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Seth Blair, the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen, and the useful edges of the minor leagues

How far can a prospect slip before turning into something useful?

The lowest-stakes photo in our CMS: Michael Blazek in a bunting contest.
The lowest-stakes photo in our CMS: Michael Blazek in a bunting contest.
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Seth Blair had a Seth Blair kind of game Friday night, but the good news about his 2013 season is that a "Seth Blair Game" is different in 2013—less specific—than it's been since the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in 2010.

For the first two years of his pro career, a Seth Blair Game involved a strikeout-to-walk ratio on the wrong side of one, with plenty of both. In 2012 he made five starts for Palm Beach, and walked more batters than he struck out in three of them. (His only win that year: Four strikeouts, two walks, five innings, against the immortal Charlotte Stone Crabs.) 2011 was worse, and in larger portions—he walked at least four batters in nine of his 21 starts, and went more than four innings in 10 of them.

In 2013, though, a Seth Blair Game is just a combination of bad luck and not-quite-good-enough performance. It's combining a career-low walk rate of 7.1% with a batting average on balls in play of .353. It's what he did last night: He struck out six and walked one in six innings and allowed six runs (two earned) thanks to a third inning crowded by two throwing errors and a wild pitch.

Seth Blair just could not be receiving worse incentives from the universe—across two recent starts he walked one batter and allowed 20 hits in 11 innings.

He's improving on his career so far, though, and at 24 he seems young enough to do something with the progress he's made, such as it is. Which is really why I was thinking about Seth Blair: Is he young enough? Were any current Cardinals this adrift so deep into their pro careers?

The answer, which is unsurprising if you've followed prospects long enough to watch a few journeymen develop, is no, not really. In the same way that it seems like every hulking major league first baseman played shortstop in college, most major league pitchers were impressive enough to make their way, at least, onto somebody's prized list of sleeper prospects.

So Jake Westbrook, Designated Boring Guy, made 28 starts in full-season ball as a 19-year-old and reached the majors at 22. Seth Maness, future reliever (and an 11th-rounder, a year after Blair), carried a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.56 into his major league debut. Tyler Lyons struck out a batter an inning in Memphis (briefly.)

One of the awkward things that's come with our redefinition of starters and relievers as separate kinds of pitchers is that it's harder, now, to see the entirety of the minor-league-pitcher continuum. If the starters were all consistently Interesting, the relievers were busy giving up home runs to all the consistently Interesting hitting prospects, because somebody had to.

It's not a rule, or an indicator, so much as a reminder; relief pitchers are constant, frightening reminders of how much uncertainty there can be between, say, Mitchell Boggs and then Mitchell Boggs and then, unfortunately, Mitchell Boggs. The player development that's earned the Cardinals so much praise this season has mostly involved uncovering great prospects and following through with pretty-good ones like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter.

But on the edges, waiting to leap over the gap between the 12th-best pitcher on the staff and the ninth-best, there's a bunch of Michael Blazeks and Barret Brownings and Blake Kings and, if he's lucky, Seth Blairs. A successful team can't rely on any particular minor league guy, but most of them end up relying on one of them to figure just one thing out, to have just one good run, and be something more than that.