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Should Joe Kelly Start Over Tyler Lyons?

Tyler Lyons' Recent Struggles Should Open Door for Return to Rotation for Joe Kelly

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COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation has been the talk of Major League Baseball with a 2.93 ERA through June 20, but manager Mike Matheny's starting five is starting to show a few cracks. Starter-turned-reliever Joe Kelly could be just what the Redbirds need to patch the holes.

In 19 games since June 1, seven different Cardinals starters have been touched for 51 earned runs. Twenty-six of those runs were allowed by two pitchers in six starts -- Lance Lynn and Tyler Lyons. Lynn has an All-Star track record and, quite honestly, can be forgiven for allowing four runs against the slugging Reds and seven runs in a match-up with the Miami Marlins that felt like a doctored-ball game in Japan. In other words, he's not going anywhere.

Tyler Lyons, on the other hand, looks like he's developed a craving for Memphis barbecue.

The southpaw promoted when fellow lefty John Gast hit the disabled list threw two outstanding starts in his major league debut, allowing just two earned runs in 14 innings pitched in late May. He's allowed 14 earned runs in 17 innings pitched since.

Of course, those two starts in May were thrown against the struggling San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals. By comparison, the last three starts have come against the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, NL Central division champion Cincinnati Reds, and a Marlins team recently rejuvenated by the return of Giancarlo Stanton.

So it's possible the regression is not all Lyons' fault. After all, better-hitting lineups are bound to score more runs off rookie starting pitchers, right? Unfortunately for Lyons, his next two starts aren't getting any easier.

The Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics are locked in a battle atop the offense-heavy American League West. Both are contenders. Both made the playoffs in 2012. And both are running headlong at Tyler Lyons' spot in the rotation.

And if he survives that gauntlet, it's off to L.A. for a date with Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Kind of feels like bringing a knife to a gunfight, doesn't it?

Time For a Change

Born in Texas and educated in Oklahoma, Lyons' minor league career was nothing to write home about. Since starting his professional career in 2011, he's never won more than nine games in a season and only broken the 4.00 ERA barrier once in a half season in Double-A Springfield when he threw for a 3.92 ERA in 64 1/3 innings. He's not a bad pitcher by any means, but he's nothing special either.

In 2013, two rookie starters -- Shelby Miller and John Gast -- were promoted before Lyons. Two more in Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez were called on to rescue the bullpen, the latter making the jump from Double-A directly to the majors. And second-year pitcher Joe Kelly was given a long look in the rotation in spring training.

Tyler Lyons, in the meantime, remained in Memphis compiling a pedestrian 2-1 record and a 4.47 ERA while opposing hitters knocked him around for a .301 batting average.

To be blunt, he just did not merit a call-up. In fact, many would argue that had the need for a promotion occurred later in the season -- or if the bullpen had never needed rescuing -- Maness, Martinez, Joe Kelly and even uber-prospect Michael Wacha would have all gotten a shot to start before Lyons. If you're keeping count, that makes Tyler Lyons Plan G at best.

But the need for a starter, and the expectation that then-injured starter Jake Westbrook would soon be back, led the club to go with the Memphis hurler on-schedule to pitch. Lyons got his chance and pitched well for two straight games, but his last three appearances seem to suggest reality is finally catching up to him.

It's time to send Lyons back to Memphis -- or the bullpen -- and give long-reliever Joe Kelly a chance to pitch.

Joe Kelly, Ferrari or Junker?

In 2012 Kelly, a starter in Triple-A Memphis when the season began, was called up to make 16 starts for the Cardinals. He threw 91 1/3 innings for a 3.74 ERA and 10 quality starts. In one start in 2013, despite being conditioned as a reliever, Kelly threw 5 2/3 innings, gave up four hits, one walk and one earned run.

And yet the right-hander with the 95 mph fastball is mired in a bullpen that doesn't know how to use him.

Once calling him a Ferrari in the pen, Mike Matheny has used Kelly in just 19 games in relief for a 5.91 ERA and a 1.78 WHIP. Among National League right-handed relief pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, only five pitchers have appeared in fewer games and all five have thrown more innings than Joe's 21 1/3. Fifty-three pitchers in that same list have appeared in 20 games or more.

It seems Matheny got it wrong. In the rotation, Kelly might very well become the Ferrari the Cardinals manager envisioned earlier in the season. But in the bullpen, he looks more like a broken-down junker rusting in the backyard from misuse.

He needs to start, and Tyler Lyons appears ready to let him.

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Stl 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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