2017 Cardinals’ Fifth Starter Spot

On February 14th, the Cardinals arrived at spring training having penciled in former phenom Michael Wacha and current top prospect Alex Reyes as the top two choices for their 5th starter spot in the rotation. With Alex Reyes' season-ending injury, the Cardinals will likely go into the regular season (barring further injuries) with a rotation of Martinez, Wainwright, Lynn, Leake, and Wacha.

While that is the most likely course of action, should it be? Let's look at all of the current options for 5th starter - ignoring the fact that Mike Leake may be the 6th or 7th or 8th best starter on the team but he will be in the rotation due to him needing to try and earn $80M over his 5 year contract - 4 of which he still has to go.

Michael Wacha

Wacha is the presumed 5th starter at this point because he has been a VERY successful pitcher in the past. From the beginning of his major league career until the end of August 2015, Wacha put up the following line:

53 starts, 24-11, 329 IP, 2.87 ERA, 1.143 WHIP
7.77 H/9, 0.63 HR/9,
8.02 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 3.18 K:BB

After injuring his shoulder - shoulder injuries are much harder to deal with currently than elbow injuries - from September 2015 through the 2016 season, Wacha put up the following line:

29 starts, 9-10, 162 IP, 5.50 ERA, 1.525 WHIP
10.22 H/9, 1.22 HR/9
7.39 K/9, 3.50 BB/9, 2.11 K:BB

  • That is a win percentage .212 below his earlier totals.
  • That is a 91.6% increase in earned runs allowed per 9 innings.
  • That is an 11% decrease in innings pitched per start.
  • That is a 33% increase in runners allowed per inning, a 31.5% increase in hits per inning, and a 38.9% increase in walks per inning.
  • That is a 93.7% increase in homers allowed per inning.
  • While his strikeouts only decreased by 8%, his walk percentage increasing by so much led to a 34% decrease in his K:BB.
  • That is not good. If his shoulder is better, his numbers make him the very obvious choice for the fifth starter. With how hard it is to gauge shoulder injuries, the only way to find out may be to give him the fifth starter spot if he is healthy at the end of spring training.

Trevor Rosenthal

From 2012-2015, Trevor Rosenthal was one of the best relief pitchers in the majors. He threw 237 innings over 233 appearances in those seasons. He finished 138 games of the 233 appearances he made - 116 of his final 140 appearances those years. He struck out over 300 batters while walking under 100 in that time. He allowed a WHIP of 1.22 in that time. He also had an ERA of 2.66 and 96 saves. He was an All-Star AND actually garnered MVP votes (not Cy Young) as a relief pitcher!

In 2016, like Wacha, Rosenthal began having shoulder issues...another shoulder injury. He made 45 appearances, only finishing 27 of the games he started. He only threw 40 1/3 innings (less than an inning an appearance, due to not being able to finish quite a few of them). He walked over half as many as he struck out - although he struck out the second highest rate of his career. His H/9 were way up as well, leading to a 1.909 WHIP - a 56% increase. He also had an ERA of nearly 4.5 - even though his FIP was still closer to 3.75.

I got the bad out of the way early with Rosenthal. Here's why he may be able to start. As a reliever, Trevor Rosenthal relies heavily on his fastball. He has never thrown it less than 73.9% of the time in a season. When he first arrived on the STL scene in 2012, he threw his curveball 12.75% of the time and his slider and change up a combined 6.86% of the time. Since then, however, he has thrown his change up between 13.9 and 16.5% of the time while only throwing his two breaking pitch offerings between around 6 and 8.5% of the time instead.

That goes to show that, while being a 2-pitch pitcher most of the time in his career, he does have other offerings. His fastball has averaged over 97 miles per hour each and every season he's been in the majors and has touched 101 at least once every season. While his fastball (up to 4-6 inches) and change up (6-8 inches) have significant amounts of arm-side break, his slider breaks 2.5-4 inches glove side, while coming in as fast as the change up. His curveball has about 4 inches of glove side break as well, while coming in between 5-10 miles per hour slower than the change and slider.

Not only does he have those multiple pitches to use, when Rosenthal was in the minors, he started 48 of the 66 games in which he played - including the final 42 games in which he pitched in the minors. In those final 42 games, he threw 229 1/3 innings - or nearly 5.5 innings per start. From all accounts I heard, he was still able to hit the high-90s as late as the 7th inning in those starts at AA and AAA in 2012 (his last season in the minors). In A ball, AA ball, and AAA ball, he faced a combined 949 batters and struck out 25% of them while walking just 8.5% of them. He had a FIP in the low 3s and a WHIP of under 1.2. Oh yeah, he was also 2.5 years younger than his average competition in his final season in the minors.

In his final 10 starts in AA before his first call up to the majors, Rosenthal had this line:
10 GS, 59 IP (5.9 per game, 5 times he pitched 6 innings and one time he pitched 7 innings!)
2.14 ERA, .190/.251/.283/534 against, 48 K to 16 BB (3.0 K:BB), 0.932 WHIP

He faced 227 batters and only needed 792 pitches to get through them - 13.42 pitches per inning and <80 pitches per game pitched.

Marco Gonzales

So enough with shoulder injuries already, damnit. Marco Gonzales missed the 2016 season with an elbow injury - having Tommy John surgery and expected back as early as May. So he will obviously not leave camp as the 5th starter, but could become it at some point this year. What do we know about him?

Well, in 2014, he came to the majors and started 5 of 10 games and then pitched in relief in the playoffs against the Dodgers and Giants. He pitched in 6 post-season games against two top notch teams and held the 24 hitters he faced to a .190/.261/.190/.451 line! That includes one terrible game in his last game of the season. Take out that game and the OPS is down to just .377 against him. His regular season numbers are not very good in comparison to that - or in comparison to league average. Then again, That's only 37 1/3 innings. While larger than the 6 inning sample size of post-season baseball, it's still only 37 1/3 innings.

In the minors, Marco moved very quickly - a la Michael Wacha. He made the majors at 22 (in 2014) and was drafted out of college in 2013. The kid only has 44 minor league starts under his belt - leading many to believe that coming off of an injury he may as well get some more experience in Memphis. I would tend to agree, but look at this:
Marco threw 2,736 pitches facing 857 batters (3.19 per batter) over 202 2/3 innings the last two seasons in the minors (2014-2015). That's 13.5 pitches per inning. At 100 pitches a game, that gets him through 7.4 innings a contest. Sitting at 6 innings a game, he'd throw approximately 81 pitches a game.

His minor league stats?

44 games, 226 innings (just over 5 innings a start)
3.70 ERA, 1.279 WHIP
9.2 H/9, 0.8 HR/9
8.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.41 K:BB

At worst, Marco Gonzales could probably be a LOOGY right now, if pressed into action. With Siegrist, Cecil, and the next guy on this list, you don't need him to be pressed. I'd start the year with him in Memphis' rotation.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons has had an inauspicious start as a starter in St. Louis. As a starter (20 starts over his first 3 seasons played with the Cardinals), Lyons had an ERA above 5 and finished just 107 1/3 innings - just over 5 a start. His K:BB was a decent-but-not-great 2.79 and his WHIP was just above 1.35. It isn't a terrible line, but it's worse than Wacha last year and that was easily Wacha's worst season in the majors and he was injured. So there's that.

Another strike against him starting is how valuable he is as a reliever. Lyons is a freaking rock star out of the pen and nobody seems to realize it. The guy has 50 relief appearances in 4 seasons in the majors. In those 50 appearances, he's thrown 90 1/3 innings - nearly 2 innings per appearance. He has a 2.69 ERA in that time with a dazzling 0.963 WHIP and 4.09 K:BB (with a K an inning). His OPS against is a full .150 points lower when he pitches in relief as well - and he gets both righties and lefties out! Righties get on base less than 30% of the time vs. Lyons as a reliever. They do slug well, though. 12 of the 215 righties he's faced as a reliever have homered off of him and another 9 have doubled. That's 10% of players getting an extra base hit. Then again, he has struck out 54 of the 215 - 25% of them - and walked just 15 (a 3.6 K:BB on his off split!)

Against lefties, he's been ridiculous. In 137 batters, only 19 have gotten a hit (1 double, 3 homers) and just 7 have reached via a walk. He's struck out 36 (26.3%) of them for an over 5:1 K:BB. Less than 20% of them have gotten on base and they have an OPS against Lyons of just .427.

The last thing holding Lyons back is that he's coming off of a knee injury. What's that? An injury? No way! He'll be back sometime in April, apparently. However, I love Lyons in that 6th/7th inning role - especially if the other team has stacked 2-3 lefties in the order. I'd keep him there.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver is the last person I want to discuss today, and he might be my preference of the bunch. This is, of course, because he's 1) the only healthy one of the bunch after last year; 2) Rosie and Wacha could shine with their fastball/change up combos in the bullpen in an "Andrew Miller"-esque-2016-playoffs role. They could both go 2-4 times a week (depending on situation/pitches thrown/times warmed up) and get THE key outs of games in middle relief; and 3) Weaver is damn good himself.

In 2014, Weaver was drafted in the first round and sent to rookie ball for 4 starts (complete dominance) and then all the way to High A ball for 2 starts (nowhere close to dominance - he was dominated). Excepting those 9 1/3 innings, Weaver has been flat out good in the minors. In 2015, Weaver pitched the entire year at High A - at 21 years old - 2 years younger than league average. He started 19 games and had a 1.62 ERA, 1.111 WHIP, and 4.63 K:BB. He pitched 105 1/3 innings in those 19 starts (over 5.5 innings per game!) in his first full professional season. He followed that up with a trip to the Arizona Fall League and threw in 7 games there, starting 2. In 19 1/3 innings pitched in Arizona (very much a hitter's paradise) he had a very respectable 3.72 ERA and incredible 0.828 WHIP and 4.50 K:BB!

In 2015, they jumped him to AA Springfield, a hitter's park in a hitter's league. He made only 12 starts in Springfield before going up to Memphis for a game before getting to the majors in just his 2nd full professional season - after less than 40 appearances in the minors. Between Springfield and 1 start at Memphis, he threw 83 innings in 13 games. That's 6.4 innings per start as a 22 year old at 2.5 years below his competition. He also had a 1.30 ERA, 0.928 WHIP, and struck out 92 men in 83 innings while walking just 12. That's a K:BB of 7.67. Wow.

Overall in the minors, Weaver is 15-9 with a 1.78 ERA in 38 starts and 197 2/3 innings. His K:BB is nearly 5.5 and he's got a WHIP of just 1.078. The kid has electric stuff and just flat out gets people out. He did not fare quite as well in the majors, especially in his starts. He had an ERA of 5.70 in 36 1/3 innings in 9 games - 8 of them starts. The good to take from his time in the majors? He struck out 45 while walking just 12 and had a SIERA of 3.55 and an xFIP of just 3.34. He's projected for an ERA and FIP under 4 and nearly 1 WAR in only just over 50 innings.
Weaver is an extreme control pitcher. They have him projected for just under 2.5 walks per 9 innings and he never ever hit 2 walks per 9 in the minors at any point. The "electric stuff" I talked about earlier? With his great control, Weaver also threw an average of 92.5 miles per hour on his 4-seamer and over 92 miles per hour on his sinker. He mixed in a cutter around 88, slider around 86, change up around 84, and curveball around 80 mph. His 4-seamer topped out over 97 miles per hour. His slider and his cutter both have glove-side break of about 6 inches difference than the arm-side riding 4-seamer. His sinker has about 3 more inches of arm-side break than his 4-seamer. His change up has about 2 more inches of arm-side break than his 4-seamer (or one less than his sinker). Lastly, his curve has about 3 more inches of glove-side break than his cutter and slider.

What's more is, you can see by the image below, that all 6 of those pitches come out of nearly the exact same arm slot (release point shown).

Lastly, here's a chart showing the three main competitors (as I see it) and the projections I put on them if they all get 30 games started:

As you can see, my projections love Rosenthal and Weaver more than Wacha - despite Wacha's huge edge in innings over Weaver and semi-large edge in innings over Rosenthal. On a per-inning basis, it's got Rosenthal and Weaver in a dead heat. As I said above, if that's the case, I prefer Luke Weaver as my 5th starter. That's my recommendation with a bullpen of:

Closer - Oh
Wacha - HLP (high leverage pitcher or "help" pitcher as Scott Boras is calling it)
Rosenthal - HLP
Cecil - SU
Siegrist - SU
Broxton - because he'll be on the roster
Wick (as my surprise pick for the bullpen) or Bowman

(and Lyons - MR/LOOGY when back in April sometime.)