The free agent market isn't a vaccuum. Pick a pitcher, any pitcher, and odds are good that this offseason they'll have multiple suitors. It's not often that a Kyle Lohse falls into your lap on a one-year deal. If you look around the league at what each team needs, probably 75% of the teams will say starting pitching. It's not just that teams are looking to upgrade their starting pitching it's that teams need warm bodies to fill rotation spots and buffer against injuries. Making an upgrade would be great but simply having enough arms is a problem for a good many teams. That's how pitchers like Ross Olendorf can get 4 starts.
There's a strong sentiment in the fan base that the Cardinals should dive head first into the free agent pool this offseason to shore up the rotation. With Wainwright, Wellemeyer and Pineiro under contract there's at least 2 open spots in the rotation. Given the opportunity, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cardinals attempt to unload Pineiro during the offseason if they have sufficient depth. The list of good free agent starters isn't necessarily a long one and with questions surrounding Carpenter and Wellemeyer's durability, it would be nice to add three starting pitchers this offseason.
This is part of the reason Jaime Garcia's Tommy John surgery is so detrimental to the club. It's not that anyone expected Garcia to step in and be a #2 caliber starting pitcher. It's that he offered a young pitcher who could simply be in the rotation and not be terrible. It'd be great if he matured quickly but that wasn't really a necessity. Taking the ball every 5 days would have been more than enough to start. The depth in AAA just isn't quite there yet. Mitchell Boggs and Jess Todd don't fit the typical starter profile (limited repertoire & small body size respectively). Clayton Mortensen was rushed through the system and struggled greatly at AAA. PJ Walters stuff is questionable at the major league level. Then there's several fringy players in Mike Parisi and Brad Thompson. Just not a lot to see yet.
Even if the Cardinals want to acquire a pitcher like AJ Burnett, there's the question of whether a) they're willing to pay top dollar and b) if another team is willing to overpay that. Leading me to the crux of the problem. The Cardinals need to develop a starting pitcher next year. They simply don't have the money (or a monopoly )to sign 3 decent starting pitchers. They need another internal arm to fill a spot. Kyle McClellan is that arm.
There will be quotes over the winter that some in the front office like McClellan out of the bullpen. That he's "proven" he can handle that role and potentially be exceptional at it. Doesn't matter. Many of the same arguments that applied to Wainwright's return from a hand injury apply to McClellan here. Simply because he's succeeded in a role in the past doesn't mean that a) he can't succeed in a different role, b) he'll necessarily succeed in that same role in the future and c) that organizational needs haven't shifted to a different area.
It seems like this needs to be beaten home when we hear talk about acquiring a reliever this offseason. Short of retaining players like Springer or Isringhausen the Cardinals have upwards of 7 in house right handed relievers heading into next season. That's not where they're lacking. Taking Kyle McClellan and seeing if he can start at the major league level is a much better use of resources. The marginal gain is much greater for the club if he can succeed as a starter.
He fits a starter mold. He's got 4 pitches: fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. He'll throw his fastball for a couple different speeds/breaks so potentially even more than that. The arsenal is there. You'd expect the fastball speed to lose 2-3 mph but he'd still be hovering in the 90mph area -- a nice marker for an average fastball speed for a starting pitcher. He's got a durable build through the trunk.
The obvious question is whether his arm can sustain 200 innings. He's already had one surgery and he's worn down at the end of this season. The stress on a reliever's arm (max effort delivery, throwing on repeat days) is different than that of a starter so 2008 may not be indicative of an inability to log a starter's innings. It's a question that the team has to answer -- or risk. Even if they expect him to get hurt by mid-2009 if he starts, it's possible that those innings will buy the AAA starters enough time to emerge and take the reins.
The Cardinals converted a reliver to full time starter in 2007 (Looper) and 2008 (Wellemeyer). All signs would point to a need to do so again in 2009. It's not about being cheap -- it's about utilizing resources at hand when the demand outpaces the supply in the market.