Cards have good problem with too much pitching
Matheny must whittle down eight starting candidates to five by end of spring
JUPITER, Fla. -- A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals opened camp hopeful that they could find a strong fifth starter in one of their budding young pitchers. Now, they have too many.
That is a hint facetious, of course, as there is no such thing as too much good pitching. Depth is enviable in the business of baseball, and it is often critical to success, as the organization was reminded of in 2013. But it also makes for tougher roster decisions, something the Cardinals are poised to experience over the next six weeks.
Paring down the starting staff from eight to five remains one of the top priorities for the Cards as they begin the process of constructing a roster. These decisions have implications beyond the obvious, too, as the makeup of the bullpen partially hinges on the composition of the rotation.
The organization welcomes the opportunity for competition, believing that a push for positioning makes the whole group stronger in the end. That is why even Adam Wainwright approaches Spring Training with an eye at earning his spot in the rotation, even though, in reality, it is the most secure.
"I think it's a disservice for us to come in and say already that we have this set," manager Mike Matheny said. "We send them home [in the offseason] with a lot of things to work on to get better. We have to give them a chance to show what they've done. And then we have to give them a chance to come out here and go head to head. Realizing that we're all headed in the same direction, there is nothing wrong with that healthy competition."
The Cardinals' rotation will feature Wainwright on top and a collection of young pitchers below him. Lance Lynn, 26, has a resume that shows 33 wins over the last two seasons and a workload surpassing 200 innings in 2013. Jaime Garcia, 27, offers the left-handed look that the Cards lacked during the second half of last season. For the first time in two years, his shoulder is healthy and responding.
There is 23-year-old Shelby Miller, whose 15-win season earned him a finalist position in the National League Rookie of the Year Award balloting. And yet he would end the season overshadowed by another rookie, Michael Wacha, who had one of the best postseason runs by any rookie pitcher ever. He won't be 23 until July.
Joe Kelly, 25, remains in the mix -- and deservedly so after being St. Louis' best second-half pitcher in 2013. Carlos Martinez intends to make a splash, too, now that the 22-year-old right-hander has some big league relief experience under his belt. Lefty Tyler Lyons, 25, hopes not to be lost in the shuffle.
"It's a healthy competition between all of us," Miller said. "We know what we did last year, what we accomplished. We know at the same time that we have a bunch of guys competing for starting positions. I think that's good for a lot of things. It brings out the best in players, where you're competing and having fun at the same time."
The competition will last into March, though how deep into the month it goes will depend in some part on the Cardinals' ability to find innings for the pitchers to throw. That becomes an issue once the starters are able to cover four to five innings per start. General manager John Mozeliak said that some "B" games could be added to the schedule to open up more innings.
As for how this competition will be settled, Spring Training results will not dictate all. There is past performance to consider, as well as versatility. Kelly and Martinez, for instance, have shown an ability to fit well in the bullpen. If all else is equal in the competition, moving them back into relief roles (at least temporarily) would allow the Cards to keep other pitchers in a more preferred starting role.
The Cardinals are also cognizant of the fact that the Opening Day five will not remain unchanged through September. Injuries happen. Ineffectiveness prompts changes. That's why the organization welcomes the challenge of finding a way to settle a surplus.
"We have some very young guys, very talented guys, and they're going to have to step in and compete," Matheny said. "That's kind of that idea that we're just constantly going to be hounding on -- competing nonstop. No matter who you are, no matter what you've done, come here in Spring Training like you have something to prove. And show us what you can do to try to get better every day. It will be fun to watch some of these young guys continue to grow."
It is a competition that the pitchers seem ready to embrace.
"You have to perform whenever you're out there and get their attention," Wacha said. "Obviously, we have our ace Wainwright, and then it's a bunch of young guys fighting for a spot. It's a lot of fun, really, just looking through the clubhouse and seeing all the talent we have on this pitching staff. It's pretty crazy, and it just makes me excited about getting the season started."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.