I love it when the Cardinals are in first place. Absolutely, positively love it. Mostly because it means exactly what it is: The Cardinals are in first place. But, I also love it because it of what it infers: The cubs are NOT in first place, and trail the Cardinals in some capacity. I admit to being a homer, I even said to a friend earlier today that I “am not drunk on Cardinals Kool-Aid, but I do drink the stuff.”. Having said that, I want to look back at the general feeling in Cardinal nation at a couple of intervals, then look forward.
Feb 23rd: Cardinals fans (in general) figured they’d have a fight on their hands, but if things went just right for the redbirds, and just wrong for the Reds & Brewers (and cubs, depending on who you spoke with), the Cards could win the National League Central division. Then came the Wainwright news on the 24th. Hearts in Cardinal nation sank, hearts (and players) in Cincinnati sang, and lines in Vegas shifted. Suddenly, the Cards “had no shot”.
March 30th: Fast forward five weeks Opening Day. By & large, the general consensus for the pitching staff was: Carpenter (#1) would need to be the Cy Young contender that he’s been in recent years, and with Waino on hielo, the Cardinals could ill-afford to waste a single Carpenter start all year. Westbrook (#2) made sense to move to the second slot, more on that in a moment. He had a solid 2010 second half with the Cards, and with a little run support (4 runs) he very well could’ve been a perfect 8-0 in a Cardinals uniform-he pitched that well. The assumption was that his performance wouldn’t be that different, and having just signed him to a 2-year deal in the offseason, his importance is now huge, with Wainwright out. Garcia (#3) certainly had success as a rookie, but he probably takes more losses in the 2 hole, and to make him third is significantly better in terms of match-ups during the year, not to mention the starting rotation’s only southpaw fits comfortably sandwiched between two righties ahead of & behind him. Then there were two big questions at the back of the rotation. Where on the spectrum of 2003/2008 Kyle Lohse to the Lohse we’ve seen over the past few years, would the 2011 Kyle Lohse (#4) be pitching from? The answer would likely play a big role in the Cards success level this season. Finally, Kyle McClellan (#5) would emerge from spring training as a starter, for the first time in his major league career. Although he “stretches out and acts like a starter every spring training”, we’d yet to see how he would perform in the starting role. Being the 5th man takes a lot of pressure off, and quite frankly, it’s the only realistic slot for him. Speaking of “Frankly”, I think we all knew Ryan Franklin was going to be the closer, and most fans probably thought little of that, until thinking about late August. Other minor chatter surfaced here & there about the ‘pen, but nothing major.
May 11th: Six weeks into the season, and here’s my take on how much things have changed since Opening Day. Carp just notched his first win of the year, and it took him 8 starts to get it. Granted, that’s not entirely his fault (only one of those 8 was in Arizona, after all), and sure we’re looking at Ws & Ls…a somewhat faulty benchmark anyway (SABR Alert!). So much for making every Carp start count. Fortunately, we’re in May, so a lot of the “He’s on pace to…” talk is over, and we don’t have to listen to how he’s on pace for 4 wins this year. (Oops!) Westbrook? Other than the ERA near 7, triple the number of earned runs as Jamie Garcia, less than 40 IP in 8 starts, and a K/BB ratio of 1, he’s been mediocre. Garcia, 4-0 with a 4 K/BB, and sub-2 ERA, has been nothing short of outstanding thus far. Can’t say enough about the job this kid has done to this point-could be a legit #2 guy on a lot of clubs with what we’ve seen so far. #4 guy, Kyle Lohse is healthy, and looks very good! He’s rocking a 2.9 K/BB and 0.860 WHIP to go along with his 4-2 record. One of those losses was a 107-pitch outing where he went 8 strong, scattering 6 hits, giving up only one run. Unfortunately, this was during a 14-inning streak where the Cards were no-hit, and Lohse got no run support in that last outing. K-Mac has also seen the right mixture of lucky & good so far. At 5-0, his control has been less-than-ideal at times, but he’s gotten the job done, and has proven to be as reliable a 5th starter as the Cardinals could have hoped for.
Let’s play a game of “which Cardinals starter is worse?” I’ll run down a few pitching categories, and I’ll name the owner of the 2nd-worst stat, then name the only Cardinals starter that’s worse in that category, ready? (It should be noted that at the time I wrote this, the May 11th game was over, but May 12th game, Garcia’s 8th start, had not yet started)
Wins: Westbrook has 2. Only starter worse? Carpenter, 1.
Losses: Carpenter has 2. Only starter worse? Westbrook, 3.
ERA: Carpenter’s is 4.32. Only starter worse? Westbrook, 6.92.
Walks: Carpenter has walked 17. Only starter worse? Westbrook, 23.
WHIP: Carpenter has a 1.46. Only starter worse? Westbrook, 1.82.
Earned Runs: Carpenter’s given up 24. Only starter worse? Westbrook, 30.
So, those are your #1 and #2 pitchers in the starting rotation. What are the 3, 4, & 5 guys up to?
Only combined for a 13-2 record in 20 starts with 95 Ks to only 36 BBs. ERAs are 1.99, 2.24, & 3.30 respectively, with WHIPs of .971, .860, & 1.35.
Looking ahead today: Does this trend last forever, where the 3-4-5 guys in the rotation are putting 1 & 2 to shame? Doubtful & unlikely, if I had to guess. Sooner or later, things will even out over the rest of the season. But, Carp & Westbrook might want to get it together soon–this can’t last forever–the Cardinals staying in first place with pitching performances like this from the front two guys. Carp is relatively old & expensive as it is. Westbrook isn’t much younger, and is only signed for this year & next. 2013 rotation could start with Wainwright, Garcia, Miller…that’s not a bad front three! I could write for a week about theories as to how the current trend could potentially play favorably down the road, and/or how there are more than a few striking similarities between having your better pitchers 3-4-5 in the rotation, and hitting them 8th in the lineup, but let’s be honest, no one could’ve seen this coming. For now, we’ll just have to hope Carp & Westbrook figure it out before the rest of the NL Central does.