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Who Steps In For St. Louis?

They say adversity creates opportunity, whoever “they” are. But there’s likely no group that appreciates that quite as much as fantasy baseball mavens. With Chris Carpenter apparently headed for the disabled list, potentially aeternum, there’s an obvious trickle down effect on the St. Louis Cardinals rotation. The immediate beneficiaries are likely to be some combination of Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and/or Shelby Miller.

What we know is the Cardinals still have Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, and Jaime Garcia. What we don’t know is how healthy Garcia is after having his ailing shoulder derail his ability to pitch in the playoffs this past season. But uncertainty about Garcia only further cements Lance Lynn in the rotation. Lynn, as you’ll recall, was bounced from rotation to bullpen after he started to get shelled in August. It wasn’t entirely clear if they wanted to use Lynn as a potent setup man for Jason Motte or if they planned for him to start games. With Carpenter down, they probably get their answer whether they wanted it or not.

Assuming Lynn is in the rotation, that leaves one spot left — and assuming John Mozeliak doesn’t bring back Kyle Lohse, then there will be some kind of battle between Kelly, Rosenthal, and Miller.

Kelly saw time with the big league club in 2012, posting a 3.53 ERA (4.00 FIP) and a 16.4% K rate over 107 innings pitched. He was far more stingy as a reliever, albeit in just 15 innings, but in breaking out his starts his ERA was 3.74 and his K rate dropped to just over 15%. His major flaw is against left handed batters. While Kelly holds right handed batters to just a .234/.290/.316 line, it balloons to .313/.389/.528 versus lefties. Over 200 lefties faced, Kelly struck out just 11% of them and walked 10%, giving up 56 hits over 42 innings pitched — 23 of them for extra bases.

Kelly hasn’t demonstrated eye-popping strikeout stuff in the minors, so it’s reasonable to expect his K/9 to sit somewhere in the 6.00 range, but he did manage to generate an impressive 52% ground ball rate. That ground ball rate might lead to an elevated BABIP which will probably hurt his WHIP, but in Kelly you can probably expect something in the 4.00 ERA range, a 15% K rate, and a WHIP likely over 1.30. But his limitations against LHB could send him to AAA to season or to the bullpen.

Rosenthal profiles as a much higher strikeout guy than Kelly and in his 22 innings of work in 2012, he did just that, striking out over 28% of batters faced using a 97mph+ four seamer almost exclusively. They were all relief innings, however, so all we have to go on are minor league figures relative to his starting career. In the minors in 2012 he threw 109 innings (94 of them at AA), posting a 2.97 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and an 8.6 K/9. He allowed only 78 hits over those 109 innings but he did walk 42 batters. What he seems to lack is a quality secondary pitch, which could keep him in the bullpen to throw 96-100 mile per hour fastballs for the foreseeable future, or potentially back to AAA to continue to develop his repertoire. ZiPS seems to like him marginally better than Kelly in terms of ERA/FIP and considerably better in the strikeout department (21.5% to 14.7% better).

Shelby Miller you all know well. The former first round draft pick has sat atop Cardinal top prospect lists for the past three seasons. He struck out 160 batters in 136 AAA innings in 2012, all as a starter. In his brief stint at the big league level, he dominated – holding batters to a .184 batting average, striking out 16 batters in 13.2 innings pitched. Based on the good work of Marc Hulet, scouts seem to believe that he has matured both in terms of character, but perhaps more importantly, as a pitcher — refining his secondary pitches and relying on them to a greater degree. As far as upside goes, Miller is probably the guy with the highest ceiling of the three. ZiPS is less bullish on Miller in 2013 than Kelly and Rosenthal, but the projections also have all of his innings as a starter whereas there is more of a mix for the latter two, which would have an impact on their outlook.

If I had to guess, I’d be a little surprised if it isn’t Miller that gets the nod. But I confess there’s a little bit of fan bias wrapped up in that statement, because I’m really interested to see what he can do. Regardless, if you’re the prospecting type, any three of these guys are worth a grab if available — chances are Miller isn’t in dynasty leagues. Monitor the situation in the Spring, and obviously keep an eye on whether the Cardinals decide to fill the void with a free agent signing.