Column: Taking a look at the fifth starter competition

I’m reading a lot this morning about “who will take Alex Reyes’ spot as the Cardinals’ fifth starter” this season. A lot of that is predicated on the question of whether Reyes actually had a shot at being the fifth starter. Sure, you have GM John Mozeliak saying Reyes was in the fifth starter competition. He said the same in 2014 about Carlos Martinez as well, but despite Martinez posting a 2.81 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, the spot went to Joe Kelly who posted a 6.28 ERA on a 1.60 WHIP.

Spring training and opening day roster decisions are mostly driven by one thing: the path of least resistance.

That’s why the job is Michael Wacha’s to lose. It always has been. In fact, I’m pretty comfortable saying that, unless Wacha or another starting pitcher ahead of him on the depth chart is injured over the next month and a half, Wacha will head to St. Louis to open the season as the Cardinals’ fifth starter. And that’s okay.

Wacha, 25, is just a year removed from a season where he posted a 3.38 ERA, won 17 games, and was an All Star. His results dropped heavily last season while he struggled with a recurrence of his stress injury, but he didn’t fall that far off the mark he set in 2015.

In 2015, Wacha allowed 8.0 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 7.6 K/9. In 2016, the only number that substantively changed was H/9, it jumped to 10.4 H/9.

Last season I wrote a column about how one or two plays not being made in the field during a game was the difference for Mike Leake between putting together a career year and one of the worst of his career. So there seems to be a hint that Wacha’s struggles on the mound can be partially attributed to a struggling defense as well.

His fielding independent pitching metrics seem to back that up. His FIP went from 3.87 in 2015 to 3.91 in 2016. His xFIP went from 3.88 to 4.05. His SIERA went from 4.02 to 4.31. So while his performance did fall off from 2015, it was not nearly as marked as his results would suggest.

He induced more ground balls last year than ever before, but that was offset by an increase in line drives. Opponents pulled his pitches more than ever, by quite a large margin. And he had a harder time getting soft contact, most of which only moved to medium contact, but that can still explain at least some of the H/9 increase Wacha saw.

For Wacha, the only real question is whether he can stay healthy and be a threat to throw 200 innings.
Outside of Wacha, if you want to entertain the concept that this is actually a competition, the most “legitimate” candidate is Trevor Rosenthal.

I still consider Rosenthal to be an exceptionally long shot to end up in the rotation. He was once a starter, posting a 2.78 ERA over 17 starts in Double-A Springfield in 2012. But the Cardinals ended up moving him to the bullpen, where he eventually became the team’s closer. However, after losing his closing job to Seung-hwan Oh last season, Rosenthal has been preparing for another shot at starting and the club appears to be humoring him.

The list of guys who established themselves in the bullpen and then transitioned to successful starter is exceptionally short. Braden Looper did it in 2007, posting a 4.94 ERA over 30 starts. Looper would stick, but only played two more seasons before retiring at 35. Kyle McClellan tried it in 2011, posting a 4.15 ERA over 18 games as a starter before being replaced by Edwin Jackson. McClellan returned to the bullpen the next year and then was injured. Neither were likely what you would call successful.

For Rosenthal there are a number of questions, not the least of which is what kind of innings limitations he would need to be on and what that would mean for the rest of the roster. Are his secondary pitches polished enough to handle starting? Is he going to be able to throw strikes? Is it worth the injury risk to transition him?

After Rosenthal, you have prospects. Guys like Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, and Marco Gonzales. And while we call them depth, their usefulness is pretty limited right now while they either need more refinement or, in Gonzales case, time to return from injury.

Weaver, 23, dominated Double-A Springfield before receiving a late season promotion to the big leagues. He struggled upon arrival though, posting a 5.70 ERA over 36 innings of work, including 8 starts. He still needs more experience before he’s ready to contribute regularly in the big leagues.

Gomber, 23, has been a dominant force in the minors over the last few years, holding a 2.62 ERA over 54 starts, topping out in Springfield at the end of last season. So Gomber still has a ways to go, with the jump from Single-A to Double-A being considered the hardest in the minors, but Mozeliak speaks highly of him and called him the top guy on the depth chart as far as left handed pitchers in the Cardinals’ minor league system. That said, Gomber doesn’t get much love from prospect raters. MLB.com has him #18 in the Cardinals’ system, just the ninth highest pitcher.

Gonzales, 25 (and Happy Birthday), like Wacha, made a quick rise through the Cardinals’ system and made his debut less than a year after he was drafted. His results were steady, but not great, and seemed to be ticketed for a bullpen spot last spring according to Mozeliak. However, an injury and eventual Tommy John surgery would derail his season. He is just 10 months out from his surgery, so he still has some time before he’s truly ready to see game action.

But none of that matters. Because Michael Wacha is and was already the Cardinals’ fifth starter.