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The pitcher that was almost a Cardinal and the pitcher that will still be a Cardinal

Brandon Phillips teaches umpire Jordan Baker how to do the wobble.  (If you are going to attend any weddings in the next decade, you may as well start learning this dance now.)
Brandon Phillips teaches umpire Jordan Baker how to do the wobble. (If you are going to attend any weddings in the next decade, you may as well start learning this dance now.)

As the weekend began with the Cincinnati Reds squaring off against the St. Louis Cardinals, danup expressed hope for the series:

I'm just glad that we'll see, by Monday, something other than the Reds' omnipresent seven-game-lead in the division standings.

It's Monday now and the Reds lead the division by six games. Huzzah!

While the weekend series was important and certainly it was enjoyable to watch the Cardinals trounce the Reds in two of three games, arguably, the more important series begins today. The Cardinals will travel to Pittsburgh to face off against the Pirates who now trail St. Louis by two games in the division and, more crucially, in the race for the second wild card spot. A strong showing in Pittsburgh would help to stomp out a surprising insurgent season from an inferior team on paper.

Taking the mound this series will be two very different pitchers. For the Cardinals, recently extended Jake Westbrook will try and groundball everyone to death. A.J. Burnett will be pitching tonight with his changeup ... trying to groundball everyone to death.

A.J. Burnett has always been an intriguing pitcher to me, personally. It may have to do with the failed courtship of Burnett and the Cardinals in 2005. Burnett was an elusive talent for the Florida Marlins when he started baseball. He had an irregular cycle to his performance that would peak with an excellent season only to decline significantly in the face of injury shortened seasons.

Emblematic in many ways of the Florida Marlins operating scheme at that time, which would see massive sell offs as the team re-stocked it's farm system followed by a run at the World Series, Burnett shared time in Florida with other interesting pitchers who went on to much bigger markets (Josh Beckett) or much more ignominious downfalls (Dontrelle Willis). Burnett put together a big 2005 season before hitting free agency. After flirting with the Cardinals, he'd sign a five year deal with the Blue Jays and then land with the Yankees before being traded to the Pirates.

What's interesting about Burnett this year is that he's on track to post his highest groundball percentage of his career. The strikeouts are still there -- and that's long what Burnett has been known for -- but the re-emergence of strong groundball tendencies has helped making him a stalwart of the Pirates rotation. He won't reach the high innings counts needed to move up leaderboards on account of breaking his face at the start of the season but A.J. Burnett is the quintessential veteran ace for the Pirates and a big part of their success this year.

The Cardinals shouldn't be overly inclined to play the platoon split against Burnett; for his career he has a .317 wOBA against left handers and a .316 wOBA against right handers. It's a bit more pronounced this season but his changeup has effectively neutralized opposite handed hitters for a decade now. The change has been Burnett's recent acquisition of a sinker, which showed up more prominently in 2010 and now appears to be a significant tool in his arsenal. Instead of focusing on stacking the lineup with left handers, the Cardinals would be best suited to put in players that cope well with changeups. Burnett will not be an easy pitcher to beat tonight.

This past week, Jake Westbrook and the Cardinals agreed to continue seeing each other for another season. (This probably ices out tonight's starter Kyle Lohse.) Westbrook had indicated that he was looking to exercise a pre-existing mutual option for the 2013 season for $8.5M prior to signing a one-year deal for $8.75M to play with the Cardinals in 2013. It's one of the rare occasions where a mutual option -- though not directly exercised -- was mutually agreeable. The new extension came with another mutual option for $9.5M on the 2014 season.

Westbrook is sporting the best FIP of his career but adjusting for league average by year (96 FIP-), this is more a median career performance. His 2012 performance is not far off of A.J. Burnett's. Westbrook features a different FIP profile that is slightly higher but also generates more groundballs. These two pitchers are essentially performing at the same level during the 2012 season.

Westbrook's extension is probably more interesting than a discussion of Westbrook -- who is fascinating only in the degree of boredom he elicits from me. The Cardinals will enter 2013 with what looks like a rather injury riddled rotation.

Pitcher Recent Seasons
Chris Carpenter Missed 2012
Adam Wainwright Missed 2011
Jaime Garcia Missed 2010 & parts of 2012
Jake Westbrook -
Lance Lynn 2012 - First season as MLB Starter
Joe Kelly 2012 - First season as MLB Starter
Shelby Miller/Trevor Rosenthal/AAA Pitcher

The Cardinals will enter 2013 with Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn as the only two players in the rotation not to have a series injury inside of the last two years. That's a massive level of uncertainty for a rotation. As we've seen this year with Jaime Garcia's lost time, having a player like Joe Kelly ready and able to step in is crucial to the rotation. Equally crucial is preserving that depth by keeping guys like Jake Westbrook around. He's steady, able to make 32 starts a year and is right around league average for performance projections. He's the veteran workhorse that lots of teams try to acquire in the middle of seasons to try and shore up a shaky rotation.

Any complaints about Westbrook being signed for the 2013 rotation at $8.75M are grossly misplaced. The salary is right on track with performance levels and there's a real need to make sure that the Cardinals have guys who can make 32 starts in a year. With Jake Westbrook, they have three players heading into 2013 that are on track to accomplish that -- or something near it -- in 2012. That kind of depth isn't something you casually discard because Shelby Miller has righted the ship in Memphis or because Joe Kelly has proven to be a capable big league starter. Jake Westbrook is the epitome of good risk management for the Cardinals.