Tonight's starter makes me perhaps less likely than I used to be to appreciate these things, but Jake Westbrook really has been outstanding as a Cardinal—he's raised his strikeout rate by 1.4 and lowered his walk rate by 0.6 while establishing what would be a career high groundball rate. Imagine a universe where the Cardinals didn't start sucking the minute they traded for him, and he's basically having the Woody Williams 2001 season, with almost identical peripherals.
So do the Cardinals go after him in the offseason? That seems to be Westbrook's early prerogative, and I can't blame him; before Kyle Lohse set about mucking up the works Busch Stadium seemed like a pretty universally effective rest cure for the formerly competent, and just a season from elbow surgery Westbrook is in no position to earn himself a Jeff Suppan Contract of Regret from some other team.
I'll say this—until I looked at the numbers just now I wasn't a huge Westbrook fan, but there are very few permutations of the Cardinals' offseason, I think, that aren't made better by offering him a one year contract at the going rates for a Brad Penny-class starter.
Of course, it depends on what the Cardinals want to do with the rotation in 2011. It'll be, perhaps, the most interesting part of their offseason.
No. 1: Adam Wainwright
At this point Wainwright can be relied upon to be outstanding inasmuch as any pitcher can be relied upon to do anything—if the Cardinals lose him for any length of time and are unable to replace him it'll be less about due diligence and more about GOB caprice. In 2010 he's been, if anything, a little better than he was in 2009; I certainly didn't expect that.
No. 2: Chris Carpenter
No. 3: Jaime Garcia
These guys, though—the Cardinals need a competent sixth starter around for next season, and they need it because the team as currently constructed is heavily reliant on these two pitching arms. Chris Carpenter's season hasn't been nearly as much of a downer as Dan and Al seem hell-bent to imply—his peripherals are off his pre-injury peak, but the major difference between 2009 and 2010 is that he didn't allow any home runs at all in 2009, and now he's just not allowing very many. He's also pitched 216 innings, which is quite an achievement from a 35 year-old who missed his age 32 and 33 seasons.
Jaime Garcia, too, has never quite gone down for the count; he's had stretches where he's appeared to lose it, and then he appears to get it back. He probably won't win Rookie of the Year, but his season has been a success by any measure—he's thrown 28 starts and 163 innings a year after pitching 40, and he's done it with an ERA under three.
But I worry about any Cardinals team built around the assumption that these guys will again throw 370 innings of sub-3 baseball. Carpenter will be 36, and for Cardinals fans his arm will always be ticking; Garcia has been pitching above his FIP all year and will come into 2011 having thrown his fullest season since he was 19. They'll both be effective, but they could both be less effective.
No. 4: Jake Westbrook?
This might be a better mix of upside and risk than Brad Penny offered the rotation in 2010. Westbrook has had the prototypical Dave Duncan Bump in productivity since joining the Cardinals, although it's been masked by the Cardinals' inability to win when someone's allowing two earned runs in six or seven innings. And it's not often a guy pitching 200 innings right off elbow surgery can put this on his résumé, but he's more reliable than the guy he replaced—his injury was a little more typical, a little more understandable than Brad Penny's mystery arm.
I don't think you can write him into the rotation for 200 league-average innings unless you use a pencil, but that's what the Cardinals' budget is going to look like; he's as near a sure thing as the Cardinals can afford.
No. 5: Kyle Lohse and a cast of thousands
Kyle Lohse as a sixth starter I can kind of deal with—he'll be another year removed from that weird surgery, and his peripherals haven't been so bad since his comeback. The Cardinals are stuck with him, and given Tony La Russa's predilection for low-leverage long relievers there's a place to stash him in the back of the bullpen in April.
But coming into the season with Kyle Lohse as the fifth starter would be an inexplicably confident move in the midst of a contract that has been mesmerizingly bad. According to Baseball-Reference he has now been worth -2.9 wins below a replacement player since signing his deal—he was worth 2.4 in 2008—and in 2011 and 2012 the deal tops out; he'll make $12 million. The question right now shouldn't be whether he's ready to rejoin the rotation in Spring Training—it's whether the Cardinals should cut him in Spring Training. Right now I think there'll be enough low-leverage innings in the early going not to do it, but he could yet convince me otherwise.
Unfortunately, this probably means another back-of-the-rotation rental in 2011. Lance Lynn is interesting, especially after that brilliant playoff performance, but he had a rough start to his Memphis career and could probably stand to spend another few months there. Kyle McClellan has probably proven too valuable in the bullpen. The other guys who've started in 2010—Jeff Suppan, Blake Hawksworth, Adam Ottavino, P.J Walters—are the kind of pitchers who signing a reliably mediocre fifth starter is supposed to preclude in the first place.
If Shelby Miller were two years older, this might be workable from within the system. But even if the Cardinals resign Jake Westbrook they've got maybe 15-25 starts to fill, lest they be filled again from the replacement level. That should be job one in the offseason, aside from figuring out exactly what it is Albert Pujols wants. (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that our own Alex Fritz has his own ideas on that topic.)