Lance Lynn Gets His First Shot At the Limelight

Mar 3, 2011 at 4:04 pm
click to enlarge Lynn during his time pitching for the University of Mississippi.
Lynn during his time pitching for the University of Mississippi.
Lance Lynn, suddenly one of the most intriguing names in Cardinals' spring camp, made his 2011 debut yesterday in the Cards' 3-2 victory over the New York Metropolitans of Port St. Lucie, Florida. (I envision one day all major league teams will have names like this, going the route of the Angels due to stadium-related moves to various suburbs of their initial city homes.) I'll say this for Lynn: he isn't letting his underdog position in the fifth starter competition get him down. 

He's an underdog, of course, because Kyle McClellan has the experience at the big league level and the trust of the coaching staff. Still, I think Lance Lynn may have something Kyle McClellan doesn't: an actual future starting at the major league level. 

Lynn isn't necessarily the most exciting prospect in the world. He's a big, physical guy on the mound, but even with a jump in velocity last season he isn't exactly Nolan Ryan out there. He actually bumped 95 with his fastball at times in 2010, a significant step up from his previous velocity range, but he's still very much a pitch-to-contact-er. I do like his changeup, though, and he's got at least average breaking stuff. In short, he's a pretty good pitching prospect, the sort of guy who gets slapped with the, "mid-rotation starter ceiling," tag almost every time his name comes up. 

Not that that's anything to sneeze at, of course. Number three/four starters who can stay healthy (and Lynn has the kind of delivery that should help him healthy), tend to get Kyle Lohse contracts pretty much as a matter of course. 

Kyle McClellan, on the other hand, is seen as a starter primarily because, well, he sort of looks like a starter. He's got a bunch of pitches, but none of them are particularly good. His slider was pretty solid a couple years ago, and last year he threw a few impressive curveballs, but you never see more than one of his pitches working at the same time. He doesn't throw all that hard, either, so it isn't as if you feel like you're taking a potential power arm out of the bullpen. 

See what I mean? K-Mac just sort of feels like a starter. Relievers usually have something you can hang your hat on, whether it's a big fastball or one great offspeed pitch or maybe just a berserker rage on the mound. (Jason Motte, I'm looking at you for numbers one and three.) 

The problem I have with Kyle McClellan as a starter is this: I'm just not sure he's good enough to start. 

See, McClellan throws in the low-90s out of the bullpen, and has pretty good success with that fastball. Unfortunately, it's hard to maintain your velocity as a starter, when you have to pace yourself over the course of nine full innings. There's almost always a downturn in velocity when moving from the bullpen to the rotation. K-Mac could very well end up in the upper 80s with his fastball in the rotation, and that basically puts him in Jeff Suppan territory, stuff-wise. And that's not the sort of neighbourhood you want to buy property in. 

You tend to see a precipitous dropoff in strikeout rate when a pitcher moves from the 'pen to the rotation as well, and let's face it; McClellan just doesn't strike out that many hitters to begin with. His K rate the last three years are 7.0, 6.9, and 7.2. Those aren't terrible numbers, necessarily, but they're also not all that good. In fact, those are almost exactly league average strikeout rates for all pitchers, not just relievers. K-Mac can't afford to strike out many less hitters, particularly considering he isn't an extreme ground-ball pitcher. 

This is my point: Kyle McClellan may look more like a starter than a reliever, but he's never had any success starting at any level of baseball. He muddled through the low levels of the Cards' farm system for a couple seasons as a starter before injuring his arm and requiring Tommy John surgery. When he came back he pitched in relief in 2007, and did so so successfully that he put himself on the organisation's radar. One great spring training later and he was with the big club all of 2008. 

So we have a pitcher who was bad as a starter, got hurt, came back as a very good reliever, and hasn't started since. Tell me again why it seems destined by the stars above for this guy to be in a rotation someday? Sure, Lynn hasn't proven anything at the major league level, but he's got a much longer and more successful track record as a starting pitcher than anything McClellan can point to. Add in the hole in the bullpen that would be created by moving K-Mac and I'm just not sure he's at all a better choice than Lynn. 

Of course, this will all sort itself out as spring goes on. Lance Lynn's outing yesterday was just the first salvo in what will be a battle for the final rotation that spans the whole of spring training. Hell, there are even candidates not named Lance or Kyle who will get at least some consideration. It's possible neither K-Mac nor Lynn will make a single start for the Redbirds in 2011. It's possible Mitchell Boggs is out for a while and McClellan simply can't be spared for the rotation. Plenty of time for plenty to happen. 

On the other hand, Lynn looked awfully good yesterday in making his opening argument. And hey, we've gotta have something to argue about, right?