Position Battle: Starting Pitcher #5

With the Cardinals getting into the final two weeks of camp, the final jostling for spots on the roster are beginning to take shape. For the Cardinals they have a handful of positions up for grabs. There’s the fifth spot in the rotation that is up for grabs after Chris Carpenter‘s injury. There’s a bullpen spot or two. There’s a couple spots potentially up for grabs on the bench as well.

Today we’ll look at the fifth spot in the rotation. Many, including myself, believe that this was Shelby Miller‘s spot the moment Carpenter called John Mozeliak back in February and told him he wasn’t going to be able to pitch. I’m sure none of us have forgotten that Miller took a no-hitter into the 6th inning of his starting debut on the final day of the season against the Cincinnati Reds.

Miller has struggled, however. Baseball America’s #6 prospect carries a 7.04 ERA over the 7 2/3 innings that he’s thrown. With 10 hits and 2 walks paired with 8 strikeouts, he’s plainly struggled. His worst outing was his last when he allowed 3 earned runs over 2 2/3 innings. In fact he has progressively gotten worse in each start. That may spell him beginning the season in Memphis to get back into the groove he was in the second half of last year when he was dominating the Pacific Coast League and then came up and did it in the big leagues.

The lone remaining challenger is Joe Kelly. Now that Michael Wacha has been reassigned to minor league camp and Trevor Rosenthal has been officially moved to the bullpen battle, Kelly is fighting Miller for the rotation spot. And he has his opportunity. Last year Kelly was “Mr. Quality Start” for the Cardinals when he got the call. Ten of his sixteen starts were quality starts (6+ innings, 3 or fewer earned runs allowed). Only twice was he tagged with more than 3 earned runs. His lack of going deep in ballgames in his second stint in the Cards rotation can be attributed to Matheny’s development of a quick hook after the acquisition of Edward Mujica in July.

Kelly has taken advantage of his opportunity on the mound this spring. With a 2.25 ERA over his 8 innings of work, Kelly has the best ERA of any pitcher in the race for a rotation spot. He’s allowed 5 hits and 5 walks giving him a 1.25 WHIP, which while buoyed up by those walks is still right there with Jake Westbrook (1.21) and Adam Wainwright (1.22).

If the organization decides to reward the guy who has had the most success in spring training, then you’ll see them going with Joe Kelly. If they decide to go with the first round pick and top prospect, we’ll see Shelby Miller.

While Joe Kelly isn’t flashy, he’s been reliable. Nobody expects him to be the team’s future #1 starter, but he is still a very solid pitcher. After looking at the numbers, I think the team will elect to reward Kelly for his strong spring and give him the spot. Miller will get an opportunity to tune up in Memphis for a couple months until a spot opens up due to injury, which with the questions I have about Jaime Garcia, isn’t likely to be long.

1. Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94 ERA, 199 IP, 32 GS)
2. Lance Lynn (18-7, 3.78 ERA, 199 IP, 29 GS, 35 G)
3. Jake Westbrook (13-11, 3.97 ERA, 175 IP, 28 GS)
4. Jaime Garcia (7-7, 3.92 ERA, 122 IP, 20 GS)
5. Joe Kelly (5-7, 3.53 ERA, 107 IP, 16 GS, 24 G)

That stacks up to be a pretty solid rotation in the end. Wainwright should be back to the Wainwright of old. Westbrook should be able to duplicate or even slightly improve on that performance without much of an issue. Lynn will need to figure out his delivery issues with his new slimmer frame. Garcia will need to prove that his shoulder issues are in the past. And Kelly will need to figure out how to close out the 6th inning and start seeing the 7th with regularity.

Questions yes, but certainly not ones that are definitely going to turn out bad for the Cardinals. We could even be pleasantly surprised.

If these guys fail you have Shelby Miller in Memphis and if it’s later in the year you can maybe take a look at Michael Wacha who, along with Mitchell Boggs (so far), is the only Cardinals’ pitcher who hasn’t been tagged by an earned run yet in spring training. The team’s pitching depth has finally reached the point where it can be a strength and isn’t just that one more year out. And these guys are for real.