The St. Louis Cardinals suffered the first crack in their best-in-baseball starting rotation Sunday when they placed Jake Westbrook on the 15-day disabled list with elbow inflammation. The team decided to give Westrbook’s start to rookie John Gast, but they might have been better off to let a more experienced pitcher fill that role.
Joe Kelly made his Major League Baseball debut in similar circumstances last season after Jaime Garcia suffered a shoulder injury in June. Kelly went on to make 16 starts and post a 4-6 record with a 3.53 earned-run average, overall.
Although he didn’t have a winning record, Kelly did an admirable job filling a hole in the rotation last summer. He pitched six or more innings in all but three of his starts, and the Cardinals offense scored two or fewer runs in five of his six losses, and they scored just three in the other.
Kelly moved to the bullpen when Garcia returned in September and pitched well. He allowed just two runs in six appearances, but he also had a consistent workload by pitching about every third day. Manager Mike Matheny has significantly dropped his workload this season, and it’s shown in his results.
Kelly pitched twice in the Cardinals’ season-opening series in Arizona against the Diamondbacks, but he pitched only six more times the rest of April and had the fewest outings for any Cardinals reliever.
And then he imploded when the Cardinals did bring him into ballgames. He has allowed 10 runs in 11.2 innings pitched, but he’s also appeared in just three games in May. Perhaps a bigger role would help him get comfortable again and start to pitch better.
That’s also why a move to the rotation might help. Kelly would be guaranteed to pitch every fifth day, and he would be able to extend his pitch total well beyond what he gets as a member of the bullpen. He hasn’t thrown more than 27 pitches in an appearance this season, and that could quadruple if he moved to the rotation.
Plus, the Cardinals management wouldn’t have to hold its breath with another rookie on the mound to start a game.
Gast has been good for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. He’s 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA in seven starts this season in the minors, but there is always an unknown factor that comes into play when a rookie makes a start, and they often don’t pitch very deep into a ballgame.
The Cardinals might have left Kelly in the bullpen because they don’t want to force him to shift between starting and relieving if Westbrook comes back soon, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem since Kelly bounced between the rotation and bullpen last season and worked as a starter in spring training because he was in contention for the fifth spot in the rotation with Shelby Miller.
The Cardinals have even set a precedent for bringing up young pitchers this season when they brought Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez up from the minors. Both of those pitchers went straight into the bullpen and have done well.
Martinez gave up three runs Sunday to the Colorado Rockies in his third appearance, but he had not allowed a run and given up just one hit in his previous two outings. Meanwhile, Maness already has two wins, has allowed just one hit hasn’t walked a hitter in 3.1 innings through three outings.
Martinez and Maness could certainly become starters at some point in their career, yet the Cardinals will still send Gast to the mound while Martinez, Maness and Kelly sit in the bullpen.
Maybe Gast will be great and pitch the way Kelly and Lance Lynn did last season as fill-in rookie starters when they went a combined 23-14 with a combined 3.66 ERA.
But if he’s not, the Cardinals will have wasted games by hoping yet another rookie will do well in the rotation while Kelly sits in the bullpen.