Just yesterday, the Cardinals were holding open tryouts for the imaginary “sixth starter.” Well, those tryouts just bumped up in significance with the news that Adam Wainwright may be lost for the season. Over the past four seasons, Wainwright’s 17.5 WAR ranks 11th among all starters – and far outpaces Chris Carpenter’s 9.9 – making this a terrifying blow to the Cardinals staff. If the Cardinals have any good fortune, it’s that they’ve discovered this early in spring training, and have more than a month to find an alternative solution. While there certainly are options among the still unemployed, Tony La Russa has already declared that the solution will come from someone already at camp in Jupiter.
Candidates for the job include Kyle McClellan, P.J. Walters, Adam Ottavino, Brian Tallet, Lance Lynn and Ian Snell (of course, if the Cards wanted to get wild, they could promote Shelby Miller, but he seems ticketed for High-A Palm Beach). McClellan could be an interesting choice. While he has been a reliever throughout his Major League career, he did start in the minors, and was already slated to be stretched out this spring. Certainly, he has a starter’s arsenal. Last season, he threw four pitches – fastball, cutter, curveball and changeup – at least five percent of the time, and his fastball, curveball and change were all at least 3.5 runs above average. In fact, last season, among relievers with at least 60 innings pitched McClellan’s wCB mark of 5.9 ranked fourth in the Majors, ahead of both Heath Bell and Neftali Feliz. Whether or not he could handle a starter’s workload all season remains to be seen, but if his Marcel-projected 3.96 FIP held up as a starter that would be terrific for the Cards.
Ottavino and Walters each received three starts for St. Louis last season. Walters’ starts hit the extremes. In his first, he threw five shutout innings in San Diego. Five days later, he was tattooed by the Reds, for seven runs in four innings. Then, in the season’s final week, he mixed in a seven-inning whitewashing of the Pirates. He was particularly effective in this outing, as he needed only 80 pitches to make it through the seventh. But while he does have some good strikeout potential, one drawback to Walters is that he doesn’t ring up the ground balls the way a Cardinals pitcher will need to with Lance Berkman patrolling the outfield.
While Walters had briefly seen time in 2009, last year’s starts represented Ottavino’s Major League debut. While Ottavino’s overall line looks pretty abhorrent, he actually didn’t fare as poorly as a starter – nine of the 21 runs he allowed in his brief stint in the Majors came as a reliever. Ottavino, who is recovering from a shoulder injury, had also made some real progress at Triple-A as well, as he had increased his strikeout rate while more than halving his walk rate from 2009. A small sample to be sure, as he only threw 47.2 innings in Memphis, but combine the progress and his pedigree as a former first-round pick, and he could have a legit shot. Marcel doesn’t peg either Walters or Ottavino as being all that dissimilar – a 4.59 ERA and 4.33 FIP for Walters, compared to 4.89 and 4.31 for Ottavino.
When he was drafted, Tallet was a starter. Then he was a reliever. Then, in 2009, the Blue Jays turned him back into a starter, only to turn him back into a reliever after five early starts where he allowed 19 runs (17 earned) in 27.1 innings pitched, good for a 5.60 ERA. Of course, the 6.84 ERA he piled up as a reliever the rest of the season doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Lynn has been a top-10 Cardinals prospect on the FanGraphs charts each of the past two winters, but the fact that he’s moving in the wrong direction on that list also doesn’t inspire confidence. Lynn was the best Cardinals prospect heading into last year, but slid back to seventh-best heading into this spring. While four of the six ahead of Lynn were drafted in 2010, Lynn’s Triple-A performance leaves little reason to dispute the slide. His 4.43 FIP in his full-season Triple-A debut was nearly a full run worse than his performance at Double-A in ’09, and as another guy who doesn’t light up the radar guns, his time as a fifth starter would likely be just as messy as Tallet’s.
Then there’s Snell. When Snell was designated for assignment by the Mariners last June, R.J. Anderson wrote of him:
He doesn’t throw strikes; he doesn’t miss bats; he doesn’t deceive anyone, and he has an ever-slimming hope of ever reaching 90% of his former self.
Still, if there’s one thing we like in this country, it’s a comeback, and few are better at procuring those comebacks in the baseball world than Dave Duncan. And Snell is seemingly a perfect Duncan-ite since one of his main problems, declining ground-ball rate – from 1.23 in ’07, to 1.02 in ’08, to 0.96 in ’09 and 0.79 in limited duty last year – dovetails so nicely with Duncan’s strengths. However, since Snell has struck out only seven more batters than he’s walked the past two seasons, let’s call him a long shot.
If I was the agent for Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman, I’d be burning up John Mozeliak’s phone line, but looking at their projections, it’s likely the only advantage they’d have over McClellan, Ottavino or Walters is the comfort in knowing that they could eat up 200 innings, and Bonderman might not even have that. That the best bet is a guy who has started only one game in the past four years, and who hasn’t started 20 games in a season since 2004, is a bit sobering (insert callous La Russa joke here), but that is the Cardinals reality. If McClellan is unable to successfully transition back into a starter’s role, the Cards may have to go outside the organization, with a trade providing a better solution than what’s left on the wire. But whether the solution is internal or external, St. Louis is faced with the very likely possibility of a five win drop-off from Wainwright to his replacement, and that might be conservative. And since the Cards were merely middle of the pack in terms of team pitching WAR last season with Wainwright, middle of the pack may a lofty goal to set without him.