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Pitching Tea Leaves and the 2013 Rotation

It's harder to find a picture where Hunter Pence isn't making a face like this.
It's harder to find a picture where Hunter Pence isn't making a face like this.

Jake Westbrook pitched another quality start last night. In the 6 inning effort, he struck out 4 and walked no one. If I were going to cobble together a frankenstein style pitcher that I would call a "back of the rotation" type, Westbrook's skillset looks an awful lot like what I would hope to see from that pitcher in a perfect world. A modest strikeout rate, good command and the ability to keep the ball down.

Westbrook occupies that weird zone where his stuff is so thoroughly whelming that it's hard to ever be excited or disappointed when he pitches. It's also hard at times to really put his numbers in the right frame of reference relative to what the league is doing. Consider that among qualified starters, Jake Wetbrook ranks third in groundball percentage. His FIP is right in line with career numbers at 3.62 and he's been worth 2.2 WAR over 139 innings this season.

That's far better than what most teams get out of the back of their rotation even if his stuff is a modest as can be.

All of that is part of what makes his mutual option for 2013, which Westbrook has indicated that he intends to exercise, so appealing. Westbrook is as near to a lock as a pitcher can be to take the ball every 5th day. As he approaches his 35th birthday this September, he's not someone you necessarily want to commit to for another 3 years but as a single year transition to younger prospects that aren't quite ready, Westbrook is ideal. When that single year would cost you just $8.5 M, it's hard to turn down.

That is, of course, what makes his decision to so unequivocally expect to exercise his half of the option unusual. A mutual option almost never works. If a player is playing well, they decline the option and try to get additional years or dollars on the free agent market. If a player is playing poorly, the club declines to pay them for additional years of service. In some ways this feels like the St. Louis discount that used to be talked about in relation to players in the past. Players find themselves so at ease in St. Louis that the money becomes less important than the stability and the team. Clearly, Westbrook could get another multi-year deal on the market. Clearly, he wants to stay in St. Louis.

Part of the rest of the season will be the team trying to shake out exactly what it is they have in the rotation. Besides Westbrook, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn look rather convincing as rotation stalwarts. Will Chris Carpenter return at some point? Will Jaime Garcia complete his rehab and pitch the remainder of 2012 or will his arm melt down to the point of surgery? What is the near term future for Joe Kelly whose filled in well as a starter but may well be a bigger asset out of the pen?

And where does Kyle Lohse fit in all of this?

Kyle Lohse finds himself in something of a different though not dissimilar state as Jake Westbrook. Lohse has used superb command to offset his modest strikeout rates and stuff on his way to a very good season. He's consistently taken to the mound every 5th start showing the durability that he lacked in prior parts of his 4 year, $41M contract with the Cardinals that culminates this season. Given he's just 33 until October, this is probably his last best chance at another substantial multi-year contract. Though he'll tell you he's not really considering that right now.

You can be assured the Cardinals are. With three rotation spots (Wainwright, Lynn, Westbrook) essentially spoken for, the Cardinals have the pitchers both under major league contract (Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia) to fill out the rotation but they lack the kind of dependability that the team has shown itself to value in the past. Think back to the contracts of Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan. Those players were signed because they could be relied on -- as much as any pitcher ever can be relied on -- to take the mound on their rotation turn. Are the Cardinals comfortable with starting the 2013 season with 40% of their rotation a serious health question mark?

The counter argument to that is the prospects that are nearing maturation. With Joe Kelly in the rotation now and posting a 4.11 FIP and Trevor Rosenthal having a short stint in the bullpen before going to Memphis, it's not impossible to think that the club has already eyed a few youngsters ready to make the leap. While the club may not like the prospect of them in the rotation for a full season, they may find their presence in Memphis reassuring enough to try and wring 180 innings from Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia in 2013.

So that leaves Kyle Lohse peddling his services elsewhere in 2013. As Lohse makes the appropriate sounds about being open to mid-year contract talks, this does have the not-unusual feel of a situation where the Cardinals could choose certainty over upside. In many ways, that's how Kyle Lohse got his first 4 year contract with the Cardinals.