The Memphis Rotation and ZiPS

At what moment did you decide you would never again put something past Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan? I'd always said it, I think, but it finally hit me that it was actually true, instead of a funny joke, when they decided to make Braden Looper, who had never made a professional start, into a starter. Now they've turned Skip Schumaker into a second baseman and attempted to rehabilitate Mark McGwire in consecutive offseasons. 

But what I am trying to get at is that in spite of all of this uncertainty, I expect the following pitchers to spend at least some time in Memphis in 2010. Garcia aside—and I still would be surprised to see him start the year in St. Louis, given the Cardinals' reluctant approach to young starting pitchers—they are the second line of reinforcements. As useful as they may be, these are the guys the Cardinals are trying to avoid playing. They are... the Memphis rotation. 

Jaime Garcia

YR League W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO
2009 AAA 2 0 3.86 4 4 21.0 17 9 5 9 22
2010 ZiPS 4 4 4.75 16 12 66.1 69 35 8 30 51

That's the Cardinals' top fifth starter line via ZiPS, and it's also a fine projection for a pitcher who made 19 starts in 2008, nearly all of them in the minor leagues, and then missed the vast majority of 2009. But at an ERA+ of 90 it's also not an extremely exciting first choice for 2010's rotation.

I get the feeling Garcia can and will beat that projection in terms of inning-to-inning quality, given the way he performed both before and after his arm injury; he's seemed ready to post a 4.75 ERA since he was 19. But expecting both a breakout and a full season from the rookie fifth starter is pushing it.

 

Lance Lynn

YR League W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO
2009 A+/AA/AAA 11 4 2.85 28 25 148.2 138 47 5 57 124
2010 ZiPS 5 7 4.85 28 23 118.2 124 64 14 55 77

The best of the Cardinals' seemingly endless supply of and appetite for low-upside college right-handers, Lynn pushed his way into Memphis as a new-and-improved version of Adam Ottavino, striking out a generous-but-not-striking number of hitters but doing it with command that was less Chris Perez and more Jess Todd.

Unlike Garcia's fair-but-not-exciting projection, this one seems exactly right to me—Lynn is a low-upside pitcher to begin with, and turning in a bad Jeff Suppan season seems about right if he were to get called up this year and stuck. It's not great, but if enough of these guys turn out you don't have to look for Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse to fill out the rotation.

 

Rich Hill

YR League W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO
2009 MLB 3 3 7.80 14 13 57.2 68 50 7 40 46
2010 ZiPS 5 6 4.92 20 20 93.1 92 51 11 54 76

ZiPS, of course, doesn't know he just had shoulder surgery, but it probably realizes something was up. Hill might not have anything left, but look at what comes before and after him—there's neither enough supply nor constrained-enough demand in Memphis for Hill to be blocking anybody. If somebody like Scott Gorgen starts vaporizing hitters in AA into June and Rich Hill is still scuffling and no other movement has happened between AAA and the majors... that's a pretty good worst-case scenario.

There's no risk, but you can only have so many of these guys—the Cardinals have chosen Hill, who seems like a good choice, and Zink, who I wouldn't have been able to resist, either.

 

P.J. Walters

YR League W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO
2009 AAA 8 10 4.54
21 20 121.0 128 61 6 44 113
2010 ZiPS 4 6
5.26 20 15 87.1 97 51
13 37 64

Walters got killed relative to his peripherals in AAA—that FIP is 3.07—and just plain killed in his brief Major League stint, but ZiPS is by no means a believer in the soft-tosser of first resort. The six home runs in 16 MLB innings probably did not help matters. But what makes this most difficult to stomach is that a guy like P.J. Walters is forecast to get knocked around to the tune of a 5.26 ERA... but the Cardinals still brought Todd Wellemeyer out for 21 starts at a 5.89 ERA. Once a guy dives below replacement level, it isn't a bad idea to replace him. 

 

Charlie Zink

YR League W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO
2009 AAA 6 15 5.59
27 23 135.1 134 84 10 93 47
2010 ZiPS 8 12
5.49 27 25 142.2 162 87
15 70 53

I guess this is a positive projection after a nightmare like 2009—that ZiPS can see past that year (in the more pitcher-friendly AAA league, no less) and predict that he'll do basically the same thing in the National League is half a credit to Zink's excellent 2008 and half a realization that it's difficult to pitch any worse than he did last year.

Zink could do anything in 2010, although odds are good that he won't do it anywhere near the Major Leagues. But I remain on the push-him-into-the-bullpen bandwagon. If there's so little reason to be certain about his true talent level, why put him in a situation where he pitches once every five days and is expected to go six or seven innings at a time? With Hill in the fold Zink is likely pushed out of the rotation anyway, since space needs to be opened up for...

 

Adam Ottavino

YR League W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO
2009 AAA 7 12 4.75
27 27 144.0 141 76 12 82 119
2010 ZiPS 5 11
5.81 27 27 131.2 151 85
17 83 87

ZiPS doesn't much like Ottavino, and to be honest I'm not sure why it should. We're all aware, at this point, of his physical gifts, but keep in mind that his walks per nine were closer to Charlie Zink, a knuckleball pitcher in full meltdown, than they were to, say, Mitchell Boggs's. Ottavino's strikeout rate isn't bad, but he doesn't strike out enough batters to do the Wild Thing thing, at least as a starter.

The Cardinals pushed Ottavino aggressively last year, just as they did fellow first-rounder Pete Kozma, and to be honest I'm not sure they got anything new out of it. In both cases the player's flaws were magnified and his skills shadowed by the struggle. Ottavino held his own in Memphis, which is better than Kozma managed in Springfield, but "his own" right now isn't going to get him in to the Major Leagues.

This isn't a terrible group of minor league starters, but that is, for the most part, what they are. I like who the Cardinals have lined up to pitch in St. Louis, but I worry they're still one short.

#

Programming notes:

  1. The rest of the Cardinals' ZiPS projections, which I'll probably talk more about tomorrow, can be found here.
  2. I'll be appearing on KMOX's Sports Open Line with Kevin Wheeler tomorrow night at some point between six and eight. If you're in the KMOX listening area and want to hear (spoiler alert—it's prerecorded) more of the same things we've talked about on this blog for the last several months, you're welcome to give it a listen.
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