When the news fell down upon us that Cardinal legend and distributor of mean Chris Carpenter would miss the 2013 season and, in all likelihood, never pitch another game in his life, it felt awfully heavy. Carp has been a staple of St. Louis baseball for nearly a decade, and he’s become very dear to many of us along the way. He took home a Cy Young award, he was a part of two championship teams, and he quite obviously refused to give up in even the most dire of circumstances. Once the dust settled, though, it became pretty clear to me that there isn’t really a reason to be concerned from an on-field perspective.
If any team is fully equipped to handle a pitcher of Carpenter’s stature suddenly disappearing, it’s the Cardinals. For one thing, it isn’t exactly unexpected. Carpenter is a lot closer to 40 than 30, and his injury history is long enough to be turned into a terrible young adult novel series if someone out there is bored and off his medication. Carpenter has missed entire seasons (or close to entire seasons) on a number of occasions before, and 2012 was among them. The team had its share of bad luck, but a return trip to the NLCS happened despite a Carp-less rotation. Sure, he returned on his white horse for a month or so, but the bulk of the winning was done without our erstwhile hero.The Cardinal organization is well conditioned to the concept of losing a key starter for obscene lengths of time. Aside from Carpenter, who seemed to miss full seasons about 40 percent of the time he was in town, Adam Wainwright missed 2011 thanks to Tommy John and his awful procedure, Jaime Garcia doesn’t seem to ever be fully healthy, and Rick Ankiel got so sick of being good at pitching that he stopped entirely and started hitting homers. Just like during those other scenarios outlined above, the Cardinals are prepared to weather another arm storm whether or not that was explicitly the team’s intent.
There are simply too many good, young arms in the organization to let Carpenter’s absence be a real detriment. Aside from Adam Wainwright at the top, the only other starters with guarantees to appear in the rotation are veteran ground-destroyer Jake Westbrook and the aforementioned Garcia (should his shoulder remain a human shoulder). Since Carpenter’s now riding off into the sunset, that leaves two spots open in a contending rotation. Normally, that’s a huge, gaping, bleeding problem. Not this time. Among the possible hurlers slotted in the rotation are 2012 sensation Lance Lynn, top prospect Shelby Miller, punishing gas thrower Trevor Rosenthal, and acceptable nice guy Joe Kelly.
Sure, there are still plenty of things that can go wrong, but it’s nice to have four possible solutions for two open spots, especially when Garcia has all the physical fortitude of a hamster facing an anvil. But why not look at the overwhelmingly positive aspects of St. Louis’ 2013 back-end rotation candidates instead? Lynn is all but guaranteed a spot in the rotation after a tremendous 2012 campaign that is only dampened by everyone’s dogged screaming about how he faded down the stretch. Yes, Lynn fell apart a bit after the All-Star break, but a lot of that had to do with control, something that likely won’t be an issue going forward. Lynn was almost certainly exhausted after logging the most innings of his life against Major League competition, but he continued to miss bats despite his issues (9.2 K/9) and will reportedly come to camp sans 40 of the pounds he lugged around last season.
Lynn is the surest of the things the Cardinals will need to depend on to succeed on the pitching end. Behind him are Miller, who has always been viewed as a starter and has a dominant late-season outing against the Reds to back him up, and Rosenthal, who was a minor league starter until he was called upon to hit triple digits with regularity out of the parent club’s bullpen. Both have immense upsides, and both will surely get long looks now that the rotation has such a desperate need. I’d like to see one of these two grab the fifth spot, as Joe Kelly simply doesn’t have the repertoire to miss bats as a starter and has much less of an upside. Kelly seems more suited to relief work, and he could be a real asset in that role.
I love the flexibility the Cardinals have when it comes to starting pitching, and I can honestly say I’m not worried going forward without the wonderful and perpetually angry Chris Carpenter. Yes, all of the starting options I just mentioned are excruciatingly young, and that can mean rough patches. Still, the amount of talent in those four arms means immense dividends could be paid, and it’s kind of nice to see these guys get opportunities they might not otherwise. I really don’t want to see Miller or Rosenthal get relegated to years of bullpen work that inhibits their development, and that kind of thing scares me anymore. As well-run as the Cardinals are, I still worry like hell they overvalue bullpen arms as much as other organizations simply because of the struggles they’ve had to endure in the past. It’s a foolish fear to be sure; this is a wildly successful organization with as good a track record as can be found at this point.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I’m going to miss watching Carpenter mow down hitters and curse at them in equal turn, I know the team is going to be just fine. At this stage in his career, I don’t think Carpenter was necessarily a lock to outproduce Lynn or even Miller anyway. From a baseball only standpoint, the rotation isn’t likely to take much of a hit if any, and I like the Cardinals’ chances just as much now as I did a month or two ago.