When Cardinals starter/bulldog Chris Carpenter announced that he was going to miss the entirety of the 2013 season with shoulder numbness, it put the St. Louis rotation in a temporary state of flux. Not that this state of flux is a bad thing. Actually, it’s quite the contrary. The Cardinals have weathered injuries to key members of their starting rotation before and they appear more prepared than ever to replace their long-time workhorse. A plethora of young, talented, and hard-throwing starting pitchers stand ready to take Carpenter’s place, which should lead to an intriguing battle for the last couple of spots in the Cards’ rotation. The candidates:
Jaime Garcia, 26 years old, left-handed
Garcia is the favorite to win one of the two open rotation spots thanks to his 60 career starts over the last 3 seasons, but that doesn’t mean his inclusion is a forgone conclusion. The left-hander from Mexico struggled with shoulder injuries a year ago and had to be pulled in his first playoff start against the Nationals after just 2 innings of work. Garcia opted for rest and rehab rather than surgery on his rotator cuff, and so far that decision is paying off so far, according to Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who said the lefty looked good in his initial workouts.
Provided that he stays healthy throughout the Spring, Garcia’s experience should be enough to give him a rotation spot. He’s excellent at keeping the ball in the park and on the ground, thanks in part low 90s/upper 80s sinker that barrels down on hitters, forcing them to drive the ball straight into the ground. He has frequently posted a groundball rate of better than 50%, and at his best that rate rockets up above 60%, which makes base hits very hard to come by. Garcia also does an excellent job of limiting walks due to his ability to locate his secondary pitches (a looping curveball, a slider, and a change), and he does a solid job of striking people out. Provided that he’s at full-strength, Jaime Garcia is basically the perfect back-end pitcher. Look for him to start the season in the #4 slot.
Joe Kelly, 25 years old, right-handed
Some of the biggest contributors to a teams year-to-year success are the pitchers who can successfully transition from long relief to spot starting without a hitch. The best teams in baseball are often able to unearth one of these rare gems just as the Cardinals were able to do a year ago with Joe Kelly. The right-hander made 16 starts while coming out of the bullpen 8 times in the regular season and 7 times in the playoffs, for a grand total of 114.2 innings. He acclimated himself very well to the big leagues a year ago and his experience may be his biggest asset. He’s a couple of years older than Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal, and if they want to start both of those pitchers in the minor leagues, Kelly could be the beneficiary.
Much like Garcia, Joe Kelly is a pitcher who predominantly relies on his sinker to get batters out. Kelly posted a ground ball rate of better than 50% a year ago which is about the best evidence he has to remain a starter. The simple reality is that Kelly was much more effective out of the bullpen. As a starter, opponents hit .275 of Kelly while posting a better than league average on-base percentage. Kelly also struck out just 5.8 batters per 9 innings. Compare that to his work out of the pen, where in 15 appearances, Kelly posted a 2.32 ERA while striking out nearly a batter per innings. Barring a breakout performance this spring, Kelly would be best used as the Cardinals’ long reliever, where his arm could stay stretched out enough to make starts in a pinch, should an injury occur.
Shelby Miller, 22 years old, right-handed
Shelby Miller has been groomed for this moment since he was drafted back in the 1st round of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft. He’s been considered a top-50 prospect ever since, peaking as the 9th best Minor Leaguer in the country a year ago, according to Baseball America. But Miller’s rapid ascent through the Minors stalled a bit a year ago as the righty with fluid delivery struggled in Triple-A Memphis, going just 11-10 with a 4.74 ERA. But that doesn’t tell the entire story either. There were actually some big positives in Miller’s performance, specifically his strikeout rate (10.5 per 9 innings) and his 13 inning cameo in St. Louis in September. Miller impressed during rookie call-ups, making 6 appearances and 1 start while striking out 16 batters and allowing just 2 runs.
Miller is one of the most polished pitching prospects in all of baseball, possessing a near-flawless delivery and control far beyond his 22 years of age. He’s still got some tinkering to do with his change-up, a common ailment of pitchers just entering the Majors, but his curveball has good break and it’s usually located well. If Miller is able to meet his large expectations this spring, I fully expect the Cardinals brass to award him with the final rotation spot.
Trevor Rosenthal, 22 years old, right-handed
Rosenthal has always profiled as a high-strikeout pitcher throughout his ascent through the minor leagues, but what he did in last year’s postseason was ridiculous. Rosenthal pitched 8.2 innings against Washington and San Francisco, allowing just 2 hits, 2 walks, and most importantly no runs while striking out a bananas 15 batters. His fastball averages a blazing 97.6 miles per hour, which makes the righty one of the hardest throwers on the planet.
But for all that fastball bravado, Rosenthal hasn’t quite figured out his secondary offerings yet. He was throwing his heater about 80% of the time a season ago, which is an alarming rate, even for a player who throws this hard. Big league hitters will eventually catch up to the heat, which means a good breaking ball is necessary to keep them off-balance. Luckily Rosenthal showed the ability to throw a wipeout curve in last year’s postseason (just ask Bryce Harper about it), and if he can sprinkle that pitch in more often this spring, he could wind up with the 5th spot in the Cards’ rotation. He could also be deployed as a shut-down specialist out of the ‘pen, shutting down threatening innings whenever Mike Matheny sees fit.
If I had to place a bet today, I’d wager that the Cardinals begin the season with Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller at the bottom of the rotation. Joe Kelly is absolutely perfect for the long man/spot starter role, and he could easily throw over 100 innings in that capacity. Trevor Rosenthal is the wild card in play here. He’s shown the potential to be borderline unhittable against quality Major League batters, and if he repeats that performance this March, you’d almost have to hand him a starting role. No matter who comes out on top of this dogfight, it’s bound to be one of the most entertaining battles of the spring, and it’s worth keeping your eye on because one of these starters could be the next big thing in Major League Baseball.