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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: Lance Lynn and the Trade Market…

The Cardinals’ starting rotation currently looks like this:

Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, and Joe Kelly.

Of those five pitchers, one is a potential fill-in from the bullpen (Kelly), another is hoping a twelve-day break during the All-Star game can revitalize his season (Miller), and yet another remains one start away from renewed struggles with a nagging elbow injury (Westbrook).

But perhaps the greatest source of concern is former All-Star pitcher Lance Lynn. The man who expressed confidence in his grasp on a rotation spot in Spring Training – “I was an 18 game winner last year with an All Star appearance. I have to do a lot of things to lose my spot, in my opinion.” — now has reason to fear losing it.

After posting a 3.10 ERA in April and a 2.77 ERA in May, Lynn’s starts have become more and more erratic. Now, they’re consistently atrocious. He finished June with a 4.83 ERA and currently sits on a frightening 6.85 ERA in the month of July. He’s allowed 36 earned runs in his last 10 starts (since May 29), and has only posted two quality starts (six or more IP and three or fewer ERs) in his last eight starts since June 20.

Tonight, against the struggling Phillies, Lynn gets perhaps his last chance to convince GM John Mozeliak he can be trusted to hold down a rotation spot for the rest of the season before the ever-ominous trade deadline approaches on July 31.

Lynn’s struggles are…confusing. They surfaced too early in the season for fatigue to be a factor, but his relatively intact strikeout numbers (his last two starts aside) and ability to limit most damage to one big inning per game suggests his stuff remains effective. That leaves Mike Matheny to conclude the problem is in Lynn’s more hesitant approach on the mound.

In his last start against Edison Volquez (a pitcher noted for his laborious pace), Lynn reportedly labored so much between pitches that teammates and coaches became frustrated with his sluggish pace. In short, Lynn was over-thinking each pitch instead of just throwing. Of course, whenever a pitcher’s struggles are attributed to pace, I’m reminded of the “chicken or the egg” debate.

On one hand, a pitcher tends to be less effective — on average — when he slows his pace on the mound (hellloooo, Kip Wells). On the other hand, Lynn seemed to slow his pace out of frustration…because he was already less effective on the mound. So which came first? Did his ineffectiveness give way to an altered approach, or did an altered approach significantly impact the effectiveness of his pitches?

Likely both. But I suspect Lynn simply needs something to work on, and encouraging a young, hard-throwing pitcher to aggressively go after hitters and pick up the pace is never a bad thing, especially when they can make use of the best autopilot in the business in Yadier Molina.

But the concern remains. Already weakened by injuries to Jaime Garcia and John Gast, an aborted rehab for Chris Carpenter, a fatigued rookie starter in Shelby Miller, and a potential injury recurrence for Jake Westbrook, Mozeliak can’t afford to sit on his hands and wait on Lynn to bounce back. The All-Star from 2012 needs to regain his form tonight against the Phillies, or Mozeliak must intensify his search for another starting pitcher in the trade market.

It’s crunch time, and Lance Lynn has to show the Cardinals he’s a pillar to be counted on down the stretch.

Let’s get into the rest of it…

Oh, boy…here we go. The Pirates crazy-good closer Jason Grilli has hit the DL with a forearm injury. Will Pittsburgh finally learn what it’s like in St. Louis when a shutdown closer gets shutdown? It’s not as if the Pirates have no one to step in while he’s gone — they have one of the best statistical bullpens in the NL — but the shuffle could mean they begin to expect more innings from their starting pitchers, a staff currently sitting on the second-fewest innings pitched totals in the National League (No. 26 in MLB) at 555 IP. In short, the loss of Grilli could lead to a bullpen shuffle that may demand the starters throw more innings. Why is that a problem? Because many of the Pirates’ starting pitchers are already pitching much better than their career norms. Will those numbers start to normalize and regress with an extra inning or two per game thrown? Guess we’ll find out.

Look at those batting averages… We can spend hours debating the merits of batting average as a statistical measurement, but no matter how you feel about the stat, hitting .300 or better is still impressive. And the Cardinals’ top three hitters by BA are dominating the leader board. Three of the top five hitters in all of baseball are Cardinals (three of the top four in the NL). Yadier Molina (.339), Allen Craig (.337), and Matt Carpenter (.326) — all homegrown players — are leading the Redbirds’ offense with consistent and timely production and showcasing the Cardinal Way of hitting by taking excellent, smart at-bats at the plate. Their contributions are a big reason why the Cardinals lineup is much more consistent this season compared to the feast or famine approach in 2012.

Will the Cardinals grab a shortstop? I discussed this a bit on the UCB Radio Show last night, but we’ll touch base again here. I believe two primary points must be understood if you’re going to properly evaluate Mozeliak’s trade posture:

1) If Oscar Taveras was healthy, he would likely be the starting center fielder for the Cardinals right now over Jon Jay. That would mean Pete Kozma would be the only offensive hole in the lineup and therefore tolerable considering his defensive contributions. But Taveras is not healthy, and that means Jay and Kozma are both holes in an otherwise offensively dominant lineup. It also means Mozeliak will be forced to address at least one of them, and shortstop is the most likely candidate.

2) Because of Kozma’s solid defense as well as the Cardinals’ plethora of young possible starting pitching options, Mozeliak likely won’t view a trade to upgrade only shortstop or only the rotation as worth the hassle. But…if he could upgrade both in one move, then that’s something that could be a collectively significant upgrade for his team. In other words, if Mo makes a move, look for it to be a package deal that brings a starting pitcher, a shortstop, and maybe even a bullpen pitcher or two all at once (remember the Rasmus trade?) — think Peavy, Ramirez…and maybe even Crain? Anything less and I don’t believe Mo sees the trade as lucrative enough to make him include premium prospects like Carlos Martinez and/or Kolten Wong in a package of minor league players.

Wrap-Up!

That’ll do it. The second half of the season is gearing up and things are about to get real interesting. Let’s hope the Cardinals can make the right moves — or non-moves — to get the job done.

GO CARDS!!!

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