Heading into the season, the Cardinals rotation looked like one of the best in all of baseball. That all changed on February 24, however, when it was announced that Adam Wainwright suffered an injury that required Tommy John surgery and would sideline him for the entire season.
In just 24 hours, the media’s focus on the Cardinals shifted from the Albert Pujols contract saga to how this team could possibly cope with the loss of their star pitcher.
At the time, it appeared that the Cardinals would have no answers. The loss of Wainwright dropped the Cardinals from division favorites to a team that would be lucky to finish in second.
While it is near impossible to fill the void left by losing a pitcher like Wainwright, the pitchers in this Cardinal rotation are capable of—at the very least—keeping this team afloat until late-June or early-July when general manager John Mozeliak can scour the trade market.
Holding down the top spot in the rotation is Chris Carpenter. While he is entering the twilight of his career, Carpenter is a competitor and still has good enough stuff to get back to his dominating form.
Fans cannot forget that this is a contract year for the Cardinals ace. The team decided against picking up his option for 2012, meaning that Carpenter will have to prove to the team’s front office that he still has enough left to be an effective pitcher moving forward.
Carpenter is the most important piece to this Cardinals rotation. In seasons past, strong outings from Carpenter seemed to bolster this team’s confidence. This year is no different. If their veteran leader and ace struggles right out of the gate, the pitchers behind him will start to press, leaving them susceptible to negative exposure.
If Carpenter returns to his old form, however, the other four pitchers in the rotation will not have as much pressure on them and can just focus on pitching to the best of their abilities.
Working behind Carpenter will be lefty Jaime Garcia. Garcia went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA and 132 strikeouts in his rookie season. It was a strong performance and warranted him consideration for the Rookie of the Year award.
There should be an asterisk placed next to his first year, however. In mid-September the Cardinals decided to cut Garcia off at 163 innings pitched and shut him down for the season.
This year, Garcia will have to pitch for the entire year. He started to show wear and tear towards the end of last season and rarely went past the sixth inning in any of his starts. With a weak bullpen, the Cardinals are going to rely on Garcia to pitch deeper into games this season, meaning his workload in terms of innings pitched is going to balloon from last season.
Another important factor to take into account with Garcia—as well as pitchers like Westbrook—is that they are products of Dave Duncan, meaning they are pitch-to-contact, ground-ball pitchers.
In fact, last season Garcia had a 55.9 percent ground-ball rate. That means there is a higher probability for singles and errors. He does not tend to give up a lot of home runs.
Normally, this type of pitcher fits in perfectly with the Cardinals system. This season, however, there was a significant trade of defense for offense. With players like Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot manning the middle-infield, the gloves behind the young Cardinal lefty will not be as dependable as years past.
One has to believe this will weigh on the young starter’s mind. It will be important for Garcia to just continue making his pitches and not overcorrect to compensate for an unreliable defense.
After such a weak spring, Garcia’s confidence is already rattled. It is imperative for him to get off to a strong start this season to get his swagger back and prove to everyone that last season was not a fluke.
Acquired last summer from the Cleveland Indians in a three-team deal that sent outfielder Ryan Ludwick to San Diego, Jake Westbrook was consistent enough for the Cardinals down the stretch to earn a contract extension with the team.
With the stories surrounding the other pitchers in the rotation, Westbrook tends to get overlooked. Based on what he has said, it finally appears that he has completely recovered from Tommy John surgery and it looks like he could be headed into some of the best seasons of his career.
That being said, Westbrook could be plagued by the same problem as Garcia—that is, a weak defense. Since coming to the Cardinals, Westbrook’s ground-ball rate has increased significantly from his time with the Indians.
Unlike Garcia, the veteran righty has experience and should understand that he cannot over-extend himself if the defense starts to let him down.
Westbrook’s season is going to be determined almost entirely by the performance of his defense. Early on, he will have the advantage of facing hitters who have never seen him pitch before, meaning more strikeouts. But as the year drags on, hitters will begin to figure out his stuff, meaning Westbrook will have to adjust by pitching more to contact, inducing more ground balls.
I mentioned this in my “8 Players to Watch Out for in 2011” slideshow, but (knock on wood) Kyle Lohse finally appears to be healthy and I think he’s poised to re-establish himself as a quality starting pitcher.
Heading into spring training, Lohse said that he felt completely healthy and it showed. He was dominating in his exhibition outings and appears to already be in midseason form.
Obviously, one can’t take too much from a player’s spring training performance, especially pitchers because it takes hitters longer to re-adjust. Given Lohse’s track record, however, his spring training performance is encouraging.
Even pitching coach Dave Duncan said that Lohse looked like he was back to his 2008 form. “He's pitching like he was when he won a bunch of games for us,” Duncan told Rick Hummel of the Saint Louis Post Dispatch.
In 2008, Lohse went 15-6 and earned himself a gaudy contract extension that has since drawn a lot of criticism from fans due to his poor performance since signing the deal.
If he is able to stay healthy and get back to performing like he did in 2007, this rotation takes on a totally different look. An effective Lohse would obviously deepen the Cardinals rotation, but it would also relieve some of the pressure on an already stretched bullpen.
Saint Louis-native Kyle McClellan has entered spring training the past two seasons conditioned to take the team’s fifth starter role, so it was not like he was unprepared when Adam Wainwright went down and McClellan was called on to take the final spot in the rotation.
On paper, McClellan is one of the best fifth starters in the league. He already has a solid four-pitch arsenal and established himself as one of the best bullpen pitchers in the league.
Last season, the Cardinal reliever posted a 2.27 ERA with 19 holds and 60 strikeouts over 75.1 innings pitched. Another important aspect to McClellan is that he has continued to improve throughout his career. His strikeouts have generally increased and he had little difficulty moving from the minors to the major leagues. His ERA has also continually improved over his career.
Two problems facing the team’s decision to move McClellan from the bullpen to the rotation are the extra innings he is about to take on and the repercussions on the bullpen.
While he has conditioned himself for a starting pitcher’s workload, McClellan will still have to battle fatigue as the season wears on and he continues to pile on more innings. That fatigue will inevitably damage the effectiveness of his pitches and could lead to struggles in the middle-to-late parts of the season.
The other problem with transitioning McClellan to the rotation is that it decimates the bullpen. As I mentioned earlier, McClellan was one of the best setup men in the league. Without him in there, the team was forced to fill in the hole with journeyman Miguel Batista and a band of other aging pitchers, significantly weakening the relieving corps.
Both of these problems are solvable, however. The Cardinals basically need McClellan to remain effective until the month of June rolls around and pitchers start to become available via the trade market.
Given the timing of Wainwright’s injury, the Cardinals were basically forced to go with McClellan. There were no free-agent options available that made sense over McClellan and no teams would be willing to trade away a quality starting pitcher that close to the start of the season.
If he is effective, then the team can go after another reliever to bolster the bullpen. If he struggles early, however, the team may be forced to try and complete a deal early on to bring in a starter to help the rotation.
That being said, McClellan has been waiting for this opportunity since joining the Cardinals major league club in 2008; expect him to make the most of it.
Similar to the rotation without Wainwright, the Cardinals bullpen without McClellan is nowhere near as strong as it was before.
Righties Bryan Augenstein and Miguel Batista will shoulder the team’s long relief duties. Augenstein, who spent last season as a starting pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system, went 6-8 with a 6.56 ERA in 22 starts with AAA Reno.
The 24-year-old did appear in seven games in 2009 with Arizona. He pitched 17 innings in that stint which included two starts. He posted a record of 0-1 and an ERA of 7.94.
Batista, who Cardinal fans may remember from his brawl with Tino Martinez in 2003, has pitched for nine different teams over his lengthy career. He pitched last season for the Washington Nationals and posted a 1-2 record with an ERA of 3.70. That’s respectable. However, that was one of the best seasons the 40-year-old has had in his career.
The other new face in the Cardinals bullpen is 33-year-old Brian Tallet. Tallet, who came to the Cardinals from the Blue Jays, has been unimpressive over his last two seasons. In 2010, he posted a 6.40 ERA over 77.1 innings pitched.
While all three of these pitchers appear to be perfect projects for Dave Duncan, the Cardinals still lack a go-to reliever to run damage control if that night’s starter has a bad outing.
This poses a serious problem for the starting pitchers. Even the veterans like Carpenter and Westbrook are going to feel the pressure to pitch at least seven-to-eight innings every outing just to make sure it is a situation that warrants Mitchell Boggs, Trever Miller or Jason Motte being brought in.
Those three pitchers—Boggs, Miller and Motte—are the most dependable pitchers in the bullpen (with the exception of closer Ryan Franklin). Motte and Boggs, who will be utilized in the middle relief and setup roles, are auditioning this season for the closer role, currently occupied by Franklin.
Miller, meanwhile, will be utilized as a left-handed specialist. With Dennis Reyes gone, Miller’s appearances may be more spaced out, but they should be for more than one or two batters.
Rounding out the bullpen is Ryan Franklin. Franklin has been solid over the past two seasons as the Cardinals closer, picking up 27 saves last year and 38 the year before.
However, last year was a bit of a drop-off for Franklin. His ERA jumped up to 3.46 from just 1.92 the year before and his number of blown saves increased.
Nonetheless, Franklin still has the ability to be an effective closer. The former starter has added a knuckleball to his repertoire and still has the stuff necessary to shut down opposing hitters late in games.
If Franklin should falter, expect Boggs or Motte to be plugged into the closers role. This team cannot afford for its pitchers to struggle—especially in the bullpen—meaning that the closer role could open up if Franklin starts blowing games.
The loss of Wainwright complicated things for the Cardinals in both the bullpen and the rotation. While many people have written this team off, I think the pitching rotation has the potential to surprise a lot of teams.
Carpenter is a proven Cy Young pitcher who is in a contract year; Garcia had a strong rookie season and obviously has the potential to develop into a solid starting pitcher; Westbrook and Lohse both finally appear to be completely healthy and understand their roles in this rotation; and with McClellan—one of the league’s best No. 5 starters—closing things out, all is not lost.
The job of the entire pitching staff will be to keep this team afloat until John Mozeliak can strike a deal to bring in a quality starting pitcher and/or reliever to help this team push for the playoffs.
The offense is good, but it is not reasonable to expect any team to generate five-plus runs every night to compensate for bad pitching.
If this pitching staff is able to exceed expectations and guys like Lohse, Westbrook and Carpenter are able to prove themselves as still valuable pitchers, I like the Cardinals’ chances in the Central Division.
Thanks for reading!
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