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Cardinals curious rotation decisions

Jaime Garcia gets start on Saturday despite being on three day’s rest.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals have had a great run of health from their starting rotation this season with only doubleheaders keeping the Cardinals original five starters from making every start this season. The streak ended ended last Sunday with Mike Mayers’ ugly start. Mayers' start was caused by circumstances more than readiness. The Cardinals were faced with a similar situation this weekend, and seemingly prepared themselves for multiple options. That’s what makes the decision to start Jaime Garcia on short rest so curious.

Before we get to the decision to start Garcia, let’s look at what led to Mayers’ start last week. Last Tuesday, the Cardinals-Padres game was rained out, and the game was scheduled as part of a doubleheader Wednesday. Carlos Martinez was scheduled to pitch on Tuesday with Jaime Garcia scheduled to pitch Wednesday. Simply moving Martinez to Wednesday and having Garcia pitch on schedule would leave Sunday’s start to one of those two pitchers or another option.

Starting Martinez and Garcia is a pretty defensible decision. The only other option would be to do a bullpen game on Wednesday night and take advantage of the fact that the Cardinals were able to bring up an extra bullpen arm for the game. At that time, Tyler Lyons had not pitched since the All-Star Break. Pushing Garcia to Thursday would then enable the rest of the rotation to stay on normal (actually an extra day) rest with Martinez starting the following Monday on normal rest. That option is mostly hindsight analysis as the Cardinals seemed to have options to start on Sunday.

My personal preference would have been to bring Alex Reyes as the 26th man on Wednesday night and let him get his feet wet out of the bullpen. Then, bring him back up on Sunday and start. I realize that some are concerned that Reyes is not ready due to his 5.07 ERA and walking 11% of batters. It is my opinion that given the number of strikeouts he is getting (32%), it would help his development to see his stuff work against big league talent. He will need to be aggressive against major league hitters and it is possible the talent level in Triple-A is not helping him learn as well as it could given how many hitters he is striking out. That said, Tyler Lyons is an eminently reasonable option.

On Wednesday, option number one was likely Tyler Lyons. The handsome lefty faced just two batters on Wednesday in his first appearance of the second half, getting an out and giving up a home run. Other potential options were Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes. The team felt comfortable enough with the Lyons option for Sunday that they let Alex Reyes keep his scheduled start on Thursday.

Once Reyes pitches Thursday, Lyons is probably the best option by a pretty wide margin. Martinez or Garcia could go on short rest, but neither pitcher had ever done that and both come with some health questions given their, particularly Garcia’s, past. Luke Weaver doesn’t seem to be an option that was seriously considered. Although he has been fantastic in the minor leagues, he had never pitched above High-A before this season, and at the time had fewer than 10 starts at Double-A. While he might have been an option, it was reasonable to keep him in the minors.

Presumably, all of this is information that Mike Matheny knew on Friday night as the game went in to extra innings. Matt Bowman pitched the tenth, and after getting four outs on 17 pitches, Matheny called on Lyons to get out of the 11th, then the 12th, then the 13th, then the 14th, and then the 15th. Seth Maness pitched 16th and then the game ended. Miguel Socolovich made 35 pitches the night before and was presumably unavailable. The only other option was Trevor Rosenthal.

We could argue about using Lyons too much. Presumably Maness could have been brought in for the 13th, pitched a couple innings followed by Socolovich or Rosenthal. Putting Lyons on some sort of pitch limit might have been a good idea given the team had exhausted Reyes as an option the night before and didn’t believe Martinez or Garcia should go on three days’ rest. That didn’t happen, the team won the game, and then used Mayers on Sunday, which did not go well, although expectations were pretty low for him given his prospect status and not great peripheral stats.

So with all of that as backdrop, we have a near identical situation happen this past week, this time a day earlier. My preference for this one was slightly different than the previous week. Alex Reyes was the scheduled starter in Memphis on Tuesday night. The Cardinals get a 26th man for the second game of the doubleheader. The team could have called him up, given Garcia an extra day’s rest and kept the rotation on normal rest.

The Cardinals decided to employ the same tactics as the week before by letting Martinez and Garcia make the starts, necessitating a plan for Saturday. The Cardinals seemed to learn from the situation last week and limited Reyes’ innings on Tuesday to make him available on Saturday. Tyler Lyons appeared to be the number one option again. Right up until the team decided to have Jaime Garcia pitch on three days’ rest.

Garcia, who has never started on three days’ rest and has undergone three major surgeries on his arm or shoulder, seems like an odd choice even if he only threw 77 pitches in his last outing. So what happened? It seems that when Mike Matheny let Adam Wainwright throw 41 pitches in the seventh inning, it sent a signal that Tyler Lyons was going to be needed out of the bullpen before Saturday because of increased pen use on Tuesday and Lyons' emergence as a trusted option.

We've seen this before over longer periods with Joe Kelly over Carlos Martinez for the rotation, but it is odd to need a pitcher for short inning relief situations when they are capable of gobbling up innings as a starter. For one start, it isn't that big of a deal, but this philosophy is pretty bizarre, especially for a reliever who couldn't even get in to games after the All-Star Break.

In any event, the team is denying both Lyons and Reyes a shot at starting this weekend for another situation that appears fraught with difficulty and a high level of risk. I thought the Cardinals learned their lesson after trying to get cute last week. They seem to be doubling down this week instead of going with the simple option of letting the two best options make starts. Tyler Lyons and Alex Reyes are pretty clearly the sixth and seventh best starters in the Cardinals organization. To have two opportunities for an extra starter in the span of a week and not have either option make a single start is curious indeed.