When Spring Training opened, the top of the Cardinals’ rotation was set and whatever controversy there was, was about whether Jake Westbrook would be able to keep his spot in the rotation. For the second season in a row, an injury has thrown the rotation into some flux. Westbrook’s spot is secure — at least for now — Kyle Lohse is tonight’s Opening Night starter, and Lance Lynn finds himself in the rotation after having thrown just over 10 innings as a starter last year. Kyle McClellan may have been the more logical choice, but he wasn’t nearly as effective in that role as the Cardinals had hoped last season, so it isn’t much of a surprise that they would choose to keep him as a reliever all year as they see if Lynn can be productive over a wider sample of innings.
At first glance, Lynn’s gaudy strikeout numbers — 40 victims in just 34.2 innings of work, a hair shy of 30 percent of the hitters he faced — would seem to make him a no-brainer for a quick pick up, but the track record of relievers moving into the rotation and maintaining that level of dominance isn’t particularly good. Still, armed with a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that hitters seem only to be able to beat into the ground, Lynn isn’t exactly being thrown to the wolves by being put into the rotation.
If Lynn hadn’t been a starter in the minors, I’d be somewhat more cautious about picking him up, but, in truth, a move to the bullpen would have been the bigger change. He’s made 72 minor league starts with a K-rate at or above 7.0 at every level, which gives me confidence he’ll be able to post solid strikeout numbers in the majors. While his fastball is definitely his swing-and-miss offering, his ability to generate groundballs with his curve and changeup may well be what keeps him in the rotation past Carpenter’s return. Last year’s 56.7 GB% might not survive the move out of the bullpen, if he can keep it anywhere close to the 50 percent mark, I think he’ll have a good shot at keeping his WHIP and ERA in a useable range.
While it’s obviously not a piece of good luck to lose the team’s best pitcher, the Cardinals are somewhat fortunate that Carpenter’s injury popped up when it did. In much the same way as with Adam Wainwright last year, the team had weeks to figure out who would take over the vacated starts, which means owners need not worry about Lynn being properly stretched out, something to watch for around this time of year for players thrust into unexpected roles. What I’ll be interested to see is what happens if Lynn pitches well, which I believe he will, and Westbrook can’t shake the walks and hard contact that plagued him last year. Will Lynn be able to keep his spot when there are six starters for five spots?
That uncertainty is the only thing that makes me uncomfortable with adding Lynn at the expense of another marginal starter who has a guaranteed rotation spot. I love him as a patchwork option for someone like Scott Baker, Ted Lilly, or any other starter who is expected to miss a start or two, maybe even a month, but I’m wary of him much past then. At that point, we should have more information on Carpenter’s timetable and at least a pair of starts from Lynn to see how he’ll handle starting in the majors. Armed with that information, it should be much easier to decide about whether moving other players around to keep Lynn long term will be a wise play.