A club can never have too much pitching and there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. These baseball truths have become unassailable over the game’s history. And yet, for a second straight spring, the pitching prospects in Cardinals camp are turning heads, showing that the club's pitching well goes still steeper.
Last year, it was Michael Wacha who hatched from a Fabergé egg and burst onto the springtime scene. Wacha announced his presence with such authority that he left the Mets broadcast crew oohing and awing in delight and envy as he carved up Flushing’s Hometown Nine in a Grapefruit League game while thrusting himself into the St. Louis pitching staff conversation. The Cardinals banked Wacha’s innings during the summer months with the hope that he’d be available down the home stretch of the regular season and into October. Come the postseason, Wacha rewarded them by cementing his place in franchise lore and the 2014 starting rotation.
To a degree, Wacha turned heads away from three other young fire-ballers who were competing for the last spot in the big-league rotation. Of course, the Cards didn’t allow Trevor Rosenthal to participate in the competition for very long; they quickly relegated him to the role of St. Louis Bullpen Weapon (in which he thrived, ultimately emerging as the club’s October closer). That left Joe Kelly—who established his big-league bona fides the year before coming seemingly out of nowhere to those who don’t read Future Redbirds—and everyone’s top St. Louis pitching prospect Shelby Miller to duel for a rotation spot with high-velocity BBs. Miller won, pitched his way to a third place finish in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, but was supplanted in October by Kelly, who joined the rotation after injuries to Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia.
There’s no such thing as a pitching prospect (abbreviated "TNSTAPP" by prospect hounds). This truism has been reinforced throughout the years as pitching prospect after pitching prospect fails to reach MLB and be effective. Neither making it to the majors nor pitching effectively during that opportunity is easy. Performing both feats is exceptionally hard. Aside from mastering a repertoire that allows one to be successful, a pitching prospect must also avoid an injury bug that that seems to bite players in his position more often and harder than his counterparts.
Throwing a baseball is one of the most unnatural motions the human body can make. Doing so thousands of times, year after year, often leads to injury. Unfortunate examples abound, even in the Cardinals’ pitching-rich farm system. Jordan Swagerty, drafted as a college reliever with a quick route to the majors and ranked highly in multiple lists of top St. Louis prospects, sustained an elbow injury that he’s still attempting to come back from. Tyrell Jenkins, another highly touted pitching prospect (albeit one with a much longer trek from the amateur draft to St. Louis), has had two seasons in a row cut short because of an injury to his pitching shoulder. Both former top Cardinals prospects are not found on any ten-deep accounting of the best the St. Louis system has to offer entering 2014. With the Cardinals reassigning Swagerty to minor-league camp over the weekend so he can continue to rehab, neither pitcher is in major-league camp today.
The Cards showed why a ball club can never have too many arms a year ago. The vagaries of pitching—predictable only in that they will happen over the course of the 162-game grind—caused el Birdos to dip deeply into their pitching reserves. Injuries to veterans Garcia and Westbrook gave Kelly and Wacha opportunities in the St. Louis rotation. Injuries and ineffectiveness thrust youngsters Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez into the major-league bullpen, where they filled prominent roles during the Redbirds’ World Series run. Rosenthal ascended to the closer job only after Jason Motte and Edward Mujica each experienced health issues. Despite the rash of injuries and promotions of a season ago, the Cardinals have still more non-roster-invitee hurlers making their respective cases for action in St. Louis later this year.
After putting together an excellent 2013 season between High-A and Double-A, consensus top prospect Tim Cooney made himself much more than a blip on folks’ spring-training radars with a dominating couple of innings in his spring debut. The lefty demonstrated the curve ball that is a legitimate out pitch while notching four strikeouts over two innings of work. Cooney’s performance caused former scout and current MLB.com writer Bernie Pleskoff (who was at the game) to praise the southpaw as big-league ready in 140-character bursts on Twitter.
What I Liked Today: Very impressive outing for #STLCards left-hander Tim Cooney. Looks like he could step in to a rotation right now.— Bernie Pleskoff (@BerniePleskoff) March 2, 2014
The Cards drafted Marco Gonzales in the first round of last year’s amateur draft. The southpaw oozes the unsexy quality of pitchability, which is to say that he commands and controls his repertoire at a level that is nearly MLB ready. The Gonzaga alum has a changeup that causes scouts to swoon and could propel him to St. Louis this summer. Gonzales had a rough spring debut (issuing three free passes over 1 2/3 innings), but he’s a feel pitcher that merits watching as March ages.
Like Gonzales, Boone Whiting had a rough spring debut. Unlike Gonzales, shoddy defense was partly to blame. Whiting has a great change and a lackluster fastball. Both must command their pitches to be effective. Whiting’s climb up the organizational ladder has been punctuated by above-average strikeout rates. Unfortunately, he’s walked more batters at each rung. With the Garcia injury, the Cards promoted the righty to major-league camp to compete for one of the bullpen slots. If he can command his pitches, he may elbow his way into the relief corps this year.
Kurt Heyer is another hurler the Cardinals selected out of college. Like Gonzales and Whiting, he doesn’t have the type of high-velocity fastball that turns heads. Deception is more Heyer’s game. The righthander was reassigned to big-league camp along with Whiting when the Cardinals announced that Garcia was being shut down. Heyer hasn’t established strikeout stuff during his short pro career, but his delivery style may allow him to grow into the role of ROOGY in the St. Louis pen.
Tyler Lyons got a call-up to St. Louis before Wacha a year ago. As Azru noted at the time, Lyons deserved it. He pitched well in Memphis and is the type of strike-throwing, innings-eating lefty that so often experiences MLB success. Lyons flopped with the Cardinals, thanks to allowing runs at a rate that belied his peripherals. He also spent enough time with the big club to lose prospect status. But Lyons is still a young pitcher with potential. The southpaw will likely start the season anchoring the Memphis rotation, in the so-called No. 6 starter role.
Enjoy the Cardinals’ pitching depth while you can. But keep in mind that a team can never have too much pitching depth and there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. The odds are these universal baseball truths will have us wincing at some point this season.