Writers Roundtable: The Cases for the No. 5 Starter Candidates

Eileen Blass-USA TODAY

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BGH NOTE: This is the first installment of a new feature here at VEB: The Writers Roundtable. In this recurring series, a handful of VEB writers will discuss an issue with each arguing a different position.

On Saturday, St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak announced that starter Jaime Garcia was experiencing issues with his throwing shoulder and would be heading back to St. Louis for an examination as a result. Garcia's shoulder problems have had the ripple effect of winnowing down those pitchers who might win the No. 5 starter spot during spring training. Barring injury, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha are locks to break camp as members of the starting rotation. Three players will vie for the remaining rotation spot: Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez, and Tyler Lyons.

Today's Roundtable Question:

What is the case for each candidate to be named the Cardinals' fifth starter?

Fourstick: Tyler Lyons

The case for Tyler Lyons comes down to one word: reliability. He’s never missed a start in his minor league career, he’s eaten up innings at every stop in the minors, and his rate stats at AAA are indicative of someone who would be battling it out for 3rd or 4th starter role in an organization not so stacked with top level pitching.

Look at these two sets of peripherals from AAA and ask yourself who you’d rather have as your fifth starter coming out of spring camp:

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

GB%

K/BB

ERA

FIP

SIERA

32

31

188.2

.300

68.9

22.8

4.8

45.2

4.73

3.72

3.08

3.23

12

12

72.1

.322

73.1

15.1

7.0

53.3

2.14

2.86

3.35

4.23

The top set belongs to Lyons – combined for 2012 and 2013. The bottom? That’s 2012 Joe Kelly. Pretty striking difference isn’t it? Kelly’s ERA has always outperformed his FIP while Lyons is the opposite, with an ERA regularly a half run or more higher than the corresponding FIP over the same number of innings. This gap has shrunk considerably as he’s moved up through the minors, though, suggesting that poor defense behind Lyons might be the cause. Considering the 2013 Cardinals should be above average defensively it doesn’t seem far fetched to say that Lyons could outperform his ZiPS projected ERA of 4.39 considerably.

Lyons is a bit tougher against lefties than righties, but the southpaw still gets enough right handed hitters out to be a better-than-average starting pitcher in the big leagues. With a solid fastball, two average/plus breaking pitches, a good changeup, and fantastic command of all four pitches, Lyons is the prototypical Cardinal Way pitcher: Throws strikes, stays ahead in the count, and works quickly.

Craig Edwards: Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez should make the Cardinals' rotation because he is the only candidate that can make both opponents and Cardinals fans weak in the knees.

Heading into the 2013 season, Martinez was ranked among the top 50 prospects in the game by Baseball Prospectus (43), Keith Law (39), John Sickels (20), Fangraphs (35), Baseball America (38), and MLB.com (33). In all of those rankings, Martinez rated ahead of Trevor Rosenthal, and in all the rankings but one (Fangraphs), Martinez rated ahead of Michael Wacha. Players ranking that high do not receive such rankings because they are expected to pitch out of the bullpen. Martinez earned those rankings with stellar minor league numbers as a starter. In 327 2/3 minor league innings as a starter, Martinez has struck out 340 hitters and given up just 14 home runs.

Martinez did nothing in 2014 to lose his luster as a starting pitching prospect. Stripped of his rookie eligibility, most rankings sites did not include Martinez as a prospect. Only Baseball America ruled Martinez eligible in 2014, ranking him 33rd. Martinez flexed his stuff in the major leagues last season. Pitching in the major league bullpen last year as a 21-year old, Martinez struck out 35 batters, walking twelve, and giving up just one home run in 42 innings between the regular season and playoffs. Of the Cardinals' options to begin the season in the rotation, not only does Martinez have the highest ceiling, he likely has the highest present day value as well. According to the ZiPS projections for 2014, Martinez has the lowest projected FIP and ERA between Kelly, Lyons, and Martinez.

There are concerns about an innings limit with Martinez, but as Mozeliak recently noted, "You can’t just take a guy who has maybe stretched out in spring and think you can stretch out again in July. You have to commit. It’s a very difficult place to stretch out in the big leagues." While limiting Martinez's innings at the beginning of the season out of the bullpen is an option, moving Martinez to the rotation later in the year is a move Mozeliak would rather not contemplate. With only around 45 days of service time in the majors, Martinez is unlikely to be a super-two player for arbitration purposes, and the Cardinals would have to keep him in the minors for approximately two months in order to receive and extra year before free agency. Keeping Martinez in the minors for two months is not the best move for the Cardinals or Martinez, regardless of his role in the majors.

Putting Martinez in the rotation from the beginning of the season, perhaps skipping his turn a few times in April with multiple off days, and then moving him to the bullpen later in the season as he approaches his innings limit is a much more effective way to use the Cardinals' pitching resources. Kelly proved last year he could move from the bullpen to the rotation. Both players could be used in roles they are comfortable with while allowing one of the top young pitchers in baseball the opportunity to prove himself as a starter.

Martinez has the stuff and experience to get hitters out at the major league level. His abilities exceed both Kelly and Lyons. The longer Martinez stays away from starting, the less likely he is to get a shot in the rotation. Failing to determine if Martinez can reach his potential as an ace in a major league rotation would be a huge misuse of the Cardinals resources, something Cardinals' management has mostly avoided in incorporating young players onto the major league roster.

Joe Schwarz: Joe Kelly

Joe Kelly is primed to be the "next man up" after the injury to Garcia. Kelly filled in admirably when called upon after injuries to Garcia, Jake Westbrook, and John Gast last season. He had 87 innings pitched as a starter and a shiny 2.28 ERA. Considering his FIP (3.98) and xFIP (4.43), it appears that a portion of his ERA can be attributed to luck. His 1.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter is not very impressive either.

Yet, given a full offseason and spring training to prepare as a starter, one could argue that he can improve upon these numbers by cutting down on his walks and utilizing that 95+ MPH fastball and his refined curveball to gain 2-3 more strikeouts per outing. By doing this, he will edge closer to the strikeout percentage he had out of the bullpen while in the rotation, something that can lead to sustained success.

Also, with Garcia out for the foreseeable future, the rotation is missing that left-handed pitching presence. Kelly has done a lot of crazy things since joining the Cardinals, but I can assure you he did not learn to pitch left-handed over the offseason. However, if last season's numbers are any indication, Kelly has the potential to be more successful against lefties than righties. Thus, he may be a righty, but he will be a perfect asset for the Cardinals when facing a lefty-laden lineup.

In conclusion, there are a lot of "if’s" about whether or not Kelly can replicate his 2013 success. I completely understand that. However, he has the stuff to be a successful starting pitcher. If he has made the proper refinements to his pitches and his approach over the offseason, the starting rotation will be just fine without Garcia. If Kelly takes over and struggles, then the Cardinals can turn to Carlos Martinez or Tyler Lyons or John Gast (if he is able to return to 100%). Depth is a good "problem" to have and if 2013 is any indication, it is an absolute necessity for a team to be successful over a 162-game season and the playoffs.

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