COMMENTARY | Chris Carpenter's comeback bid was publicized as a bullpen revitalization plan, but recent news, history and player trends beg to differ.
As Rick Hummel writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Carpenter's bullpen sessions more closely resemble the workload of a starter preparing to make his first spring training start -- not the program for an eventual relief pitcher.
The ace had previously eschewed any sort of plan, opting instead to focus on the next side session in front of him. Such a see-how-it-goes approach certainly left open the possibility of Carpenter coming to the rescue of a Cardinals bullpen in flux, and considering the utter dominance of the St. Louis rotation thus far, the idea had merit.
Sure, Carpenter is perhaps the most successful starting pitcher in the Cardinals' organization since The Curse of the Bambino was alive and well in Boston, but why mess with success by splitting up a starting five carving up National League opponents?
But then Jake Westbrook's elbow flared up, and the ground-ball machine with a 1.62 ERA through six games found himself grounded and on the disabled list for the next two starts.
The St. Louis starting five seems to be human after all, and Chris Carpenter appears to be on a very clear plan indeed.
Arm injuries for pitchers can be difficult to predict, as the Cardinals are well aware. Kyle Lohse experienced discomfort in his forearm a few seasons back. The result was a rare and mysterious forearm surgery. Adam Wainwright's elbow flared up two years ago. Tommy John surgery soon followed. Jamie Garcia's shoulder started misbehaving in 2012. Weeks later he was making an early exit from a critical postseason start. Jason Motte's elbow -- well, you get the point.
The Cardinals' front office expects Westbrook to miss an insignificant number of starts after a tiny little injection. Of course, the expectations of the Cardinals' medical staff appear historically better suited to fortune cookie inserts than actual sports medicine -- vague and overly optimistic. Either way, it's more than likely that Westbrook's elbow issue pops up again. Not ideal for a pitcher hoping to earn a team option for $9.5 million in 2014.
High Mileage Arms
And then there's the high pitch count being amassed by the Cardinals' starting pitchers. As Bernie Miklasz points out in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the workload on those premium arms is significant. Partly to blame for the innings explosion, the Cards' bullpen appears to be reconfigured and finally ready to start lending a hand, but the bigger issue seems to be the rotation's own effectiveness.
How do you pull a starting pitcher throwing six innings of shutout ball in May because his arm might get tired in August?
The National League Central has the makings of a late-season brawl between the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. Every win counts, and the inclusion of a second wild-card team and the subsequent wild-card play-in game places a high value on winning the division. That leaves Cardinals manager Mike Matheny in the precarious position of sticking with the league's best starting rotation as long as they show themselves to be effective.
Such heavy use in April, May and June is going to demand a stiff bill come July, August and September.
Lance Lynn got off to an amazing start to the 2012 season, his first full year in a big-league rotation, and earned his first All-Star game selection. But the rigors of pitching every fifth day at the major-league level eventually took their toll.
According to MLB.com, Lynn's ERA steadily rose from 1.33 in April to 3.44 in May and 5.67 in June. After a scoreless appearance just before the All-Star break on July 5, Lynn took advantage of the days off in Kansas City to recharge and post two straight impressive starts. But in his final start of July, he allowed 6 earned runs (ER) in just five innings. It was the beginning of decline for the fatigued pitcher.
The innings load, high-stress appearances on the mound, and perhaps a few conditioning issues resulted in Lynn's worst month of the season in August -- a 6.66 ERA and eventual reassignment to the bullpen. He would recover and return to the rotation in September, but the lesson was clear. Young starting pitchers adjusting to the demands of a 162-game season for the first time are at high risk for sharp decline late in the year.
Lynn's offseason workout changes produced a slimmer, fitter pitcher for 2013, changes aimed at helping the second-year starter stick in the rotation for a full season. But no one really knows for sure what impact such radical body-type changes will have in August and September. And Lynn is not the only young pitcher in question.
Shelby Miller -- rookie phenom with a 1.40 ERA and 57 strikeouts through mid-May-has already thrown 51 1/3 innings. That number is more than a third of his 150 1/3 total innings thrown last season. At this rate, he'll surpass the 150 innings mark sometime in late August or early September while throwing more high-stress innings than the majority of those thrown in Triple-A Memphis last year. If fatigue is coming for the young fireballer, it will likely pop up sometime in early to mid-August -- just like Lynn in 2012.
Working Itself Out
One old adage in baseball says, "You can never have enough pitching." Perhaps related, another says, "These things have a way of working themselves out." Considering the potential for fatigue and persistent injury in the Cardinals' rotation, both statements seem poised to prove true for Chris Carpenter and Redbirds pitchers in 2013.
With high pitch counts, young arms, a nagging elbow, and even the likelihood of a Jaime Garcia shoulder injury reoccurrence, the chances of Chris Carpenter sliding into a rotation spot by July 31 seem to be steadily improving.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
- Sports & Recreation
- Chris Carpenter
- Jake Westbrook