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Fifth Starters

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I touched on this yesterday, but whatever the average team ends up doing with its fifth starter, the Cardinals have had some good luck with them in the past. It is perhaps the most underrated of the various posited Dave Duncan effects: not only does he turn guys like Woody Williams and Joel Pineiro into pitchers of unaccountable quality, he also turns them out in volume. In 2008 he got good years—I guess I can't prove that, but good years were at least gotten, to muddy things up—in the starting rotation from two former relievers, Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer, with serious platoon splits. 

In the seven years since the start of the MV3 teams—more specifically, and selfishly, since I began following the team closely enough to write about it—the Cardinals have been relatively flexible with the fifth starter position, but one thing is certain: whether they find themselves able to fill it or not, they believe they should

The Disasters

2007: Brad Thompson: 17 GS, 92 IP, 4.66 ERA; Todd Wellemeyer: 11 GS, 49 IP, 3.65 ERA; Joel Pineiro: 11 GS, 63 IP, 3.96 ERA.

There's nothing good to be said about this rotation, except that the Cardinals were smart enough, after some deliberation, to put Adam Wainwright, their only effective starter, in it. The second starter? Braden Looper and his 4.94 ERA. Third? Well, Kip Wells, and his 5.70 ERA, made 26 starts, and Anthony Reyes, in the course of going 2-14 and earning his ticket to Cleveland, managed 20. 

What the sheer volume of mediocre pitchers at the back of this rotation is saying is that almost nobody who began the season in the rotation ended it there. Only Wainwright and Looper made 30 starts. Chris Carpenter started on opening day and disappeared; Anthony Reyes found his way back to Memphis. Waiver wire heroes like Wellemeyer and Pineiro found their way into the Cardinals' future plans because there was nobody else to turn to, and Brad Thompson, who La Russa would not trust with a ten run lead, made a career high 17 starts, more than half of his career total. 

This season encapsulated the Mike Maroth and Randy Keisler eras; Mark Mulder made three starts and allowed fifteen runs in eleven innings. I can think of no better way to summarize the 2007 rotation than with the names of those three left-handers—two finished and one totally forgotten. 

2006: Sidney Ponson: 13 GS, 68 IP, 5.24 ERA; Jeff Weaver: 15 GS, 83 IP, 5.18 ERA; Anthony Reyes: 17 GS, 85 IP, 5.06 ERA.

We're sure this is the one that won the World Series? Not 2004 or 2005? 2008, maybe? As mediocre as these guys were, the Cardinals had more trouble elsewhere in the rotation. Mark Mulder, the presumptive number two guy, found himself throwing 80 mph fastballs in midsummer; Jason Marquis, a heretofore reliable innings eater, went 3-11 with a slugging percentage against of .571 to end the season. Only Carpenter and Jeff Suppan performed as advertised; Anthony Reyes, not yet seen as damaged goods, got off to a hot start after replacing Sidney Ponson, kicking things off with the infamous one-hitter loss to Chicago, but got blistered with a .410 BABIP in September, giving up 14 runs despite striking out 28 batters (against 7 walks) in his 20 innings. 

The Cardinals had the right idea here—a mediocre veteran, a prospect just about ready to contribute. But the rest of the rotation collapsed in front of them, and neither presumptive fifth starter could remain effective. 

2009: Todd Wellemeyer: 21 GS, 114 IP, 6.08 ERA. 

This is the most conventional of fifth starter meltdowns, if not quite so interesting to talk about. Todd Wellemeyer just sucked last year. In his 21 starts batters hit .332/.396/.515 against him. BABIP, of course, drove a lot of that—.362 isn't normal, and if he sticks, as it looks like he might, in the San Francisco rotation this year he could have a nice bounceback season. But he didn't pitch well, and it felt even worse than it was; he threw just five quality starts, and four of them came before the first of June. 

But it was difficult to pull the plug on him, because unlike Sidney Ponson he had that impossible-to-quantify upside, and while his "I felt great, my pitches were awesome, but sometimes they just put up fifteen runs on you" post-game interviews were annoying he was a little less outright belligerent than the unlamented Heavy P. 

Under Control

2008: Joel Pineiro, 25 GS, 148 IP, 5.15 ERA.

It seems like so long ago that he was the Piñata, doesn't it? But he was—the great control was just good control, and the balls in play turned into 180 hits in those 148 innings. But he was passed by Todd Wellemeyer in mid career year, Braden Looper turned in an excellent, full season, and Kyle Lohse was just about to get rich. Adam Wainwright missed a fair amount of the season and actually turned in the fifth-most starts in the rotation, just 20, but in his place the Cardinals trotted out Brad Thompson and Mitchell Boggs for six starts each. 

This rotation featured a lot of the pieces of the disastrous 2007 squad, but that year's midseason replacements made more than fifty decent-enough starts, and Kyle Lohse turned out to be an essential late-Spring pickup. 

2004: It's hard to say. Matt Morris

2005: Definitely Matt Morris, but only because he got knocked around in 2004. 

The unsung heroes of the MV3 teams—at least insofar as their ability to win 100 regular season games—is the rotation, which was remarkably stable in 2004 and 2005. In 2004 just five real starts were made outside the rotation, all by Dan Haren.

But the 2005 rotation was even better; not only did Morris bounce back from an unattractive 2004, only two starts were made outside the rotation, one a bullpen effort nominally started by Cal Eldred and the other a mid-August game from Anthony Reyes. That year the Cardinals had five starters make at least 30 starts, all of them with an ERA+ of at least 103. It doesn't get any better than that. 

In 2010 the Cardinals will probably be piecing things together. Jaime Garcia will have his innings watched, though I doubt we'll hear anything about the Jaime Rules, and Carpenter and Brad Penny come with long injury histories. But 2004 and 2005 stand, I think, as the ideal Dave Duncan Rotation years—Chris Carpenter and four guys who are all pretty good and pretty durable.