The St. Louis Cardinals had their choice of two pitchers to send to the minor leagues Friday when righthanded starter Jake Westbrook returned from injury. Their decision was sure to have a short-term effect regardless, but it has suddenly put them in a tough situation that could linger until at least the All-Star break. Rookie left-handed starter Tyler Lyons stayed, while rookie right-handed starter Michael Wacha went to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Wacha and Lyons joined the starting rotation in May as the Cardinals struggled to put together a healthy rotation. Westbrook went on the disabled list May 12 with elbow inflammation and Jaime Garcia’s season ended with a shoulder injury a week later. Rookie left-hander John Gast originally filled Westbrook’s spot and Lyons stepped in Garcia’s spot. Gast, however, suffered a shoulder injury May 26, which forced the Cardinals to bring up Wacha on May 30 to face the Kansas City Royals. Wacha was great in that first game. He struck out six Royals hitters through seven innings and didn’t allow a single baserunner until centerfielder Lorenzo Cain hit a double in the fifth. Lyons was equally as good in his first two starts. He allowed one run through seven innings May 22 against the San Diego Padres and had the same stat line May 28 against the Royals, but his performances have gone downhill since. He hasn’t gone more than 6.1 innings or allowed fewer than four runs in his last three starts, including a six-run, eight hit outing Sunday against the Miami Marlins. The Cardinals gave him that start while Wacha returned to Memphis for his second stint as a minor leaguer despite the “I’m here to stay” proclamation he made when he first arrived in St. Louis a month earlier. The Cardinals thought Wacha, their most prized prospect, would benefit more from pitching in the minors since he was still just a year removed from pitching in college at Texas A&M. Lyons, who the team drafted in 2010, is a seasoned veteran with less upside by comparison, and the Cardinals hoped he would be able to fill a role similar to the one Joe Kelly filled in 2012, one that wasn’t spectacular but kept the team in most of the games he pitched. Lyons could be a stable No. 5 starter the team might be able to nurse through the bulk of the season, but after Sunday’s debacle, the Cardinals are stuck. Lyons could just have hit a three-start rough stretch and will stabilize into a pitcher the Cardinals can rely on every fifth day. But if he doesn’t, the team will have yet another important decision to make about its rotation. The Cardinals have a few of options if Lyons can’t be the No. 5 starter, but none is very good. The quickest decision would be to bring Wacha back to the big club and send Lyons to the minors. Wacha has more talent anyway, which could help him navigate the bulk of a rookie season, but it could also be the start of a convoluted mess if Wacha doesn’t pitch well and the team ultimately decides he truly does need a full season in the minors before he is ready to pitch in a Major League Baseball rotation. Cardinals officials said early in the season they didn’t want Wacha to jump back and forth between the majors and minors. They would prefer that once they called him up, he would be a big-leaguer for good. Well, that didn’t happen, and now the Cardinals could be in a position where they have to move Wacha up and down as short-term solutions if Lyons isn’t going to be a reliable starter. But if the Cardinals really do want to keep Wacha in the minors, they could bring back rookie right-hander Carlos Martinez, who has worked as a starter for Memphis the past three weeks after a monthlong stint in the Cardinals bullpen when he gave up four runs across seven appearances. Also, the Cardinals could also bring Kelly out of purgatory in the bullpen and have him be the No. 5 starter. Kelly started 16 games for the team in 2012 and had a 3.53 earned-run average in 24 outings, overall. He was also in contention for the No. 5 spot out of spring training, but the Cardinals chose to give that spot to rookie right-hander Shelby Miller instead. Kelly has been awful out of the bullpen so far this season. He’s given up at least one run in nearly half of his appearances and has a 5.19 ERA. However, he was terrific in his one start June 5 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He breezed through 5.2 innings in 80 pitches while allowing one earned run on four hits, but manager Mike Matheny didn’t want to extend him to far since he had pitched out of the bullpen exclusively up to that point. So the Cardinals have options to fill the No. 5 spot in their rotation, but none are ideal, which makes this a problem that could follow the team through much of the rest of the season. Of course, pitchers such as Cliff Lee might be on the trading block in the next six weeks and Chris Carpenter could still come back, but those moves would create plenty of worries on their own, such as who the Cardinals would trade or if Carpenter truly is healthy enough to pitch. In the end, that’s just life as a Major League Baseball organization. Even the best team in baseball is far from stress-free through the course of a 162-game season.
Saturday, February 27, 2021