COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals' pitching staff lost Chris Carpenter and Jason Motte in the offseason, Jaime Garcia for the rest of the season, and Jake Westbrook for what looks to be a good part of the season -- but four key changes could help the National League's best team navigate what's sure to be a tense march to the All-Star break.
Recondition Joe Kelly as a Starter in Memphis
Joe Kelly hasn't been used since May 18 and seems to be wasted in a bullpen that, as of May 23, has thrown the fewest innings in the National League (116 2/3). In fact, according to MLB.com, only the Kansas City Royals (107 2/3) have thrown fewer innings in all of baseball. Sure, the presence of two rookie left-handers in the St. Louis rotation is bound to see that innings rate increase, but that may be the best reason for positioning Kelly as a replacement starter.
In 2012, Kelly started 16 games for an injury-stricken rotation in St. Louis. His 3.74 ERA as a starter was better than ERAs posted by Jake Westbrook (3.97), Adam Wainwright (3.94) and Jaime Garcia (3.92) for the season. The Cardinals compiled a 7-9 record in Kelly's starts, but the blame for those nine losses can't be laid at the feet of the hard-throwing right-hander. In seven of the nine losses, Joe allowed three earned runs or less. In five, he allowed two or less.
Forced to rely on two untested hurlers from Triple-A, the Cardinals would be smart to turn to a proven starter with major-league experience in a pennant race. But to do that, they have to get Kelly innings -- innings that can be found in Memphis.
Recall Victor Marte from Memphis
Cardinals fans remember Marte as the all-too-hittable right-hander acquired for next to nothing from the Kansas City Royals, but those fans would do well to also remember his strong start to the 2012 season. In 14 innings pitched through May 11, Marte posted a 2.57 ERA and 0.71 WHIP with nine strikeouts while holding opponents to a stingy .146 batting average. Eventually the wheels came off and Marte was jettisoned for more effective pitchers, but his ability was clear -- and it may be reemerging in Memphis.
In his last 10 games (through May 21) pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Marte has thrown 11 1/3 innings for a 1.59 ERA and a floor-stomping 17 strikeouts. During that stretch, he's allowed seven hits -- three of which came on the same night in a one-inning appearance -- and five walks, never issuing more than one walk in any single appearance.
That's reliable production, and more than sufficient to fill a spot potentially vacated by a rarely used Joe Kelly.
Find Randy Choate More Work
The Cardinals' free-agent lefty was signed this past offseason to a three-year, $7.5 million contract. Perhaps the most significant victim of deep starting pitching performances early in the season, his measly 6 1/3 innings of work is actually less than fellow lefty Marc Rzepczynski's eight innings -- the guy who's been in Triple-A for the last month.
And, according to the stats page at ESPN.com, it makes Choate the single most underused lefty with at least four game appearances in any National League bullpen this season.
True, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny doesn't play the matchups as much as his predecessor, Tony La Russa, but Choate's sparse use at this point is bordering on the absurd. Worse yet, there doesn't appear to be a good reason for it.
Despite having a starting rotation with the third-lowest batting average against (BAA) in the National League (.232), Cardinals pitchers on the whole have allowed a .266 BAA when facing left-handed hitters -- bad enough to rank No. 12 out of 15 teams in the National League. Combine that with a National League-worst .282 bullpen BAA, and doesn't it make sense to give Choate a shot?
Sure, he hasn't exactly been stellar in his limited appearances, but Matheny must give him more work to get right. When he's pitching well again, the Cardinals manager can start mixing and matching with a resurrected Mitchell Boggs and recently recalled Victor Marte from the right side.
Limit the Stress on Michael Wacha's Arm
Through nine games started, Wacha is sporting a 4-0 record with a 2.05 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. That ERA is second-best in the PCL -- behind his former rotation mate John Gast (1.16) -- while his WHIP is second best behind Josh Lindblom of the Round Rock Express (0.88).
In defending the decision to keep his premium pitching prospect in Triple-A, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has repeatedly referenced Wacha's major-league service-time clock as well as his need to recondition to the rigors of a professional season pitching every fifth day (instead of the every seventh day schedule he recently followed at Texas A&M). Both reasons are legitimate, but both may soon become irrelevant if the St. Louis club can't stem the tide of starting pitching injuries.
Still, the concerns about Wacha's arm endurance should not be dismissed. The last full season Wacha threw as a starting pitcher in college totaled somewhere in the area of 130 innings. Last season, he threw just over 20 innings as he worked his way through multiple levels of the Cardinals' minor-league system. That's just over 150 innings pitched at multiple levels with a split season and various throwing schedules. Any way you look at it, Wacha's arm is not ready to throw a full innings load for a major-league team.
But developments in the starting rotation may force a Wacha call-up anyway. To prepare for the eventuality, it's time to limit Wacha's Triple-A workload (his 52 2/3 innings pitched is tied for sixth most in the league).
The new "Wacha Rules" should be simple and easy to manage, but targeted at avoiding exhausting, high-intensity starts. Strictly prohibit starts beyond the sixth inning (he's thrown seven innings three times in nine starts), and restrict the right-hander to a pitch count of 85 pitches per start (Wacha is currently averaging just over 90 pitches per start). Six innings or 85 pitches -- whichever comes first.
However they do it, the Cardinals must help Wacha save some of those highly valued bullets for later in the season. Once he's throwing out of the major-league rotation, extending him an inning at a time is a simple matter -- but no amount of wishing will help Wacha recover wasted pitches in May and June when he hits that 150 innings mark in an August and September pennant race.
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).
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