ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The Cardinals’ starting rotation, as it stands in the third week of December, is a list of four names with a question mark at the end.
Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake return, presumably joined by a recovered Lance Lynn and a pitcher to be named later.
Martinez’s sophomore campaign was brilliant, building off of a stellar rookie season, and solidifying himself as one of baseball’s best starters. Beyond him, things become a bit concerning.
Wainwright is 35 entering 2017, and is coming off a forgettable season. After missing almost all of 2015 to a gruesome Achilles tendon tear, Wainwright was hopeful for a positive rebound. He managed 13 wins, but most of them came in ugly fashion. His 4.62 ERA, 102 earned runs, 1.404 WHIP and 22 forfeited home runs were all career highs. Of his 33 starts, he failed to complete six innings 12 times. He only missed that mark seven times in 2013 and 2014 combined.
His name carries enough equity to allow for optimism, but recent history seems to suggest Wainwright’s most productive days are in previous calendars, not the ones to come.
Also in the rear view mirror is Lance Lynn’s Tommy John surgery.
Lynn has been a model of consistency for the Cardinals. In his two seasons prior to requiring Tommy John surgery, Lynn started 62 games, throwing 379 innings. In 2014, he threw over 200 innings and posted an impressive ERA of 2.74. A year later, his ERA would just barely reach more than 3.00. He’s not a perpetual Cy Young candidate, but Lynn is an innings eater the Cardinals will gladly welcome back, especially given his numbers are among the most consistent in baseball season to season. However, the trek back to dependability is ridden with uncertainty.
The answer to Lynn’s 2016 absence was Mike Leake. Unfortunately, Leake is now more of a question entering next season.
Leake finished last year with a bleak 9-12 record, posting an ERA on the doorstep of 5.00. His struggles could be attributed to the pressure of signing a five-year, $80 million contract last offseason, or perhaps to the fact he’s a ground ball pitcher too often let down by subpar defense. With a year in St. Louis under his belt, and hopefully a refined defense at his back, Leake should look more like the pitcher he was in his pre-Cardinal years, the one with a 3.88 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 2.65. If not, the Cardinals will have a difficult time finding alternatives with the trade of Jaime Garcia, and losing Tyler Lyons to Tommy John surgery.
The depth beyond the starting five becomes apparent once the fifth spot is solidified. Nobody has been handed the job just yet.
Michael Wacha has been bothered by nagging shoulder injuries. Alex Reyes is young, but full of promise. Trevor Rosenthal is an experiment in the works.
There are options, at least.
Perhaps the most obvious choice would be Reyes, who dazzled during his debut in the majors last year, lighting up the radar gun. According to Statcast, the fastest pitch thrown last year by any Cardinal was a fastball from Reyes reaching a staggering 101.13 mph. It took him all of one game to do so. Coupling that velocity with a deceptive change and a sharp breaking ball, he sailed from there, boasting a 1.57 ERA in 46 innings while striking out 52. All of this amidst a high-stakes playoff push.
Reyes’ sample size is small, but his Minor League numbers tell a story many Cardinal fans will want to stick around for in 2017.
As for Wacha, his health will dictate his fate. An ERA of 5.09 with a 1.478 WHIP last year certainly won’t encourage Mike Matheny to hand over a starting job with Reyes’ ascension still fresh in his memory. Nonetheless, if Wacha proves healthy and impresses his manager during spring training, is isn’t impossible for him to be named the fifth starter with Reyes coming out of the bullpen, a position the latter thrived in last season.
Finally, there’s Rosenthal.
Once an All-Star closer for the Birds on the Bat, his premier fastball was doomed by woeful inaccuracy last season. With the emergence of Seung-hwan Oh as the team’s “Final Boss,” even if Rosenthal overcomes his command issues, that heater could be all dressed up with nowhere to go. So Rosenthal will enter spring training preparing as a starter, something he’s sought for some time. He is the dark horse at this point, but 100 miles per hour plays just as well in the first as it does in the ninth.
But for all the individual questions, one large one looms. No matter who wins the coveted rotation spot, these are the arms the Cardinals have to work with. Is there a combination that will be enough to contend with the Cubs?
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