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youth is served

keep your eye on dan szymborski's site --- he's been posting team-by-team ZIPS projections all winter, and the cardinals are next up in the queue. according to chone smith's recent analysis, ZIPS was the most accurate pitcher-projection system (the best in a weak field, admittedly) but just so-so in forecasting hitters. overall, szymborski's numbers are as accurate as bill james' --- worthwhile discussion starters, if nothing else. if the st louis projections go up today, i'll let you know.

you also might want to take a look at steve treder's article at the hardball times about the cardinal dynasty that might have been had the st louis franchise not sold three ballplayers --- johnny mize, walker cooper, and johnny wyrostek --- for cash in the 1940s. it's part 1 of a (presumably) 2-parter.

the cardinals likely will open the season with a rotation that features two sophomores --- reyes and wainwright. neither meets the league's definition of a rookie, but both carry the discomfiting, rookie-like "unproven" label. in wainwright's case, the tag only applies vis-vis his ability to start games; as a reliever he has proven his provenness. neither of these two has thrown as many as 100 big-league innings. a third potential member of the rotation, brad thompson, will be entering his 3d season in 2007 with just 1 big-league start and 112 career innings.

my question today: how often have the cardinals taken comparably inexperienced rotations into a season, and how have those teams fared?

it has been quite a while. st louis hasn't opened a season with even one yearling (hereafter defined as a guy with fewer than 100 career innings) in the rotation since 2002 --- bud smith, who had gone 6-3 the previous year in 14 starts and finished 4th in the rookie of the year voting. he was 22 on opening day 2002 and pitched horribly, hasn't been heard from since. rick ankiel was even younger (20 years old) and greener (5 career starts) when he opened the 2000 season in the rotation; the year before that, 25-year-old rook jose jimenez made the opening-day rotation and stayed in it all season despite posting one of the worst lines in franchise history (5-14, 5.85 era). he did toss a no-hitter.

that brings us to the last time st louis opened a season with two second-year players in the rotation, 1998: matt morris and manny aybar. the circumstances aren't really comparable to 2007's, though, as morris could hardly be considered unproven: he'd tied for 2d in the rookie of the year voting (behind scott rolen) the previous year, in which he threw 217 innings and went 12-9 with a 3.19 era. aybar (age 25) had made 12 league-average starts the previous year as a late-season callup. he was dreadful in 1998, 6-6 with a 5.98 era; morris was among the league leaders in era halfway through the season when an injury shut him down for the next year and a half. st louis used 15 different starting pitchers that season, with none making more than 29; four or five different pitchers were used as closers. the team finished 8th in the league in era and went 83-79.

in 1997, coming off their first division title in 9 years, the cardinals opened the season with a rookie (morris) and a 2d-year pitcher (alan benes) in the rotation. benes had won 13 games the previous season and finished 7th in the ROY voting, with a pitching line vaguely reminiscent of anthony reyes' in 2006:

w-l era era+ whip h/9 k/9 bb/9 hr/9
benes 96 13-10 4.90 87 1.461 9.0 6.2 4.1 1.3
reyes 06 5-8 5.06 87 1.383 8.9 7.6 3.6 1.8

the two youngers were stl's two best pitchers in 1997; morris led the team in wins and innings pitched, benes in era. but the cardinals never settled on a 5th starter; they got 26 god-awful starts from the likes of brady raggio, sean lowe, rigo beltran, and washed-up vets danny jackson and fernando valenzuela. st louis went 6-20 in those games. even so, the cardinals finished 5th in the league in era. it was the offense that betrayed them: they were 11th in the league in scoring and finished 4th at 73-89.

spool back now to 1992. here, at last, we encounter circumstances that compare to those of 2007: a rotation featuring two pitchers with fewer than 100 career innings pitched. it has been 15 years since the cardinals last tried this. coming off a second-place finish (84-78) in 1991, the birds opened '92 with a rookie donovan osborne in the rotation and added 2d-year guy rheal cormier a week into the season, after bryn smith went down with a season-ending injury. the two youngsters did very well, finishing 2d/3d on the team in both wins and era. osborne went 11-9 with a 3.77 era, and cormier was 10-10 with a 3.68 era. the era's weren't quite league-average back in those lower-scoring days, but they were close. the young pitchers helped the cardinals lower their team era by a third of a run over 1991; they finished 4th in the national league, at 3.38, and went 83-79 (3d place).

the 1989 cardinals began the year with two true rookies (ken hill and don heinkel) and a 3d-year pitcher (scott terry) in the rotation; heinkel only lasted 5 starts, though. hill stuck it out for the whole year and pitched better than his record would indicate; he went 7-15 despite an era just a shade worse than league average. those cardinals finished 4th in the league in era, at 3.36, and very nearly won the division with a september surge. but the loss of todd worrell was a killing blow; they blew some late leads down the stretch and finished 3d in the nl east, at 86-76.

finally we come to 1982. herzog's opening-day rotation included sophomores andy rincon (9 career starts, 77 career innings) and john martin (20 career starts, 145 career innings); by june both had been replaced by true rookies, dave lapoint and john stuper. those four greenhorn pitchers combined to start 1/3 of the cardinals' games that year and threw an aggregate 395 league-average innings, with a 24-18 combined record; stuper and lapoint were 2d and 3d, respectively, in era among the rotation regulars. the team finished 3d in the league in era and won the world championship.

to sum up this brief history: when they've relied heavily on inexperienced starting pitchers, the cardinals have almost always fared well, finishing near the top of the league in era and competing for (if not winning) their division.