If you've been keeping track... well, it probably wasn't any help. As Smoltz faded from view near the end of the offseason I assumed Jaime Garcia was atop the fifth starter race by default. Then Rich Hill signed a minor league deal and it seemed like it was a race. Then—and this is the part that threw me off—Duncan and La Russa began to talk up Kyle McClellan in the same predestined way they had once talked up Skip Schumaker. For some time it appears to be a two-man race that does not involve Jaime Garcia at all.
And now, if you believe Joe Strauss, he has just about won the job. If you were to make a Cardinals Positional Battle flowchart, as is popular on the internet, it would be impossible to navigate; there would be arrows that don't lead anywhere, boxes piled on top of boxes, inexplicable items labeled "hit the pitcher eighth?" and "can Skip play there?" and "Gallego!" It would look like the back of an audiophile's entertainment center.
But however they arrived at this tentative conclusion—Rich Hill certainly forced his hand, but the team just seemed to lose interest in either the thought of Kyle McClellan starting or the thought of the bullpen not having Kyle McClellan in it—it's an exciting one for these Cardinals. Somewhere the ghost of Anthony Reyes is smiling down on the proceedings. Somewhere Alan Benes is having his prosthetic right arm fitted with a celebratory homegrown starter patch.
Jaime Garcia succeeding in the rotation in 2010 leaves the Cardinals better off in multiple ways. For one thing, Kyle McClellan is probably a better bet at helping the Cardinals in relief in 2010 than, say, Adam Ottavino.
Certainly it's a shame that the Cardinals won't get a chance to see if McClellan can be a valuable starter at the back of a rotation; that's a position for which the Cardinals have spent several million a year in the last several years, from Brett Tomko and Kip Wells to Brad Penny, and the regrettable Braden Looper deal aside (at least the first year of it) the Cardinals have valued set-up guys at a justifiably lower rate. If a good set-up man can turn into a decent starter the Cardinals can pocket the difference.
But given the current makeup of the team, this is probably the best look they can muster. Relievers are extremely volatile year-to-year, and breakouts can occur at any time, but the one guy who looked ready to do it is in AAA camp. In the meantime, Ryan Franklin has been Ryan Franklin, Jason Motte has—stop me if you've heard this one—had decent peripherals but terrible results, and Blake Hawksworth has apparently found a place in the bullpen from which the Hawk Signal is invisible. The Cardinals could use Kyle McClellan in a situation like this, even after accounting for the risk that Dan'n'Al stand for a third consecutive year in unexplainable awe of his ability to be pretty-good.
Ideally the Cardinals could use every potentially average starter in the rotation; but since they cannot, and only one of the two people now in this race, so far as I know, can be a right-handed reliever, this is the right way to use their resources in 2010.
But the difference between establishing McClellan in the rotation and establishing Garcia in the rotation is Jaime's ceiling—he is the proverbial number three starter, and for the privilege of having a proverbial number three starter the Cardinals recently spent $41 million. This year Garcia gets the Cardinals off the Todd Wellemeyer treadmill; next year he saves them the money that could be spent, pre-Holliday, on guys like Brad Penny.
Whatever happens, I must say it's fun to see the roster finally firming up. Spring Training is great, and I enjoy watching the guys I know as lines in box scores; if the Cardinals aired all their minor league games on TV I'd be just about out of free time. But eventually I just want to see the St. Louis Cardinals, playing games that count in the standings. However Garcia/McClellan and Craig/Mather/Stavinoha end up, it will be great to see them end.