP over his 14 year career and has thrown less than 168 IP only once since 2002. He could see a resurgence in the NL Central and pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium after getting battered around by the beasts of the AL East in Baltimore. And don’t count out a wild card…what kind of magic could Duncan work on someone like Pedro Martinez?

The possibilities seem endless at this point, but that’s part of the reason they have Spring Training. Personally, I believe competition is healthy even when the circumstances are less than ideal. Lynn and Snell should be given the chance to earn the fifth spot, and if neither of them are working out like the Cardinals need them to, Mozeliak should seek outside help. I wouldn’t be opposed to a signing now if the Cards made one, but I don’t believe it to be necessary yet. One thing is for certain: the margin for error seems to be shrinking daily for this team, and Spring Training games haven’t even started yet.

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