The St. Louis Cardinals have used 10 different starting pitchers in the first four-and-a-half months of the 2013 season, and they will now likely have to play the rest of the season without Jake Westbrook, who started the pitching carousel when he originally went on the disabled list in May with elbow inflammation.
However, the Cardinals have shown they can withstand injuries to just about any position outside of catcher, where Yadier Molina has an incredibly large influence on the team, and they should be able to make it through the rest of the season and playoffs without Westbrook.
In fact, there’s a decent chance they could be better.
Westbrook has been the Cardinals worst starter by far in the second half of the season. He won his first two starts after the All-Star Break, but then the proverbial wheels fell off. Westbrook allowed 28 runs in his next five starts, all of them losses except the final game against the Milwaukee Brewers when the Cardinals won 8-6 even though Westbrook nearly gave up a 7-0 lead in fewer than five innings.
Now Westbrook is on the disabled list again, this time with a back injury that could keep him out for the rest of the season and end his career with the Cardinals, because his contract has a mutual option for 2014 the Cardinals might not pick up.
Westbrook’s injury is not nearly as blatant of an excuse to remove a struggling pitcher as when Jason Isringhausen supposedly injured his pitching hand in 2008 by punching a television in the clubhouse, but it could have similarly unexpected, positive consequences.
Isringhausen had struggled to a 5.70 earned-run average with just 12 saves through 42.2 innings that season before he went on the disabled list in August, which led Ryan Franklin to the job, and he went on to save 65 games the next two seasons, including a trip to the postseason in 2009.
The 2013 Cardinals are probably in an even better situation to replace a struggling veteran because they have a pool of talented young pitchers that would easily surpass any of the team’s minor-league reserves during the Isringhausen Era that lasted from 2001-08.
Kelly allowed four runs through six innings that day against Miami, but he has allowed more than two runs in a start just once since and has improved his record from 0-3 to 5-3 after another stellar performance Thursday against the National League East Division-leading Atlanta Braves when he held them to two runs through six innings as the Cardinals won 6-2.
Rookie starter Shelby Miller has also pitched well, going 11-8 with a 2.94 ERA in 24 starts, and second-year starter Lance Lynn has been in the rotation all season, posting a 13-7 record with a 3.97 ERA.
But now the Cardinals will need one more inexperienced pitcher to exceed expectations as the team enters the final month of the season in a three-way race for the NL Central title with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.
Its first option will be rookie left-hander Tyler Lyons.
The Cardinals first called up Lyons from Triple-A Memphis in May to fill in for injured starter Jaime Garcia, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Lyons was good in his first two starts, but his ERA exploded from 1.29 to 5.51 in his next four starts before the Cardinals sent him back to the minors.
Lyons came back to pitch the second game of a doubleheader July 30 against the Pirates and allowed three earned runs through six innings in a 6-0. It wasn’t a bad outing, and the Cardinals were in the middle of a seven-game losing streak at the time, but Lyons will get his third opportunity of the season when he takes the mound to start Monday against the Reds.
Plenty of uncertainty will surround that start and probably each of the rest of his starts through September, if the Cardinals stick with Lyons and don’t move to Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha, but he now has both positive and negative experiences as a big-league player that should help him this time around.
And if he pitches well, he could add his name to the list of pitchers that includes Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller who turned late-season call-ups into steady jobs at the top of the Cardinals rotation.
If nothing else, Lyons at least might be able to say he became a large contributor to a team that has a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs.
It might be an unlikely scenario, but as Tony La Russa learned in 2008, the decision to put Westbrook on the disabled list might be the best one Matheny could have made for the long-term health of his team.