I continue to look at the ZiPS projections on a daily basis. The most recent item on my mind from watching has been the "sixth" starter role. The Cardinals rotation is filled with players who have a rough injury history and there's likely at some point going to be a need for someone from AAA to step up and fill in. Chris Carpenter has had shoulder/elbow surgeries, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia are both Tommy John patients and Kyle Lohse had the suckitis in his forearm, which has allegedly been excised now.
Needless to say, it's a group that has a tenuous health record. So who steps up in case of an injury during 2011?
The first name to appear on the ZiPS projection is Augenstein and that is not particularly inspiring. The Cardinals grabbed Augenstein from the Diamondbacks after he threw 120 innings last year in AAA. His minor league statistics are surprisingly good (FIPs averaging below 3.50 during 2009 & 2010 in AA/AAA) as a player who is short on stuff but has very good command. Augenstein may be fine as a depth pitcher but there's a fear of the unknown for me with him. His inclusion in ZiPS as our next best option is worrisome. His inclusion in ZiPS as a better option than Lohse is perhaps more worrisome.
Lance Lynn would be the first name I'd expect to here from VEB if I ran a poll. He was drafted in 2008 as a fast mover. He's certainly climbed the system rapidly pitching in AAA the year after he was drafted and then spending an entire season there again last year. His performance in AAA last year was uninspiring as he was bitten by a HR bug and struggled through the early part of the season with his command. Lynn's supporters will point towards the latter half of the year as an indication that he figured things out and is capable of being a back of the rotation kind of starter. I've watch several games of video of Lynn and remain unimpressed by his stuff. The main qualm I had, however, was with his two seam fastball and if there's one thing this org should be able to fix, it's that. ZiPS projects Lynn to be about 1 wins above replacement over 100 innings.
We've seen Walters in the majors for two years running now. He got three starts in 2010 and pitched in four more games as a reliever. His numbers were a little better than in 2009 but he's never seemed to be able to hold it together for a full start in my estimation. His stuff is always the primary complaint since he has an fringe average fastball, some average breaking pitches, a plus changeup and average command. He struggles to put away hitters and I'm not sure I see that ever changing. I've always likened him to Yusmeiro Petit whose minor league pedigree and stuff never translated to the majors in a substantial kind of way.
ZiPS also has some other minor leaguers on their projections:
- Adam Ottavino clocks in next with a 5.28 ERA. The 2006 first round draft pick struggled with some shoulder problems last year and never seemed fully in control of the game when he was on the mound. While I've got a soft spot for his fastball/slider combo, I'd rather see it in the pen moving forward.
- Brandon Dickson is underrated in my estimation relative to his peers in these groups. He's not a common name among Cardinals fans despite better than Lance Lynn in 2010 and just a shade worse in 2009. ZiPS has him as a 5.28 ERA pitcher as well. My opinion of him changes frequently -- his stuff is thoroughly average but his minor league stats are very good with a strong groundball percentage.
- David Kopp is projected for a 5.54 ERA. Plagued by injuries despite being regarded by many as having clean mechanics, Kopp pitched through some minor aches in 2010 to spend his first full season on the mound. He's been described to me as a contact pitcher but he's got a strikeout pitcher's fastball. His stuff is ahead of his feel for the game in my opinion and he's likely slated to begin 2011 in Memphis. If he shows up in the bigs, he's either performed very well or things have gone horribly wrong for the organization.
After going through the list, I can't say I feel great about our depth at starting pitcher. Augenstein, Lynn and Walters have all spent plenty of time in AAA and the majors but none of them inspire confidence in me. Ottavino's injuries, Dickson's tepid repertoire and Kopp's inexperience are worrisome as well. I'd like to see the Cardinals add another pitcher from the free agent pool for depth.
Jeff Francis,Justin Duchsherer and Brian Bannister all appear available and decent stop gaps should the need arise. Bannister is the weakest candidate of those three but he's a very cerebral pitcher and there's a part of me that thinks he'd be a good fit with Duncan and his super secret starting pitcher recipe. Brad Penny also remains available and might be an interesting candidate to switch between the bullpen and the rotation. Though if we're going to have that conversation, I might as well pen the Post-Dispatch's yearly "Kyle McClellan: Starter or Reliever?" article now. (They can run that article on Feb. 17th one day after they run the article on how Lance Berkman is in the best shape of his life.)
I'll take the Cardinals starting five over any other rotation in the NL Central. I'll take our top three against the Brewers top three as well. What I won't take is our pitchers to stay healthy for the full year and then I think the Cardinals rotation could get ugly in a hurry.
*Note: The FIPs are lower than they otherwise would be as I did not try to include HBP or differentiate between IBB & BB. 5.50 is a decent starting place for replacement level FIP among starting pitchers but I'd adjust that down in this instance to something closer to 5.25.