Spring Training is (mercifully) coming to an end this week, which means general managers and managers have crucial roster decisions to make in the coming days. One of the most interesting Spring Training position battles has been for the St. Louis Cardinals' final rotation spot. With Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn locked into St. Louis' rotation, and Jaime Garcia once again ailing with a shoulder injury, the fifth and final spot in the Cardinals' rotation is up for grabs. Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez are vying for the spot, but through four spring starts, it's clear that "Baby Pedro" Martinez has out-pitched Kelly -- and it will be a complete sham to the idea of an open competition if Kelly earns the nod.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has only been St. Louis' manager for two years, but he's already earned the reputation of being incredibly loyal to his players. After all, Matheny kept trotting out Mitchell Boggs in high-leverage situations in the early part of the 2013 season, when it was clear that Boggs was ineffective. Matheny likely has fond memories of Kelly's time in St. Louis' rotation in 2013.
Kelly made 15 starts in 2013, going 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA through 87 innings. Those numbers look mighty impressive, but they're not terribly sustainable, unless Kelly drastically improves. Kelly struck out just 46 in those 87 innings, and walked 34. A weak strikeout to walk ratio is begging for disaster, which Kelly was lucky to avoid last season. With a fastball that touches the high 90s, it's feasible that Kelly can carve out a role as a dominant setup man -- and it's much more likely to occur than sustaining an ERA between 2-3.00.
Through three starts in spring training -- and yes, it's a small sample size -- Kelly hasn't fared well. Kelly has given up 13 hits in 9 and 1/3 innings of work, walking four and striking out six -- continuing his weak strikeout-to-walk ratio.
This isn't to say Kelly is a poor pitcher. Kelly is an above average starting pitcher, who is much more likely to end the season with an ERA in the 3.80-4.20 range than he is below 3.00. Kelly is not an ace, but he is a serviceable pitcher who should be able to pitch in high-leverage situations as a reliever -- extremely valuable innings.
Kelly's problem isn't necessarily that he's better suited for the bullpen, it's that his competition in the rotation is Carlos Martinez. Martinez has been St. Louis' most impressive starter in the spring thus far, starting four games, spanning 15 and 1/3 innings, and allowing just eight hits. Martinez has struck out nine, and issued just three walks.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak may be apprehensive to allow Martinez to enter the rotation in April. After all, Martinez only pitched 108 innings last year during the regular season -- a number that Martinez would likely eclipse by August if he remains in the rotation all season. But there's little doubt that Martinez, rated by Baseball America as the No. 28 prospect in all of baseball, has top-of-the-rotation potential. It's tough to ignore Martinez' fastball which sits in the mid-to-high 90s, or his wipeout slider that made even the best hitters in baseball look silly in the playoffs last season.
There's no doubt who the better pitcher has been through the first month of Spring Training, and even if Martinez has a dud for a final start, he'll still have out-pitched Kelly in Grapefruit League play.
Is it, however, responsible to put Martinez in the rotation after barely cracking 100 innings last year? With Jaime Garcia avoiding a major injury -- for now --, it's unlikely that either Kelly or Martinez would hold the rotation spot for the duration of the year -- barring phenomenal performances, of course.
To protect his arm and ensure effectiveness late in the season, it's likely that the Cardinals front office has capped Martinez at 140-160 innings in 2014. Martinez should get to start the season in the rotation, and then turn into a swingman for St. Louis -- a spot starter and a high-leverage reliever when Garcia returns from his annual trip to the disabled list. Once September and the playoffs come around, Martinez should then be able to slot either into the rotation, instead of say, Lance Lynn, or into the bullpen if Jason Motte is having difficulty setting up Trevor Rosenthal. It's the same approach the Cardinals took with NLCS MVP Michael Wacha last season, who would have undoubtedly been named World Series MVP had the Cardinals won the World Series.
There's no doubt the Cardinals are going to be a very good, if not great, team in 2014. With the optimal rotation and lineup, which includes Martinez starting, the Cardinals will once again be in contention for yet another World Series title.
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