Around the Horn: Rotation an excess of riches
Cards' surplus of talented starters should create interesting spring competition
This is the fifth of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into next season. The catchers, corner infielders, middle infielders and outfielders have already been discussed in previous editions. Up next: the rotation.
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals won't talk much about their pitching excess, as they have seen in recent years how quickly that luxury has morphed into a necessity. But be sure that the Cards are the envy of many as they go into Spring Training with more proven Major League starters than the club has open rotation spots.
What that should foster over the next two months is a rotation competition that will capture plenty of attention in Jupiter, Fla. Just consider the credentials of the candidates:
Adam Wainwright: National League Cy Young Award runnerup who led all pitchers in innings (241 2/3) while posting a 2.94 ERA and winning 19 games.
Jaime Garcia: Left-hander who is again healthy after undergoing left shoulder surgery and enters the season having had a sub-4.00 ERA in each of his last four seasons.
Lance Lynn: Along with Wainwright, leads all NL pitchers with 33 wins over the last two seasons, and one of two Cardinals pitchers to log 200 innings in 2013.
Shelby Miller: Finalist for the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Award after winning 15 games and posting a 3.06 ERA in 31 starts as a first-time member of the rotation.
Michael Wacha: Reigning MVP of the NL Championship Series who ended the regular season with a near no-hitter and then won his first four postseason starts.
Joe Kelly: A 10-game winner in 2013 after stepping into the rotation midseason and stabilizing the unit during its most tumultuous time.
That list does not even include the hard-throwing Carlos Martinez or lefty Tyler Lyons, both of whom would likely crack rotations in other organizations. Trevor Rosenthal has been taken out of the mix so that he can fill the closer's role.
"It's unbelievable our team right now, unbelievable arms," Wacha said. "It's going to be a competition throughout Spring Training."
All this starting pitching talent means there are tough decisions ahead for the Cardinals, who have remained noncommittal when asked about their rotation projections. Clearly, Wainwright has a spot atop the rotation, where he'll remain ace and should again draw the Opening Day start.
Garcia is all but a lock, too, assuming that he proves himself entirely recovered from shoulder surgery. He had the benefit of having just progressed through a normal offseason program, something made possible by the fact that his surgery rehab wrapped up right around the time the World Series did.
The Cardinals, who had only 11 starts from a left-hander after Garcia went down in May, would like to have one southpaw pitch every fifth day.
Wacha made his case for inclusion last October, when he captivated the nation's attention by thriving on baseball's biggest stage. He hit his stride the final week of the regular season and then allowed a total of three earned runs in his first four postseason starts (27 innings). It wasn't until his fifth playoff outing that Wacha was beat.
While his regular-season resume lacks the length of these other starting candidates, it's hard to envision the Cardinals not opening the season with the 22-year-old as part of the rotation.
Keeping Lynn in the mix would give the Cardinals a workhorse in a rotation that will include some pitchers whose innings count will still be monitored. While his effectiveness has dipped in the second half of the both the 2012 and '13 seasons, the overall results nevertheless warrant Lynn's stay in the rotation.
Miller, too, would seem to have done nothing to lose his grip on a place in this rotation. Despite his surprising postseason absence, Miller was as good as advertised in his rookie season. He has nothing to prove by going back to the Minors and does not seem a natural fit in the bullpen. With the right-hander now free of workload concerns, he can press toward pitching 200 innings.
"A mark for me this year would be 200 innings-plus, if everything goes right," Miller said. "This year, I think one of my biggest goals and something I want to do a lot better [at] is go deeper into ballgames. The deeper you go, the better chance you have to win and the better it is for the bullpen."
While Kelly was key in helping stabilize the Redbirds' rotation midseason in 2013, his versatility could actually work against him in this rotation competition. He has shown value in a relief role, and the Cardinals could opt to move him back to the bullpen if there is not space among the starting five.
Kelly has, however, expressed an interest in starting, and a year after he lost a Spring Training competition for a rotation spot, he'll arrive at camp with something still to prove.
"Anything I've done in the past, I don't look at it," Kelly said. "I don't even remember really what I did in the World Series. ... It's not like I'm going to say I've earned anything. I'm going to go out there and keep pitching and do what I can, then see what kind of decision they make."
Martinez is among the organization's most promising young pitchers, but his placement could end up entirely out of his control. With six proven starters positioned ahead of him, Martinez seems a long shot to crack the Opening Day rotation. Of course, the Cardinals have dealt with a significant injury to a key starting pitcher each of the last three Spring Trainings, so circumstances can quickly change.
If Martinez does not earn a starting job, he would seem a natural fit in the bullpen. It would be similar to the situation last spring with Rosenthal, who was moved out of the spring rotation competition to find his fit as a late-inning reliever.
Using Martinez in relief for another season (or part of one) would not pigeonhole him into a long-term bullpen role. It would, however, allow him to continue to be a weapon at the Major League level while biding his time as a future starter.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.