With a magic number of one, the St. Louis Cardinals should lock up a playoff spot this weekend as the winners of the National League Central. With that hurdle officially cleared, they can begin to sort out their pitching staff for October, and more than most teams, they have some decisions to make.
Their top three starters are set, of course. Carpenter, Wainwright, and Pineiro is a formidable threesome, but they have to choose between either Kyle Lohse (assuming he’s healthy enough to pitch in October) or John Smoltz. Given that Smoltz has put to rest any doubt about his ability to still function as a major league pitcher, he would seem like the natural choice. After all, he’s running a 2.03 FIP since arriving in St. Louis, carving up National League hitters and making them look foolish.
Lohse, with his 4.69 FIP, is nowhere close to the pitcher than Smoltz is. That said, he’s not a total stiff, as his average-across-the-board skillset makes him a solid enough back-end starting pitcher. He’s not going to sink your chances of winning the one game per series where he takes the hill. But he’s clearly still the inferior pitcher in this decision, and the current injury situation muddies the waters a bit.
So, why would the Cardinals even consider choosing Lohse for the game 4 start? Because John Smoltz may be needed to help plug a bullpen that could cost them the series.
Ryan Franklin made the all-star team with a strong start to the season, but in the second half, he’s regressed into being, well, Ryan Franklin. He’s running an ugly 14/16 BB/K in the second half of the season, and given his career history, he should not be looked at as a true relief ace, even with the sparkling season ERA.
Likewise, the setup guys for Franklin are not the dominating types. Smoltz has significant experience coming out of the pen, and his stuff can play up for 15-20 pitches a night. As the #4 starter, he’s unlikely to work more than six or seven innings in any given playoff series, which we have to assume would be something close to even leverage. As a reliever, Smoltz could end up working in four or five high leverage critical situations, where the value of his performance would be enhanced even in a smaller number of innings overall.
Using him in relief also allows the team to minimize his exposure against left-handed hitters, who have given him the most problems this year. As a starter, the opposing manager will be able to stack the line-up with lefties to try to exploit his weakness, but that can be minimized through bullpen management.
As well as Smoltz has pitched since arriving in St. Louis, it’s probably in the Cardinals best interest to use him out of the bullpen in the playoffs. Using him as a reliever gives them their best chance of throwing a parade in November. Cardinal fans should be hoping that Lohse gets healthy in a hurry.