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Spring Preview: Starting rotation

With 10 days until pitchers and catchers, it's time to roll out the spring previews. I plan to break things down by position to keep things in digestible bits instead of posting a baseball version of War and Peace. What better place to start than the heart of any team, the rotation?

Starting pitchers: 

Chris Carpenter: In an off-season of disappointment, the Cardinals are still counting on their one-time ace to be the trade or free agent acquisition they never made. If Carpenter is healthy, the Redbirds might have one of the best rotations in baseball. If he's not, things could rapidly descend into Chaos as the Birds are forced to try to get creative due to a lack of depth. The Cardinals are currently painting a rosy picture, saying that Carpenter is ready to begin spring training with no restrictions. But when you have a degenerative nerve condition, things can go south at any time and without warning. Don't forget that 2008 wasn't the first time this condition has reared its ugly head. It's the same problem that put Carpenter on the shelf during the stretch and playoffs in 2004. The good news is that, in his short time on the mound last season, Carpenter's surgically repaired elbow seems to be fine. (2008 stats: 0-1, 1.76 ERA, 4 BB, 7 K, 15 1/3 IP.)

Adam Wainwright: With Carp on the shelf, Wainwright took huge strides in 2008 toward establishing himself as a top of the rotation starter. Not only were his pitches sharp and his mechanics sound for the entire season, but he showed a unique killer instinct and that he is nearly unflappable when the going gets rough. Wainwright smoothly sailed through the season, with the exception of a finger injury that frustratingly kept him on the bench while the Cardinals were fighting for a wild card spot. Hopefully, that problem is in the rearview mirror. A healthy tandem of Carpenter and Wainwright could be the best 1-2 punch in the National League. (2008 stats: 11-3, 3.20 ERA, 34 BB, 91 K, 132 IP.)

Kyle Lohse: The Cardinals' biggest off-season move was keeping their bargain basement find of the spring in 2008. Lohse, who repeatedly said throughout last year that he wanted to stay in St. Louis after signing a $4.25 million single season contract, was retained for $41 million over four seasons the day after the 2008 ccampaign ended. Although that might have been a little bit more than he would have got on the down free agent market -- both in length of contract and dollar amount -- the Redbirds couldn't afford to lose last season's leader in wins and innings pitched. Lohse isn't flashy. But he gave the Cardinals a chance to win in nearly every game he pitched. And that's the main thing you ask for in a third starter if you don't have the budget of the Yankees. (2008 stats: 15-6, 3.78 ERA, 49 BB, 119 K, 200 IP.)

Todd Wellemeyer: He pitched well above what most people expected of him in 2008. So, the question is, did Wellemeyer turn a corner, or was he just lucky? Let's not forget this guy was cut loose by the Royals, Marlins and Cubs before he came to the Cardinals as a middle reliever. The Cardinals need Wellemeyer to take some of the pressure off the top of the rotation and the bullpen by consistently pitching into or beyond the sixth inning. In 2008, he pitched six innings or less only eight times in 32 starts. On paper, it seemed to take a toll when he lost five of his last seven decisions. But a closer look reveals that in only one of them was hit hit exceptionally hard. Wellemeyer may have been the biggest victim of the Cardinals' lousy bullpen in 2008. (2008 stats: 13-9, 3.71 ERA, 62 BB, 134 K, 191 2/3 IP.)

 Joel Pinero: If any of the Cardinals need to sing for their supper, it's Pineiro. He's greatly overpaid at $7.5 million in 2009 based on his seven wins and 5-plus ERA the year before. Pinero won a combined 30 games in 2002 and 2003. And there is nothing wrong with his arm that says he can't do it again. The biggest question about Pineiro is his mental makeup. He seems unprepared at times and, unlike the much younger and lesser experienced Wainwright, he tends to come unraveled at the seams when the going gets rough. Pitching coach Dave Duncan gave some room for hope in a radio interview earlier this week when he said Pineiro was embarrassed by his lousy 2008 and worked doubly hard over the off season to come to camp in shape. Most teams don't have the luxury of a one-time 16 game winner in the fifth spot of the rotation. So Pinero could have a lot of upside. And that's important when you figure someone closer to the front of the starting five will inevitably spend some time on the disabled list at some point of the season.

Brad Thompson: Thompson has yo-yoed between the rotation and the bullpen over the past few years -- when he isn't busy riding the St. Louis to Memphis shuttle. Word around the clubhouse is that Duncan and Manager Tony La Russa don't care for his stubbornness and can't figure out why he doesn't use his ground ball inducing sinker more often. Even though his stats indicate that Thompson performs better out of the bullpen than he does in the rotation, the Cardinals have few other options for fill ins if one of the top five goes on the shelf. (2008 stats: (6-3, 5.15 ERA, 19 BB, 32 K, 64 2/3 IP.)

Mitchell Boggs:  Successful at the Class AAA level in 2008 with a 9-3 record and a 3.45 ERA, Boggs struggled to make the jump to the big league level walking more than he struck out and allowing 64 base runners in 34 innings. Boggs  has a mediocre 90-93 MPH fastball and average sinker. His struggles seem to be tied to the fact that he doesn't have a major league out pitch. While he has been a starter at Memphis, Boggs looks like his best shot at the big leagues would be to improve his sinker and hope to find a job as a middle reliever. (2008 stats: 3-2, 7.41 ERA, 22 BB, 13 K, 34 IP.)

Jess Todd: The Cardinals 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year has been a starter early is his career. But the jury seems to be out as to whether he will continue that role or if he will move to the bullpen and possibly join Chris Perez and Jason Motte as closer candidates. Todd burned his way through the minors last season with a 4-5 record and 2.97 ERA in Class AA Springfield, allowing 79 hits in 103 innings before being promoted to Class AAA Memphis where he was 1-1 with a 3.97 ERA in limited duty. Todd seems to be earmarked for a full season in Memphis. But he could make the jump directly to the big league club as a reliever. (2008 stats: did not play in majors.)

Kyle McClellan: Duncan has said repeatedly that he sees McClellan as a starter in the long term. In fact, he mentioned at the baseball writer's dinner that he told McClellan to train over the off season to be a starter in 2009 in case he was needed. That being said, McClellan seemed to wear down in the second half of 2008 while pitching mostly in a setup role in the bullpen following the implosion of Jason Isringhausen and the promotion of Ryan Franklin to the closer slot. (2008 stats: 2-7, 4.04 ERA, 26 BB, 59 K, 75 2/3 IP.)

Clayton Mortensen: A supplemental first round selection in 2007 that the Cardinals took with the pick the received from Milwaukee when the Brew Crew signed away Jeff Suppan, Mortensen got a look in 2008 spring training and has been invited back this year. Mortensen struggled in 2008 to a 5-6 record with a 5.51 ERA in Class AAA Memphis where he walked 42 and struck out 57. He gave up 87 hits, including 12 home runs, in 80 innings. (2008 stats: Did not pitch in majors.)

P.J. Walters: The Cardinals' 2007 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Walters does it with smoke and mirrors. He doesn't light up the radar gun, instead relying on his control and his breaking stuff to induce batters to get themselves out. Walters was 9-4 with a 4.97 ERA in Class AAA Memphis last season. While his record was good, he seems to have a tougher time getting out more sophisticated hitters as he has climbed the ladder. It seems that Walters would benefit from another year in the minors so he could try to make the adjustments needed to allow him to continue to advance. (2008 stats: Did not pitch in majors.)

Overall grade: B

 The Cardinals have four starting pitchers who had an ERA of 3.78 or less last season. But the problem is that three of the four missed starts with injuries and the other guy (Lohse) had a career year. That being said, the team could have a very strong rotation if they don't have any significant health problems. But, let's be honest, what are the odds of that? Every team has its share of injuries throughout the season and the Cardinals seem to have left themselves vulnerable with a lack of depth backing up and injury prone squad.

In a dream season, Carpenter, Wainwright and Lohse are all threats to take a run at 20 wins. And if that happens, the Cardinals ought to be able to hang with any team in baseball. But, if Carpenter's nerve becomes inflamed and Wainwright pops his finger ligament again, the Cardinals could be scrambling to stay afloat while they wait for the big guns to come back.