Coming into spring training, the Cardinals only had a few real holes to fill. Well, perhaps not holes to fill, really, but at least decisions to make on how best to utilize their resources.
Ryan Franklin and his awful beard will once again be closing games for the Cardinals this season. The rest of the 'pen, though, is somewhat up in the air.
Third base appears wrapped up in just the way it was expected all along; David Freese was the guy pretty much from the get-go. The bench remains to be settled, but the return of Brendan Ryan mitigates the need for Tyler Greene, so it appears to be a fairly safe bet the bench will include both Allen Craig and Joe Mather and Greene will be playing his ball in Memphis, at least to begin the season.
Which really leaves just the bullpen and the fifth starter's spot. Of all the races, the bullpen is the one left that presents us with the most intrigue, while the fifth starter's race essentially changes the complexion of the bullpen.
Let me preface this by saying I fully expect Kyle McClellan to win the fifth and final rotation spot for the Cardinals. Jaime Garcia has certainly forced his name back into contention with his performance this spring, and in a truly open competition, he would be taking the mound every fifth day.
The problem, of course, is that Garcia, as good as he has been, is still in the process of returning from Tommy John surgery, and the Cardinals would like to limit his innings. It's much easier to limit a pitcher's innings and pitches per outing in the minor leagues than it is at the big league level. Thus, as excited as everyone is over Garcia's potential, and as much as I would like to see him in the rotation all year, I still think in the end he'll be sent down to better monitor his workload. Rich Hill is no longer a real factor, I don't believe, and so I think K-Mac will likely win the rotation spot.
Assuming McClellan wins the starting competition, here are the candidates to fill the remaining slots in the Cardinal bullpen:
Pros: Boggs has a big-time power arm, with better stuff than nearly anyone else on the staff. He throws almost as hard as Jason Motte, but with great movement on the ball. He also features a slider with true out pitch potential. He's seemingly an ideal candidate to move into a setup role this season with the big club.
Cons: Let's face it; Mitchell has sort of sucked this spring. And by sort of I mean really. He's been badly out of whack mechanically, rushing his delivery and suffering a severe lack of command as a result. Sure, the games don't count, but Boggs doesn't look anywhere near ready to be an impact reliever based on his results so far. That being said, he has improved a bit as camp has gone on. Perhaps he's getting it together.
Pros: Hawksworth seems well-suited to the Brad Thompson role this year; he used to be a starter and is fairly economical with his pitches, meaning he should be able to handle multiple inning assignments with ease. He also has the best name of anyone in the competition.
Cons: That whole Brad Thompson comparison is a double-edged sword. Sure, there's the good side of versatility and all that, but there's also the bad side of being a very, very mediocre pitcher. Sure, Hawk's ERA+ of 202 last year looks really pretty, but his peripherals in now way support him being that pitcher going forward. His 1.33 K/BB ratio is a huge red flag, as well as an unsustainably low .225 BABIP. Don't get me wrong, I think Hawksworth can be a perfectly useful pitcher throwing low-leverage innings. But if anyone thinks he's going to have an ERA barely over 2.00 again this season, I think they're going to be sorely disappointed.
Ottavino in his college days.
Pros: Ottavino is the big surprise in this group. A former first-round pick with a big arm and equally big control issues, Ottavino has struggled throughout his minor league career to find and maintain a consistent delivery and release point. He seems to have made significant progress in that area, and has been extremely impressive. He brings the heat, throwing a fastball in the mid 90s, and has a nasty slider as well. If he can maintain his new ability to throw strikes, Ottavino could be a force at the back end of the 'pen.
Cons: Adam has less of a track record of success than either Hawksworth or Boggs, both of whom have pitched at the big league level and have better results in the minors. Ottavino looks as if he's put his control issues at least in the rear-view mirror, but the sample size is still very small.
Pros: Garcia has been the best pitcher for the Cardinals this spring. Better than Carpenter, better than Wainwright, better than everyone. He has been a starter his entire career, so his arm is already conditioned for longer outings. Has excellent stuff and results to match, rolling up high numbers of both strikeouts and groundball outs.
Cons: The only real concern with Garcia is the one already discussed: health. Tommy John surgery is certainly not the career-threatening ordeal is once was, but it is still major surgery, and caution should be exercised with a player coming back. The other real question with Garcia in relation to the bullpen is this: if he's healthy enough to handle the uneven workload of the bullpen, shouldn't he be in the rotation, where he's more valuable anyway?
Pros: With his breaking ball, one would think Hill could be a dynamite lefty specialist. Oddly enough, though, his career splits don't show any pronounced difference; left-handed hitters actually have a slightly better OBP against Hill than righties. Righties do hit for a fair bit more power, though. Still, you would think his repertoire could easily be adapted to a specialist role if he were to focus on it.
Cons: Where do I begin? Do you really want a pitcher who seems unable to throw a fastball for a strike pitching the seventh inning any more than you want him pitching the third inning? I suppose you could use Hill as strictly a mop-up arm, but I think he's miscast in that role. If Hill isn't good enough to make the team as a starter (and let's face it, he hasn't been), he should be in the minors getting consistent innings and working on relocate his delivery and command. I just don't see Hill as a very viable relief candidate.
Pros: Walters is seemingly a bit of a forgotten man this spring, after getting off to a late start due to the premature birth of his daughter. You also just don't hear his name very often in discussions of either the final starting spot or a relief role. He does have some value, though, in much the same way Blake Hawksworth does. P.J. could easily take that middle inning Brad Thompson role if asked to do so. He has one dynamite pitch, a changeup, and at the very least could be used in series against the Cubs to make Alfonso Soriano look stupid. Somewhat surprisingly, given his less than impressive velocity, Walters does boast excellent strikeout numbers throughout his career.
Cons: Walters did not impress in his audition with the big club last year, and he seems to have regressed from his early days in the minors, when he lived on excellent command, movement, and one plus offspeed pitch. Such a profile could lead him to being a solid middle-innings pitcher, but probably not much more.
So there you have it. Six candidates for what could be three spots. What would I do, you ask? Well, that's an excellent question.
Personally, I would make Jaime Garcia the fifth starter. I feel he's the best man for the job. I understand the concerns over the workload at the major league level, but I also think the Cardinals could get away with limiting his innings and pitches. With a seven-man bullpen, they're going to be carrying at least one pitcher best suited for multiple inning stretches in fairly low leverage situations. (Hawksworth, I'm looking in your direction.) Limit Garcia to, say, 90-100 pitches per outing and skip him here and there if possible. Call up a guy from Memphis if you need to. The Cards will barely need a fifth starter in April, and if they can skip him even half a dozen times the rest of the year they could easily limit him to 22-25 starts and ~150 innings.
Putting Garcia in the rotation would free up Kyle McClellan to resume his bullpen duties and keep the Cardinals from having to rely on so many unknowns in relief. At this point, I think Adam Ottavino deserves a spot with the big club over Boggs; Mitchell could use the time in Triple A to get his delivery ironed back out. Hawksworth is the best candidate for long relief; plus, I believe he's out of options. So the bullpen would shake out like this:
That arrangement would represent the best scenario for the Cards to begin the season, I believe. Pitch Boggs exclusively in relief at Memphis and when he gets his delivery and command back to where they need to be, reevaluate who isn't performing at the major league level.
As I said earlier, though, I expect McClellan to win the rotation spot, in which case Boggs, Hawksworth, and Ottavino likely all make the club. I have to admit I'm not all that excited about that scenario, which I honestly feel makes both the rotation and bullpen worse. Then again, there's a reason I'm not a Hall of Fame manager or his pitching coach, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.