Every time someone makes an argument that begins with, “If you’d have told me on [insert arbitrary past time period] that [insert various bad luck occurrences] and things would still work out as well as they did, I’d have [insert celebration of choice],” we usually find ourselves getting a little queasy. That said, if you’d have told us on the first of April that Chris Carpenter would make just three starts, Jaime Garcia would miss nearly half the season with shoulder problems and things would still work out as well as they did, we’d have gladly combed each of the Cardinal players’ playoff beards daily in October — yes, even Jason Motte‘s, and let’s face it, no way we’d be able to accomplish that task without getting bitten.
How well did things work out? Well, only three teams in all of baseball featured more productive rotations in terms of collective WAR: the Tigers (20.5 WAR), the Nationals (18.1 WAR), and the Rangers (18.0 WAR). Right behind this game leading trio were the Cardinals, who checked in at 17.3 WAR. How is this possible without the services of a healthy Carpenter or Garcia, two very important cogs? Well, Adam Wainwright‘s return was a very triumphant one indeed for starters — and we are discussing starters, after all, so that seems an appropriate way to word it. Waino was not as good as he was when we last saw him in 2009-2010, but we choose not to look at it as a sign that he’s already past his prime. Instead, it seems more an indication that he was still finding his old form in the season’s first month and, yes, perhaps he was tiring a little at the end after missing the entire season before. At any rate, Wainwright’s 4.4 WAR did lead all pitchers, and considering he posted the highest K/9 rate of his career (8.34) in any non strike-out-Carlos-Beltran-to-head-to-the-World-Series season, we think there’s still a lot to look forward to, and a lot of money to hand him in the form of a long extension.
As good as Wainwright was, Kyle Lohse deserves quite a bit of credit as well. Many fans even went so far as to call Lohse the team’s true ace in 2012, which is silly; winning percentage aside, it’s just not true in any way, but the control artist took his preferred form of artistic expression to new heights (1.62 BB/9) in 2012 en route to contributing 3.6 WAR of his own. In other words, he had a hell of a season — his best to date, in fact, and he’s going to earn a nice paycheck with some team not known as the St. Louis Cardinals because of it. Best of luck, Mr. Lohse, and thanks again for finishing so strong these last few years to make that four-deal look like contract a reasonable investment. Elsewhere, Lance Lynn got off to an outstanding start taking Carpenter’s spot in the rotation, and although he tailed off at season’s end and found himself making a few relief appearances, he still finished the season with 2.9 WAR and a rotation leading 9.20 K/9 mark in 176 innings of work. On a side note, he also led the team in the finding of disposed corn dog sticks inside his massive beard. Jaime Garcia, for all his missed time, still posted 2.9 WAR of his own, and if his shoulder problems don’t persist for the remainder of his career, he still has a ton of upside, even if he may never be much better than he is right now. We’ll temper our expectations until the injury is addressed. Jake Westbrook faded down the stretch, but pitched quite well over the season’s first several months, earning himself an extra year with the team in the process. Lastly, Joe Kelly was forced into action by Garcia’s stint on the disabled list in June, and the 24-year-old made quite an impression with the team in his 16 starts despite having a somewhat underwhelming career in the minors. Kelly is best served as a reliever going forward, but he’s proven to be a dependable option at the back end of a rotation as well if needed.
Just like we saw in 2011, this year’s Cardinals relief corps was at times disastrously bad in the early goings, only to settle down and become a huge asset down the stretch and into the playoffs. In 2012, however, it wasn’t because Ryan Franklin was trying to close out games, Trever Miller was convinced that being a lefty specialist meant trying to assassinate his assignments with baseballs to the shin, and Miguel Batista was forming haiku poems that consisted solely of loud cracks of the bat; it was because some of the exciting young talents who excelled in ushering that group out the previous year were not willing to continue their success into the following season.
The biggest examples are Eduardo Sanchez, who simply can no longer throw strikes despite being the nastiest pitcher we’ve ever seen when at his best, Fernando Salas, who is starting to fall to the bottom of the pack with his less than stellar stuff, and Mark Rzepczynski, who certainly is never going to be a starter. Given that Victor Marte was one of the team’s most trusted relievers early on in the season, it’s safe to say that things were really bad for a while. Let’s not forget that Cardinal fans were also treated to 11 outings of J.C. Romero before he was mercifully released early on in 2012.
Fortunately, things were destined to get better, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Odd hiccup at the start of the season notwithstanding, this group of bullpen personnel is very talented, and — we know you’ve heard this before — should be very good all year long the upcoming season. Now officially the closer of the team in every sense of the word, Jason Motte was simply outstanding in the role (10.75 K/9, 3.12 FIP), and he only got better as the season went on. Mitchell Boggs, though he still doesn’t miss as many bats as one would expect him to after watching him pitch, also settled in wonderfully as a reliable high-leverage guy; to Mike Matheny, this means he must pitch in the eighth inning at all times, but we digress. There’s also a new sheriff in town, a sheriff that never gives up any hits at all, and his name is Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal worked 22.2 innings in the regular season and posted a 9.93 K/9 rate with a 3.09 FIP in the process before morphing into a more talented version of Mariano Rivera in the postseason — in 8.2 innings of playoff work, Rosenthal gave up all of two hits while posting a 15/2 K/BB ratio. Excuse us; We just threw up a little bit in our pants. The team also got a nice midseason pickup in the form of Edward Mujica, who posted an 0.87 WHIP in 26.1 innings as a Cardinal. He’ll return to the team for at least one more year before possibly departing for free agency.
Well, we already mentioned Rosenthal, a player that wasn’t really even on our radar when the season started. How could he have been, considering that he hadn’t pitched above Single-A Quad Cities prior to this season? We knew he warranted keeping an eye on down the road, but ultimately it was an unexpected move to call him up from the Double-A rotation and plop him in the parent club’s bullpen when the need arose. Give the organization credit for the bold move, though; it’s hard to imagine anyone acing an assignment any better than Rosenthal did, even if his major league success wasn’t as a starter.
The season also had a fantastic end for top pitching prospect Shelby Miller, but it didn’t look to be heading that direction for the first several months. The talented but at times troubled young hurler struggled with both attitude issues and the ability to successfully mix in his secondary pitches in the early stages of 2012, but things turned around in a huge way down the stretch, and he found himself rewarded with a big league cameo appearance in September. In his first 13.2 innings of work at the game’s highest level, Miller has only given us only positive things to speak of: a WHIP under 1.00, a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a start against the Reds in the season finale that saw him pitch six innings of one-hit shutout ball. We can’t wait to see what the next step for the Shelbster is; maybe a full-time rotation spot?
We also talked a little about the pleasant surprise that was Joe Kelly earlier, and he certainly can’t be overlooked as one of the babies that produced for the organization in 2012. In the minors, Carlos Martinez worked 104.1 innings and posted a 7.9 K/9 rate in between Palm Beach and Springfield. While that rate isn’t bad by any stretch, and the control is certainly exciting, we’re a little disappointed to see the number of missed bats fall so much at the Double-A level. Martinez has long been projected as a possible bullpen prospect in the end, and unless he can take another step forward at the next level, that may well be his destination after all. At the lower levels of the minors, the raw but talented Tyrell Jenkins pitched very much like an unfinished product, finishing with an ERA over 5.00 and a BB/9 rate of 3.9.
We like what we see in the pitching side of the equation. In the event the organization manages to lock up Wainwright with a long-term extension in the near future, you could be looking at a very fearsome rotation for years to come. We can still hope for the best when it comes to Garcia, and if his career doesn’t get totally derailed by this shoulder situation, having him alongside Wainwright, Lynn, and Miller is a pretty good front four well into the future. The fifth spot could go to any number of players within the system, whether it’s someone like Rosenthal or Martinez or even a cheap veteran imported from outside the organization — back of the rotation starters are not hard to come by.
The bullpen, minus having a second even somewhat reliable lefty, is in similarly exciting condition. Motte figures to be a fixture in the closer spot at least until he becomes expensive, Boggs is similarly entrenched, and there are all kinds of exciting arms to vie for the lesser leverage roles. The Cardinals may not be known as an organization with a ton of top-level minor league talent, but no one can argue against the overall depth they possess, and there is no shortage of exciting right-handed pitching coming up in the pipeline. Look for Cardinal pitching to be both good and exciting on the cheap for quite some time.