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Fantasizing About the Future of the Cards’ Rotation…

It seems we have developed a Spring Training habit – blog post in the middle of the week, podcast on the weekend. I guess that works, but the onslaught of daily games in the regular season will surely impact our schedule. But for now, let’s get to it!

I always love to fantasize about what may or may not happen for the St. Louis Cardinals well beyond what others may predict. Sure, it puts me out there and prepares the road for embarrassment when things go completely the opposite direction…but I think I’m okay with that. After all, as bloggers, it’s our job to offer something different…something beat writers and columnists aren’t able to offer. Instead of fact, we offer speculation. In place of accuracy, we encourage rumor. And rather than focus on “serious journalism,” we engage in frivolous, enjoyable pieces designed to make our readers smile, laugh, and simply be entertained. Why do we do this? Because that’s our niche. Why would you read a blogger who re-writes what “serious journalists” write minus proper journalism training, access to the team, and occupational accountability? I wouldn’t. So…we engage in baseball fantasy. And in that proud tradition, I offer this: a look at the future of the Cardinals starting rotation.

The 2012 rotation is partially set. With Lohse and Westbrook already under contract for 2012, they’re in. You have to assume Garcia is already a lock as well, so that leaves two slots open. This is where it gets interesting. Adam Wainwright swears he will be ready this time next Spring. All well and good…except the minimum for TJ surgery recovery is 12 months. I never bank on the minimum – especially when the Cardinals’ medical staff is involved. That said, I expect Adam will require a couple more months to get ready. That means June/July time frame of the 2012 season. Also, let’s not forget the team has a decision to make on whether to take Waino’s option or try to sign him as a free agent (or before he reaches free agency). For my money, I think they keep Wainwright…and may simply take his option. It’s a relatively low-risk gamble. Recovery ratio from TJ surgery is very good and Waino would be a very expensive pitcher on the open market with his “ace among aces” status (making his $21 million option a reasonable contract). Yes, it’s reasonable even if he misses the first two months of 2012. So, I’m going to assume the club takes Waino’s option…but that still leaves us with a need for a guy for at least half the season. My gut tells me Kyle McClellan is that guy.

If K-Mac has a successful season in the 2011 rotation – and I think he will – then my guess is that he never sees the bullpen again while healthy. Compare that to his relative cost on the market, and I think McClellan is a solid fit into the 2012 rotation. That puts us at 4.5 starting pitchers (Garcia, Lohse, Westbrook, McClellan, and 1/2 of Wainwright). Since MLB has not yet figured out a way to sign half a starting pitcher (although, with salaries what they are, perhaps Roger Clemens started a new trend…?), we need another pitcher. This fifth pitcher could not be a guy to just fill a spot, primarily because his performance could significantly impact our contender status in July (because he’s pitching in the first half of the season). No, Shelby Miller is not an option (too early). So, what dependable pitcher do we know of that could be signed at less than top dollar but carry the potential for an outstanding season in the St. Louis rotation?

Assuming he finishes 2011 strong, I think Chris Carpenter is our guy. Carp’s contract is up this year, and before Waino’s injury I would’ve said it’s likely he doesn’t come back (he has an option for $15 million in 2012, but it’s too much to pay all things considered), but with Waino hurt, we are in need of a solid pitcher to at least start the 2012 season. Do I think we take Carp’s option? No. I think it’s too much to pay for a guy at his point in his career for one season (especially considering other contract situations we have in play). I do, however, think we could sign him at 2 years for less per year. He finishes his career a Cardinal (which he loves being), and we gain a solid guy to lead the staff for 2012 and help groom young pitchers in 2013 (player coach-like).

Now, I see a lot of people online crazy-concerned about Carp’s health and age in 2013. I understand. Really, I do. But I think indicators are available right now to suggest he will still be effective in 2013. For one, Carp threw a ton of innings in a TON of starts in 2010 (a career high in starts at 35 and second to highest in innings at 235.0 – in 2005 he hit 241.2) with an average 101 pitches thrown per game started. His body is strong. It’s not showing signs of breaking down…but it is showing signs of slowing down. In 2010, Carp’s average mph on his fastball dropped a couple mphs (although his velocity looked a bit better in the last ST game he started). Honestly, that leads to our second indicator of success in 2013. Carp adjusted. When his velocity dropped, Carp was still a highly effective pitcher. Sure, he wasn’t Cy Young caliber…but let’s be clear…in 2012 and 2013, we don’t need him to be. That’s not what we would be paying him for. In fact, that’s why we would pay him less than the $15 million on his option. And, personally, I think Carp will be even better in 2011 than he was in 2010 for one reason – his Ground Ball to Fly Ball ratio. In 2010, it was 1.05…the lowest ratio in his last 7 years…and only 2002 was lower in the last 10 (0.99). Carp doesn’t need to throw 95 mph to get ground balls. In fact, it’s the one thing that is quintessential Carp + Dunc. In other words, I predict Carp’s G/F ratio will be better this year than it was in 2010…and will be better in 2012 and 2013 as well.

Okay…enough on Carp. Point being, I think he is our 5th guy in 2012. That sets our rotation at Garcia, Lohse, Westbrook, K-Mac, and Carp/Waino. See the log-jam? In short, we have one too many pitchers when July comes around and Waino is back strong. The way I see it, we would have a few options (assuming no one is injured – which is a big assumption). First, Waino spends 2012 in the bullpen – perhaps closing? – and uses the time to recuperate his endurance/strength in his first year back from TJ. Second, one of our starters goes to the ‘pen…not likely considering the money in the rotation. Third, Lohse/Westbrook go on the trading block to A) Improve our 2012 offense or B) Bring in a good prospect ala Waino from the Braves. For me, I think Lohse on the block in 2012 could be the best option…again, assuming 100% health in the rest of the rotation.

So, now that the 2012 rotation is set, it partially informs the 2013 rotation. Wainwright, Garcia, McClellan, and Carpenter are in (Waino and Carp both on the last years of their contracts having picked up Waino’s option and signed Carp to 2 years in lieu of his 1 year option). Having two vets in the rotation, one lefty with now 3 years starting experience, and K-Mac with 2 years (plus the departure of Westbrook and Lohse for more money elsewhere and/or 2012 trade), enter Shelby Miller. Having entered the 2012 season as a reliever half-way through the season (Waino treatment?), Miller presents an excellent low-cost option in the 2013 rotation. With so much money wrapped up in Carp and Waino plus raises due K-Mac and possibly Garcia (and let’s not even mention the money due Pujols/Holliday), Miller will get first shot at the Opening Day rotation in 2013.

What about 2014, you ask? Carp is gone after 2013…Waino is signed to a long-term contract as the staff ace…perhaps K-Mac is signed to his first “big” deal after a couple years as a successful starter…Garcia is making good money as a relative veteran, now…and Miller is still low-cost. Waino, Garcia, K-Mac, and Miller. One slot open for either a dumpster dive or a AAA starter from within (more likely?). A lot may depend on how effective Miller is in his first full season as a starter (can we afford to go with a young AAA guy or do we need a dependable, low-ceiling vet?). Regardless, I don’t think Martinez is ready until perhaps 2015. But who knows…maybe he’ll pull a Garcia and force his way into the slot in Spring Training.

Okay…I’m exhausted now…so…enjoy the ST game today…watch out for the State of the Nation podcast this weekend…and as always…

GO CARDS!!!

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