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Examining spring training starting pitcher competitions of the St. Louis Cardinals

Stop me if you have heard this before: The Cardinals are hosting a spring training "competition" for the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

Absolutely loving the changeup grips photographers are getting this spring...
Absolutely loving the changeup grips photographers are getting this spring...
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Ben discussed spring training playing time and examined the competition for the remaining bench spot(s) on the 25-man roster of the St. Louis Cardinals. Today, I will take a closer look at the competition for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. At present, there are three pitchers competing for one rotation spot with a place in the big-league bullpen or even Triple-A Memphis going to the two "losers." As part of the analysis, I will first revisit what took place in spring training just last season. By doing this, I will be able to hypothesize some other motives associated with a spring training starting pitcher competition, beyond just the stat line.

2014 Spring Training Statistics

Joe Kelly 4 4 14.1 .259 10 1 8 11
Carlos Martinez 5 4 16.0 .193 5 1 5 11

Somehow, Kelly went on to "win" this competition, but after seven sub-par starts (35.0 IP, 10 BB, 25 K, 4.37 ERA) and dealing with a lengthy disabled-list stay (due to a left hamstring strain), the 26-year-old righty was shipped to the Boston Red Sox along with Allen Craig for veteran righty John Lackey at the trade deadline. Given that not even one of the categories in the table favors Kelly, it is clear that the deck was stacked against Martinez last season.

Now, it is likely that Mike Matheny and the Cardinals took Kelly's 2013 numbers (124.0 IP, 2.69 ERA, 4.01 FIP) into serious consideration when making their final decision, and that is an understandable tactic because players with a "good track record" can often be seen as more reliable. While on the surface Kelly's numbers looked good, it has been discussed at length, both on this site and elsewhere, that the sustainability of his success was questionable at best (as illustrated by his substantial gap between his ERA and FIP and extraordinarily high LOB%). As a result of losing out on the "competition," Martinez lacked a consistent role in 2014 as he started in the big-league bullpen, made seven big-league starts, and even spent some time in the Triple-A starting rotation as well.

2015 Spring Training Statistics

C. Martinez 3 3 8.0 .226 6 1 2 7
Marco Gonzales 3 3 10.2 .162 1 0 4 6
Jaime Garcia 2 2 5.1 .250 2 0 2 6

Realistically, all three of the pitchers listed above could have one start nearly as long as the amount of innings each one has accumulated thus far in spring (just ask Mark Mulder). Thus, the significance of these numbers is incredibly low, but this does not make Marco's performance any less impressive (er, Gonzo) this spring. Remembering back to February, while on MLB Now, John Mozeliak had this to say about the state of the starting rotation, "If you look at our rotation right now, we look at it as [Adam] Wainwright, [Michael] Wacha, [John] Lackey, [Lance] Lynn, [Carlos] Martinez. And you have Marco Gonzales for protection there."

Thus, similar to last year, it appears the "competition" is stacked toward one pitcher over another. However, that one pitcher is the same guy who "lost" a competition similar to this one last spring and has yet to display the consistency needed for long-term success in the big leagues. Does this play a role in Matheny's (and Mozeliak's) decision-making, especially when a darkhorse candidate (Marco) is having such an effective spring? I would argue for the affirmative, but that's largely because I still struggle grasping what the organization thinks of Martinez, even after supposedly keeping him over Shelby Miller this offseason. Of course, there is also a wild card to consider: a potentially healthy Garcia. Understandably, the organization hasn't relied on him up to this point, but if he proves to be healthy at the start of the season, he will definitely throw a welcome wrinkle into the decision-making process.

Bottom line

To be completely honest, I'm torn. I truly believe El Gallo has the best "stuff" on staff and seeing his expanded repertoire (to include the sinker and changeup more often) in the starting rotation would likely result in sustainable success. At the same time, I have discussed with Ben via text message just how much I like Marco, and yes, this is largely a result of my infatuation with his changeup, among other things. All that being said, if Garcia's left arm is still attached and functioning at the start of the 2015 regular season, it is probably in the organization's best interest to give Garcia starts until he shows that he either cannot be effective or he suffers yet another throwing arm injury. The benefit of this action is two-fold: 1) The Cardinals will seemingly get some money out of Garcia's $9+ million salary, and 2) It will bank some of Martinez's and Gonzales's innings for later in the season (and hopefully postseason).