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Cardinals' rotation is jumbled heading towards the playoffs

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The slowdown of Michael Wacha, skipping the start of John Lackey, and the late-season effectiveness of Shelby Miller have caused confusion for the current state of the rotation as well as the playoff status for the Cardinals' staff.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals' opening day rotation included Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly. Eleven Cardinals' pitchers have made at least four starts this season, but only four pitchers (Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha) have more than eight starts for the Cardinals. The Cardinals have continued to search for answers in the rotation as they keep moving closer and closer to a division title, and how the rotation will play out over the remaining dozen games is as much a mystery as who will make the rotation should the Cardinals' make the playoffs.

When injuries to Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha and questions regarding whether Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Joe Kelly could provide enough innings to support Wainwright and Lynn, John Mozeliak transformed the team and the rotation at the trade deadline by bringing in Justin Masterson and John Lackey. Six weeks later, the trades have failed to provide stability. Masterson was relegated to the depths of the bullpen and Lackey's poor recent performance resulted in skipping his next turn in the rotation. That start would have occurred against the Brewers, the only team with a winning record remaining on the Cardinals' schedule.

Not likely a surprise in March, but given how the season has gone, perhaps most surprising about Lackey taking a seat is the player he is deferring to: Shelby Miller. On the day the Cardinals traded for Lackey, these were the lines for the two current Cardinals' starters. (Numbers from the Game Log feature found on the player pages at Fangraphs)

Before 7/31 IP IP/S K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
Shelby Miller 115 2/3 5.8 5.9 4.3 4.20 4.74
John Lackey 137 1/3 6.5 7.6 2.1 3.60 3.55

Here are their post-trade deadline marks

Post-trade IP IP/S K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
Shelby Miller 57 6.3 6.2 2.5 2.84 4.19
John Lackey 46 1/3 5.8 6.8 2.1 5.05 4.91

Miller's strikeout numbers are still not what they once were, but by mixing in more curveballs and the occasional two-seam fastball, Miller has been able to reduce his walks, increasing his efficiency and decreasing his ERA. Over his three September starts, Miller has gone 20 innings, struck out 14, walked just three (none in his last two starts) and given up just one run for an ERA of 0.45 and a FIP of 2.17 during that time. After struggling for an entire calendar including his disappearing act in the 2013 playoffs, Miller is primed to receive an opportunity in the postseason this October.

Lackey's strikeout and walk numbers have not changed much, and before getting tossed in his last start, he was providing innings. However, his ERA and FIP skyrocketed as he could not keep the baseball in the park, giving up nine homers in eight starts. In addition, his ERA could be higher as five of the 31 runs he has given up with the Cardinals have been unearned. Chalking up his recent performance as bad luck with the longball would be tempting if not for Lackey's noticeable decline in velocity that I noted last week. Apparently, the Cardinals noticed the same thing and decided to skip his start due to a dead arm and stiffness.

By prioritizing the starts of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and Shelby Miller, the hierarchy for the rest of the season is clear. Whether those three remain in prime position at the beginning of the playoffs is muddled. Aside from injury, nothing will remove Wainwright and Lynn from their spots. After giving up 7 runs to Milwaukee on August 1st, Wainwright has averaged seven innings per start with a solid 3.38 FIP and 3.55 ERA. He has been even better the last two games, pitching 17 innings, giving up two runs and striking out eleven against just a single walk. Lance Lynn is ranked in the top ten in the National League in ERA, FIP, and fWAR. John Lackey currently finds himself on the outside looking in. However, despite skipping his start, Lackey will be given a few starts to cement himself as the necessary fourth starter, or, if he regains his prior form, the third starter in the playoffs.

Marco Gonzales has pitched well of late, but he faces a tough road to opportunity. He might receive another start in the regular season, but making the postseason rotation will be difficult despite his recent success. After opening his career with two dismal starts, Gonzales has struck out 22 hitters in 19 2/3 innings pitched. He has also walked 13 batters, but has a very good 1.83 ERA and solid 3.74 FIP. Absent John Lackey completely disintegrating, it remains unlikely that Gonzales could vault into the postseason mix. Given the rotation uncertainty, he has made himself a very good claim to be on the playoff roster should a starter falter early in a game.

That still leaves the status of Michael Wacha. After his last start, I wrote about the lack of changeups in recent outings. Then, the team decided to skip his start on Sunday which caused Ben to raise questions about his status going forward. Wacha had a bullpen session on Sunday.

Wacha is running low on time. He might receive just one, perhaps two auditions against major league hitters before the Cardinals must decide whether to give him a start in the playoffs. Those starts become more precarious if the Cardinals have not locked down the division title. Wacha wants to return to the rotation, but with just twelve games remaining in the season, he might have to fight just to make the bullpen.

The Cardinals' starters on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday against Milwaukee are Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, and Shelby Miller. With an off-day on September 25th, the Cardinals could opt to start that trio in nine out of the final dozen games if the team heads to Arizona still fighting for playoff position. John Lackey, Marco Gonzales, and Michael Wacha could all make starts beginning in Cincinnati this weekend. How they, as well as Miller, perform down the stretch will finalize the rotation as the Cardinals shoot for the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. After Wainwright and Lynn, finding reliable starters for the Cardinals has been a struggle all summer. Why should fall be any different?