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you can't have too much starting pitching, but you sure can have a lot of it


your semi-monthly news on the terrible bullpen front:

the cardinals bullpen has slowly crept upwards by a lot of metrics over the year.

the most hopeful metrics are xFIP-related. the bullpen's xFIP is 3.90 (13th overall), and its xFIP- is 99 (19th overall).

by FIP, they are merely 23rd overall, with a 4.08 FIP. by ERA they are 24th overall, with a 4.13 ERA. by FIP-, they're 28th in the league with a 107 FIP-.

even neutralizing the home run rate, they have a pretty ordinary bullpen. if you think that the home run rate is likely luck-related, the bullpen is unimpressive, but solid. if you think that the home run rate reflects a lack of skill . . . well, we're in some trouble.

i don't think it's a bad framework to use for 2013. i don't think that trading for or signing a reliever is a necessity. we have a wealth of depth in the rotation, including newly-extended jake westbrook. and that's not a bad segue to an issue i'd like to look at in more detail.

in the hypothetical world where all our pitchers are healthy for 2013, we have chris carpenter, adam wainwright, jaime garcia, jake westbrook, and lance lynn to start next season. that would leave joe kelly, trevor rosenthal, and shelby miller all either starting in memphis or in the st. louis bullpen. if you don't like lance lynn in the rotation, feel free to swap as you see fit; the overall point being that we have three solid-ish pitchers who could serve in the rotation or the bullpen respectably.

heck, it's not just a possibility for 2013; as chris carpenter comes off the DL, we have only jake westbrook missing from this impressive roster of starters with an oblique injury. westbrook may or may not return before the end of the season. and since we're carrying kyle lohse as well, we have an embarassment of riches in the rotation.

honestly, i can't ever recall having 7 or 8 starters just hanging around; not just plausible starters, but really decent ones. i think it's pretty unusual in baseball general. and i think it has big implications for the postseason.

for all that we've seen the rotation drop a couple of terrible games on us in the last month, we've seen an outstanding rotation performing this season. we're third in the NL and fourth overall in rotation ERA (3.68). we're second overall in FIP (3.51), and fifth overall by xFIP (3.72). neutralizing for park, we're fourth by FIP- (93) and seventh by xFIP- (95).

of playoff bound teams, only the nationals clearly has a better rotation; fringe candidates the brewers and the phillies are in the running, but we are easily in contention. in fact, if the nationals do not bring strasburg back to the rotation in the postseason, you could argue that we might have the best rotation in the postseason.

to the extent we see anything troubling about the rotation for the postseason (and, yes, we still have to get there), i don't particularly like the fact that our big strength seems to be depth, rather than having tandem aces. adam wainwright, despite early struggles with the home run, clearly has his name written in ink as a post-season starter. but there's a host of other pitchers who have all done reasonably well without overwhelming (lynn, kelly), some rookies still waiting on their first start (miller, rosenthal), and others whose health status raise questions (carpenter, garcia, westbrook).

despite looking very sharp in the bullpen, i doubt that miller or rosenthal gets a first MLB start in the postseason. i think either one would be very credible in a post-season bullpen. miller has a 1.43 FIP and 2.62 xFIP after 6 MLB innings. rosenthal has a 3.39 FIP and a 3.24 xFIP after 17 innings. small sample sizes in both cases, but they both have the tools to be excellent relievers this fall. keep in mind that any one-game wild card play-in counts as a separate "round." if, let's say, adam wainwright starts the one-game play-in, the club could leave, say, kyle lohse and lance lynn off the roster for that one-game round, which would leave room for miller and rosenthal to join the team. in further rounds of the postseason (should we make it that far), winnowing the bullpen down may be tougher.

lance lynn got some terrible outcomes in august, with many observers noting his mechanics seem to have fallen apart. going purely by his peripherals, he should be in discussions as a postseason starter. the question will be whether the coaching staff see him maintaining good form in his last starts for the season and feel they can trust him in the postseason rotation.

jaime garcia has had some continuing questions raised both about his health and his consistency. coming off a shoulder injury, he's had a couple of good starts and a couple of weak starts. as with lynn, the decision about jaime's role will be highly subjective. as the only left-handed option, whether jaime starts may depend somewhat on the handedness of our opposing team in that round.

joe kelly has been pretty good for the club, but i don't consider him a marquee starter likely to start a game in the postseason. if he does start a game, it will probably have as much to do with other starters playing themselves out of the start as anything else. like miller and rosenthal, he makes a lot of sense in the bullpen when he's not starting.

kyle lohse has the best ERA of any starter, but his peripherals indicate he may be the worst of our regular starters (2.71 ERA v. 4.05 xFIP; only joe kelly has a worse xFIP among the cardinals' starters at 4.09). i'm not sure that i would pick him for a 5-game series, but i doubt matheny will be able to resist the allure of that shiny sub-3.00 ERA.

chris carpenter and jake westbrook will have very small sample sizes by which to judge if they are completely healed from their injuries. chris carpenter in particular has an outstanding post-season reputation. his game 5 shutout of the phillies in the Division Series remains among my favorite pitching performances of all time. but he also has the worst injury history of any starter, looking at starting his first game of the season this weak. westbrook has turned in an excellent season, but his oblique injury may postpone any further starts until the last week of the season. there may not be enough time for the coaching staff to make a good judgment on either.

it will be interesting to watch how matheny manages all these interesting options, especially how he sets up the rotation for the play-in game and the division series.

garcia starts today, and chris carpenter makes his first start on friday. wainwright goes on saturday, then lohse on sunday the 23. following this order, we'd probably see lynn (24th), garcia (25th), carpenter (26th), wainwright (28th), lohse (29th), lynn (30th), garcia (1st), carpenter (2nd), and wainwright closing the regular season on the 3rd of october.

this would leave kyle lohse starting the play-in game on october 5th. the division series would start on the 7th, which would allow matheny to tinker pretty freely with the division series rotation. only the starter from the play-in game and the starter from the last regular season game would be on less than a 5-game rest.

matheny could easily adjust the rotation to tinker with who would start what game; jake westbrook may be available in the last week of the season, or joe kelly could make an odd start somewhere. having adam wainwright start the play-in game could be easily accomplished.