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The State of the Rotation, Right Now.

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The trade of Shelby Miller had big ramifications for the Cardinals' starting rotation going forward. Where do they stand now?

There are few things in baseball better than this image.
There are few things in baseball better than this image.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Author's Note: I was originally writing this article Wednesday morning, as per my usual time of appearance. It was approximately half done, when I was sidelined by an unexpected bout of explosive diarrhea, er, SOTS (Sudden Onset Tourette's Syndrome, no, that's no good, explosive erectile dysfunction, ugh, that sounds painful, explosive writer's block, that's just dumb, a work thing, oh, wait. Actually, yes! That works! It was a work thing, I'll say!

Anyhow, I'm finishing up this piece now and presenting it to you as originally intended. Apologies for the belated post.

*******

So...I'm pretty excited. About the Heyward thing, I mean. Which probably shouldn't be all that surprising, given that just two weeks ago I made my case for the Cardinals to trade for the exact guy they just traded for, which, for the record, now marks two offseasons in a row that the Redbirds have traded for the outfielder for whom I was agitating. Which is super exciting, sure, but also kind of makes it much tougher for me when the team isn't playing well, since my own published comments make it very clear I'm not allowed to play the, "Well, if I was the GM, things would be different, because I would have..." card, given I'm on record as saying these are the exact things the team should have done. So, you know, double-edged sword, I suppose.

Still, I can't lie and claim to be anything other than ecstatic over the addition of Heyward; even in the face of giving up an enormous amount of team-controlled seasons between Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, the notion of watching Jason Heyward take the field wearing the Birds on the Bat is a pleasure I never really expected to have in my life, and I'm thrilled to be here, cost be damned. (Or mostly damned; I'm still capable of intellectually lamenting the lost years of cheap production possible from those guys, even if that tends to be swallowed up by the positives of the deal.)

My initial thought this morning was to run down some defensive numbers, and look at how the Cardinals have transitioned from a run-producing team model to a heavily run-prevention based paradigm over the past several seasons, and then fantasize a bit about the kind of defensive numbers we could be looking at in the outfield for the 2015 Cardinals, depending on the alignment the club wished to throw out on a given day. (Spoiler alert: any outfield alignment with Heyward and Peter Bourjos playing next to each other compares favourably to pretty much any other outfield in baseball, including that one across the state in Kansas City which was all the rage just a few weeks ago.)

(I have to stop ending paragraphs with parenthetical asides; I feel like it's really terrible form, even if it's probably by this point become an inadvertent signature of my writing.)

However, the news-slash-rumour of the Cardinals' interest in/pursuit of Jon Lester kind of threw me for of a loop, and so I decided to piggyback a bit on the column earlier this morning week by my colleague Aaron Finkel, who is also known around these parts as, "That other Aaron." Usually accompanied by at least half an eye roll.

The thing is, one would think, looking at where the Cardinals have been the last couple seasons, that the starting rotation would be, quite possibly, the very last place you would expect the club to be looking for help. However, given we now have a report of interest in not only a starting pitcher, but one of the most expensive starting options on the market, I suppose we have to assume the Redbirds themselves see things a bit differently. (Unless, of course, one would prefer to believe the rumours are either erroneous or a smoke screen, but as I see no reason to automatically think that, I will continue on as if the reported interest is genuine.)

(Damn it. I did it again.)

As things stand right now, the Cardinals' starting rotation has three spots essentially written in ink, if not stone.

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Lance Lynn
  3. John Lackey

These three will be counted on to be the workhorses of the rotation. Now, the good news, as it relates to these three pitchers, is that all of them have proven in the past they can handle that sort of workload, not to mention responsibility. Adam Wainwright has proven himself to be the early-90s Buffalo Bills of the Cy Young award, John Lackey has accumulated nearly 2300 innings and better than 40 fWAR in his career, and Lance Lynn, for however much I don't personally enjoy watching him pitch (and I don't know why, in case you're wondering), has made 95 starts and averaged just over three WAR per season over the past three years. He's not an ace, but he's a damned solid, valuable anchor for a rotation.

Okay, so that's the good news. Unfortunately, there's some definite bad news as well. Waino, for all the brilliance and dependability he has brought to the table over the past few seasons, has to be looked at as at least somewhat of a question mark going forward. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2012, A.D.A.M. has logged 667 innings, not including the postseason. There is a fair amount of data suggesting TJ surgeries are usually good for something like ~650 innings; if you want to sleep well at night, you should probably try to convince yourself is just a coincidence Wainwright eclipsed that number this past season, when he started having elbow issues. (Again is the word I'm leaving off the end of that sentence.) He also had a semi-mysterious (to the extent no one seems entirely certain what was actually done), elbow procedure after the season. Maybe Adam is fine. Maybe it was a minor cleanup of a joint which has seen a hell of a lot of wear and tear over the past decade. Personally, I'm worried. And penciling Wainwright in for anything close to his usual 200-225 innings of top-end performance in 2015 seems like a very bad idea to me.

As for Lackey, I don't really have too much in the way of workload concerns. He missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John, and has thrown less than 400 innings since coming back. The Cardinals are only counting on him for one season (and, let's be honest, he may not pitch much beyond that one season, if at all), so there isn't going to be a huge need to manage his innings for the long haul. He's averaged 3.0 WAR over the past two seasons, and the Cardinals have him for league minimum. That's a hell of a deal.

On the other hand, while I'm not overly worried about Lackey either being limited or just plain not healthy, he's also 36 years old. Pitcher aging curves are, to put it mildly, unpredictable, and even absent some unforeseen injury which strikes Lackey's mid-30s body, it's not completely out of the realm of possibility he just isn't any good. If I had to bet, I would peg him to be just a little worse than last year, because that's the most likely outcome. But, pitchers don't always age gradually. Sometimes the stuff just....goes.

I have no real concerns about Lance Lynn. He is, somewhat bizarrely, the one starter amongst those top three without much in the way of question marks.

Past those three guys, things get dicey in a hurry. As it stands right now, I would think the rest of the depth chart looks a little like this:

4. Michael Wacha

5. Carlos Martinez

6. Marco Gonzales

7. Tyler Lyons

There are much, much worse places to be as a baseball team than looking at potentially giving starter innings to pitchers as talented as Pac-Man and El Gallo. Hell, there are worse places to be than giving innings to any of those four guys; after all, Lyons, whom I am certain has fallen behind Gonzales by this point, projects for a 3.6ish FIP next year by Steamer. Given the opportunity, I feel relatively confident Tyler Lyons could hold down a number five starter's spot at a perfectly acceptable level.

Then again, we also have no real idea what Michael Wacha is at this point. (Sorry, scoot.) He is undeniably talented, yes, but the shoulder issue which derailed his 2014 season is going to be a concern until it isn't, if that makes any sense. The range of outcomes for Wacha has, unfortunately, widened to an almost absurd degree.

Shelby Miller, I have to believe, would not have been traded if the Cardinals didn't believe that Carlos Martinez has the stuff and acumen to be a major league starter. He's one of, if not the, most talented pitchers in all of baseball, and while we have yet to see the results on a regular basis, he's shown enough you absolutely need to give him the opportunity. Unfortunately, Carlos threw just under 100 total innings in 2014; even if he performs well, one would have to think the club will be monitoring his innings load to try and protect his arm.

Interestingly, Marco Gonzales would actually be less of a concern in terms of innings for the 2015 Redbirds, given that he threw over 150 innings last season. (No, I am NOT suggesting Marco should make the starting rotation over Carlos, even if I think there's a very good chance it happens, because I have a very low opinion of the coaching staff.) I also expect Gonzales to immediately be a durable, dependable starter, if not a spectacular performer. If Gonzales were asked to give the Cardinals ~180 innings of 3.80-4.00 ERA baseball, I feel like he could do it.

So here's the thing: if you figure that a solid, successful pitching staff has to average something close to six innings per start over the course of a season, you're looking at close to 1000 innings from that staff. Of course, the easiest way to get that is to just pull 200 innings from five guys, and call your season good. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen very often.

Lynn and Lackey I think can be counted on for innings. 200+ for Lynn, 180-200 from Lackey at this point in his career. So, say, 390 between them. Maybe 400. There is that possibility I alluded to earlier, that Lackey could just self-destruct due to simple age, at which point things could get super bad super quick.

If Wainwright is healthy, he should throw you another 200. Ordinarily, I would say he should throw 220, but given the injury concerns, even if he does appear to be sound, some workload management would seem to be in order. Then again, I'm not sure I'm all that confident in Adam pitching all season. He could give you 200; he could also give you zero after going down in spring training with an elbow injury.

Best case scenario, you get ~600 innings from those top three. Worst case, you get 200 from Lynn, 100 shaky innings from Lackey, and nothing from Waino. So 300 on the bad end.

Wacha threw 107 innings in 2014; even if he's sound, I can't imagine the organisation feeling comfortable pushing him much beyond 150. So 750 at best, and that's pushing the bounds of optimism, I think.

In our best-case scenario here, that leaves somewhere between 200 and 250 innings you're going to need to cover between Carlos, Marco, and Tyler Lyons. Tim Cooney might figure into the equation as well, though probably not in a very prominent role.

Then again, how likely is that best-case scenario? In order for that to come to pass, Wainwright and Wacha both have to be completely healthy coming off troubling arm injuries, one of which appears to be possibly chronic. Oh, and the other seems to match up eerily well with a piece of surgery-related innings data. So, you know.

If the Cardinals really do only need to cover 250 innings between El Gallo and Marco Gonzales, I have to say, I love their chances to win big in 2015. Where I have concerns is if, instead of that 250 inning number, they're looking at something closer to 400 innings. It's not tough to imagine; yank half a season off Waino and Wacha's totals, and that's what you're looking at. The innings are probably still there, between Lyons, Martinez, and Gonzales, but suddenly things are looking a whole lot less Rosey. Er, rosy, I meant. Slip of the tongue, there. Or the keyboard, I suppose.

So what, exactly, does all of this mean for the Cardinal rotation in 2015? It means, quite simply, that there are far, far more question marks than one might have thought, given the remarkable pitching depth the organisation appeared to be cultivating as recently as last offseason. And it also means that, if the Redbirds really could bring in another 150 innings or so, they might want to at least consider it.

However, what that means in terms of the club's apparent interest in Jon Lester is a little less clear. Signing Lester would not be a stopgap measure to prevent the rotation from becoming a concern in 2015; if you're ponying up for one of the top two free agent pitchers on the market, you're looking to add a piece to the team's core for the next half-decade or so. Considering where the Cards' rotation stands right now -- not to mention the need to stabilise the offensive core of the club going forward -- I'm not sure investing in Lester is necessarily the best solution.

Then again, I can't lie and say I don't have serious concerns about the starting rotation in the coming year. The Cardinals will expect to contend for a title again; if things go even half as badly in the rotation as I think they have the potential to, we could be looking at a torpedo-grade blow to the club's chances.

Which is not, I would like to point out, to say I think the trade of Shelby Miller was a bad idea. I was arguing as far back as last offseason that I thought Miller should be moved to maximize his value, and Jason Heyward is potentially a bigger upgrade in right field than Jhonny Peralta was at shortstop in 2014, as hard as that is to imagine. I loved the deal the moment it was announced, and I still love it now. But, for a club that looks like serious title contenders, the rotation looks like it could be a very, very big question mark.

Though I have to say, even with the draft-pick attached, I might prefer to throw a dumptruck full of money at Max Scherzer over Jon Lester if I had my druthers. Both have been remarkably durable -- not to mention remarkably good -- but I think Scherzer might be a slightly better bet going forward. Then again, Jon Lester doesn't have a giant pain in the ass agent who likes to slow-play the market and wants to set new benchmarks for contract size all the time. So, hey, I can certainly see the argument.

In the end, I really can't honestly see the Cardinals signing either Lester or Scherzer this offseason; it just seems like such an un-Cardinals thing to do. But looking at the club, it's pretty clear the rotation has to be at least on the mind of John Mozeliak and Co.; this is a team built to win now, even if they don't seem to be in imminent danger of their window slamming shut necessarily. Rolling the dice with the starters they have now is a definite risk for a club in their situation.

Then again, I don't want to see anything get in the way of El Gallo, starting pitcher. So....

As you can see, I am of a divided mind on this. What about you?