Anchored by dual Cy Young contenders, the Cards' rotation had been the bedrock for their success to this point in the season. It had managed to cover for a startling lack of offense, as Brad Penny and rookie Jaime Garcia had both performed beyond anyone's wildest expectations; certainly they weren't performing like a one-year make good contract player and a kid coming off surgery. Even Kyle Lohse had been okay. Maddeningly inconsistent, perhaps, and not at all worth the salary the Cards have invested in him, but also not a complete disaster.
Now just a few days later, as the first round of interleague play comes to an end, what the Cardinals have is a giant question mark. Brad Penny is already on the disabled list with a lat strain, and Kyle Lohse is staring down a recurrence of the forearm problems which derailed his 2009.
So what now?
Lohse will be examined by a specialist this week and is expected to miss at least one start.
Brad Penny will be gone for at least two weeks. Counting on him to come back immediately on time is probably an iffy proposition. Not doubting the medical staff or the prognosis; there's just too much that can happen on the way back from an injury to assume the best-case scenario holds. So it looks as if, for the immediate future at least, the Cardinals may need to find, not one, but two arms to take turns in the rotation.
So let's take a look at the candidates, shall we?
Walters is already with the big club, having been recalled quickly following the news of Penny's injury, and pitched in Saturday's loss. Since he's already here, one has to assume P.J. is almost certainly going to take Penny's next start. He doesn't have great stuff, but he's been dynamite in Triple A this season, and isn't going to freeze in the spotlight of the big leagues.
Seems like forever since Rich Hill was signed to compete for a spot in the Cards' starting rotation this season, doesn't it? Hell, in baseball terms, it has been forever. He was signed before Jaime Garcia first won a spot and then grabbed hold of it with his Cliff Lee impression, back when Jaime was slated for the minors and innings control.
The problem, of course, is that Rich Hill still has no idea where the ball is going when he throws it. Actually, scratch that: Hill has no idea where his fastball is going. He seems fairly capable of controlling his curve. Of course, you can't throw 85 curveballs a game, so this is a problem. Hill is actually pitching in relief in Memphis, rather than starting, and really isn't much of a candidate at all.
Just as it seems like forever since Rich Hill was a viable rotation candidate, the days when K-Mac was being stretched and groomed for starting duties seem far and wee now. Still, Dave Duncan has publicly said multiple times he sees McClellan as a starter, so you have to assume there is at least some interest in moving him out of the 'pen.
However, the timing doesn't seem at all right to try and convert K-Mac right now. Trying to condition him to throw five plus innings now, in the middle of the season, could take time, and the Cards don't really have that time. Especially considering Blake Hawksworth is also on the Unofficially Ailing list, the strain on the bullpen while trying to nurse McClellan through the process of stretching out for a starter's workload could prove too great. At this point, McClellan has to be considered a long shot.
Moving into the ranks of the prospects, Ottavino has to be the top name on the list. He's at Triple A, already on the 40 man roster, and has been very good this season. After wandering in the hinterlands of minor league purgatory the last couple season, Ottavino looks to have finally turned the corner and is moving toward fulfilling the promise which made him a first-round pick out of college.
That's not to say, of course, Ottavino is a finished product by any means. His control has been remarkably improved this season, but he's still been a bit on the hittable side. There are still those who look at Ottavino and see a future reliever, a power arm with two great pitches and just enough command to be dangerous. For now, though, his home is in the rotation, and he may very well be the next to get the call if the Cards do in fact need to fill two spots.
If Ottavino is the golden arm finally beginning to pan out, Lynn has been almost exactly the player the Cards thought they were drafting from the very start. Drafted out of Ole Miss in 2008, Lynn has performed like the steady, mature arm he was expected to be. The only unexpected aspect of Lynn as a pro has been a somewhat higher walk rate than what he posted in college. Nonetheless, Lynn has been a model of consistent performance in his pro career.
However, Lance Lynn is also not exactly a finished product. Close, but not quite. And unlike Ottavino, Lynn doesn't have the pyrotechnic stuff to overcome many mistakes. He'll be a good pitcher in the major leagues one day, I don't doubt, but for now I think Lynn should clearly be behind Ottavino in the pecking order.
MacLane is much more of a darkhorse candidate to come up and fill in for the Cardinals, but that doesn't mean he isn't a candidate. He came into the Cards' minor league system before the 2009 season as a minor league free agent and has pitched quite well since then, helping to provide stability in the Triple A rotation.
The only real problem with MacLane is the fact he really doesn't have much in the way of stuff. Even for a lefthander, his repertoire just isn't anything that's going to wow anyone. He throws a variety of pitches, and commands them all pretty well, but doesn't have a plus offering in the bunch. He's very much a typical crafty lefty, but may not have the stuff to survive in the majors no matter how crafty he is.
Like Lance Lynn, MacLane isn't on the 40 man roster, so the Cards would have to make a roster move specifically in order to bring him up. That's not a huge deal, of course, but it's just one more obstacle standing in the way of a player with a fairly slim chance of getting the call anyway.
In the end, I think Ottavino should be the guy to get the call if Lohse does indeed have to miss time. He presents the best combination of stuff and readiness, with the added benefit of getting an audition for the future. It would also be the simplest move to make, as bringing Ottavino up wouldn't require an extra roster move.
Regardless of who comes up, the Cardinals are going to find themselves in a dangerous situation for a while. The sudden lack of dependable options could very well push them to overuse of Garcia, or send the team into a tailspin at a time when the Cincinnati Reds show little sign of slowing their current torrid pace. So no matter who the fill-in proves to be, we should probably all cross our fingers it proves to be a very temporary situation.
I wonder how long it would take John Smoltz to get back into pitching shape?
Going into last weekend, the Cardinals had one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball.