I understand why McClellan has gotten press as a future starter from the moment he was converted into a reliever, but the reasons seem to me to be less predictive than evocative. McClellan looks like a starter; he's tall and none of the four pitches he throws is a 95 mph fastball and he's never looked too good to be a starter. His first two years in the bullpen, put together, make him look like a fifth starter, albeit with third starter upside—142 innings, 110 strikeouts, 60 walks, a 6-11 record with an ERA of 3.73. (I imagine that guy, for what it's worth, making an All-Star appearance for an expansion team.)
But a reliever's peripherals not being too good to imagine him starting is no reason to actually make him start. McClellan's three seasons as a starter in the low minors were marked with impressively low strikeout rates—5.9 per nine innings in 12 starts in the rookie-level Appalachian League, for instance, where the average strikeout rate was almost eight. Even when he put together his great 2007 in relief he just missed a strikeout an inning; he was the rare command-centric relief prospect, yet another reason why it's so easy to see him as something other than a relief prospect.
I'm worried about this not because McClellan needs to be a strikeout pitcher—in St. Louis it's probably proved advantageous that he isn't—but because "contact pitchers" in the Major Leagues aren't always or even often contact pitchers in the minors. Jeff Suppan struck out 8.3 per nine innings in his minor league career; Kyle Lohse 6.9 despite being rushed to a Pete Kozma-style AA debut at 21. Jake Westbrook is a nice counter-example; he ground-balled his way to a career K/9 rate of 5.3 in the minor leagues, which has become 5.0 in the majors.
If you look at pitchers of the last five years with a league-averagish strikeout rate—defined here, very roughly, as somewhere between six (slightly below average) and seven (above it), their average K/9 in the minors was about eight. (Is anyone else stunned that Dave Bush's minor league K/9 is 8.4?) McClellan-the-starter was never a prospect; McClellan-the-reliever was and is.
Lance Lynn has a lot of question marks that are glossed over, now, by a hot second half, a new fastball, and the excitement that comes with a prospect who has the chance of breaking camp with the Cardinals. But McClellan's case as a starter who's better than Lynn seems, at the very least, not strong enough to compensate for his value as a reliever. Given their minor league careers I'm not sure there's a case at all.
Programming note—If you can't get enough of me talking without notes about things we talk about every day I'll be appearing in a prerecorded capacity on Fox Sports Radio 1340 AM out of New Mexico. If you don't have one of those ridiculous long-distance radios they advertise on Coast to Coast AM late at night you can stream it live here, around 10 AM.
Try to forgive me re: the part where I convince myself, dreamily, that Kyle Lohse is the Cardinals' fifth starter instead of the fourth and briefly forget Jake Westbrook exists.