Another baseball season is upon us, and as the Cardinals get ready to try for a fifth consecutive trip to the NLCS, they have the ingredients to succeed again.
With everything that’s changed in baseball, sabermetrics, the steroid era, new ballparks, juiced balls, and an explosion of revenue, one thing hasn’t changed. Pitching is still what wins, especially in October. The Giants have had stability on their staff for the last five years, in which they’ve won three World Series, and they’ve had a great catcher calling their games.
While the Cardinals have experienced a little more turnover, they also have more youth among their starters, and they have the peerless Yadier Molina behind the plate. Even with the 2014 departures of Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, the Cardinals have veteran presence and young talent ready to go.
Adam Wainwright’s start on Saturday was encouraging. While the Redbirds have lots of talent behind Waino, they don’t have a definitive number one starter for everyone to fall in place behind. While Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, John Lackey, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales all possess enough talent to be formidable starters, none of them has the resume of Wainwright as an ace. When Chris Carpenter and Wainwright were healthy and on the same staff, the Cards had an embarrassment of riches at the top of their rotation. That doesn’t exist anymore.
Lance Lynn hasn’t been given the opportunity to lead a rotation yet, but he’s certainly a horse who fits the mold of the number-one. Only Wainwright (53) and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (51) have more than Lynn’s 48 wins in the last three years.
Once a product of great run support, last year Lynn had a career-best 2.74 ERA in 33 starts, with a career best 203.2 innings. There’s every reason to believe Lynn will be able to replicate that success as he enters his prime.
Wacha has been impressive this spring, as he returns from his stress reaction. A healthy Wacha also fits the mold of an ace. He can’t be counted on because of last season’s injury and the mystery surrounding it, but if the top three in the rotation are healthy, the Cardinals match up with Washington and Los Angeles in terms of their top three starters.
Lackey is the quintessential grizzled veteran. In 2013, coming off Tommy John surgery, Lackey provided 189.1 innings. Last year, he gave the Red Sox and the Cardinals 198 innings. He can be counted on for 28-31 starts, 190 innings, and the ability to get the team deep into games with a chance to win. For a lot of teams, Lackey would be a two or a three. For the Cardinals, he’s a four. That’s notable.
For their last starter, as you know, the Cardinals have a three man competition between Garcia, Martinez and Gonzales. While the latter two are better long term options, a healthy (for the moment) Garcia would seem to have the edge because of his large contract and the fact that he doesn’t have options left. And when he gets hurt, Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist can turn to either Martinez or Gonzales.
That group of seven starters should be enough to get the Cardinals through a successful season. The bullpen will be a strength again, as long as Trevor Rosenthal maintains his command in the ninth inning. While I’m sure Martinez would be disappointed by not being the fifth starter, he’d be a boon to a bullpen that could build a bridge of Martinez and Jordan Walden between the end of the sixth inning and Rosenthal.
As far as the rest of the bullpen, the old adage is “don’t believe what you see in March.” That being said, Randy Choate, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and Matt Belisle have combined for a 0.00 ERA with two weeks left in spring training.
Rosenthal has walked just one in six innings, re-establishing the control he had at his most dominant stretches last season.
Let’s take a look at the last five World Series Champions. The Giants have won three of those with dominant pitching. Starters Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong have been there throughout. So have relievers Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez. The 2011 champs were, of course, the Cardinals, with their great pitching…especially with the reinforcements added in the Colby Rasmus deal. And the 2013 Red Sox had Lackey, Jon Lester and Clay Bucholtz…and then added Jake Peavy for the stretch run and the post-season. All of those teams had deep bullpens for October, too.
The post-season is about pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Jason Heyward should add to a deep lineup, and the Cardinals have outstanding depth that should cover any injury, save for Yadier Molina.
If Molina stays healthy, there’s no reason the Cardinals shouldn’t be a 2015 playoff team, and head to their fifth straight National League Championship Series.
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