Scouting Pitchers: St. Louis Cardinals
After losing Adam Wainwright, who won 58 games from 2008-2010, to Tommy John surgery in February, many questions surrounded the Cardinals' pitching depth entering this year. Yet they are in first place in the NL Central (15-11). Their team ERA (3.33) ranks fifth in the NL, while their offense (141 runs, .299 average) has been better than expected. They have started strongly despite slow starts from Albert Pujols (.255, .786 OPS) and deposed closer Ryan Franklin (0-2, 10.13 ERA).
Kyle Lohse (4-1, 1.64) has been the biggest surprise. Lohse missed the middle half of 2010 with forearm tightness that required surgery, and he was ineffective (6.55 ERA) when he did pitch. He spots his 89-91 mph fastball and 78-81 mph changeup in and out. He throws a low-80s slider and a 73-76 mph curve. The changeup has been his go-to pitch. Lohse uses his slider a lot to right-handers. Lohse can cut the ball Greg Maddux-style in across the plate to a left-handed hitter, and throws a high-80s sinker as well. He has been extremely efficient (13.1 P/IP), and has benefited from some strike calls.
Chris Carpenter (0-2, 3.89) has been effective, with one eight-run extravaganza in Phoenix and some low run support spoiling his numbers. Carpenter throws a sinking 91-94 mph fastball with a 74-77 mph curveball. He also features a 90 mph cut fastball, and can run his four-seamer in on a right-hander's hands.
As he ages, Carpenter seems to be dropping his arm angle against right-handers (.233, two home runs), making his stuff even harder to hit. Left-handers (. 265, four home runs) pick him up better, although Carpenter can drop his breaking ball on the outside corner to lefties – they can't rely on it always breaking toward them. He can vary the amount of break on it, so two curves delivered from the same release point could end up in different spots. As befits a veteran with excellent control, Carpenter gets a lot of strike calls. This forces hitters to swing early in the count, or risk swinging at a 3-2 pitch that is in the dirt.
I took a look during spring training at converted reliever Kyle McClellan, and he has carried over his success. McClellan has some nice movement. He can fade his low-80s changeup away from left-handers, who have to swing at it when they get down in the count. It can have good deception, and he generates some ground balls with it. McClellan can work his high-80s fastball up, or sink it. He throws from an unusual angle, so his fastball can sneak up on hitters. McClellan's 71-75 mph curveball is very slow, but he works it in effectively, and he has an 82-85 mph slider.
Left-hander Jaime Garcia (3-0, 2.08) needed just one start put to rest concerns about his spring training performance. He shut out the Padres on April 3, and has not allowed more than three earned runs in any start. Garcia throws 86-89 mph cut fastballs and mid-80s sliders in to right-handed batters. Right-handers often swing over the top of these pitches or take them for strike three. Garcia's 82-84 mph changeup has good fading action. After missing all of 2009 to Tommy John surgery and working 163 innings in 2010, Garcia might regain a little more velocity. He is currently topping out at 90-91 mph. Adding more velocity is important, as Garcia relies on breaking pitches and cut fastballs a lot.
Hitters catching up to Ryan Franklin has opened the door for Mitchell Boggs, a late bloomer who pitched well last year, to earn the largest share of the closer's job. Boggs came up as a starter, logging 134 innings between Triple-A and the majors as late as 2009. His velocity jumped to 94-97 mph after moving to the bullpen, and his mid-80s slider can freeze right-handers. Boggs also appears to have a closer's fearlessness. Watch out for Fernando Salas, though, who picked up save chances over the weekend against the Braves.
Jason Motte is in the mix for some chances, and seemed the heir apparent after logging a 2.24 ERA in 56 games in 2010. A converted catcher, he throws in the mid-90s, and has progressed with his slider and curveball. Motte is very tough on right-handed batters, who have hit .201 against him in his career. Lefties (.286) get a better look, given that he doesn't have much of a changeup.
Venezuelan rookie Eduardo Sanchez has struck out half of the first 34 batters he has faced, walking just two. Left-handed batters are hitting .071 against him. Sanchez reminds me of Francisco Rodriguez rather than Neftali Feliz, as Sanchez is a little small and puts everything into his delivery. Sanchez has been clocked at 93-96 mph, and reportedly throws even harder. He has an 80 mph slurve.
St. Louis signed veteran Jake Westbrook (2-2, 7.40) to a two-year contract this off-season after he pitched well in 12 starts for them down the stretch for them last year. Westbrook allowed 23 runs in his first four starts before tossing six shutout innings on April 24. Westbrook throws 89-90 mph sinkers with an 84-86 mph slider and a 76-78 mph curveball.
Westbrook will eventually be pushed for his rotation spot by Lance Lynn, the Cardinals' first-round pick in 2008 out of Mississippi. Lynn throws in the low 90s with a curve and changeup. He made a good impression in camp and will be first in line in the event of an injury. Lynn went 13-10, 4.77 at Triple-A Memphis last season and is 1-2, 2.73 there now.
The Cardinals' other top pitching prospects are further away, but are throwing well. Their Double-A rotation is weak, but their high-A staff is loaded. #1 prospect Shelby Miller (0-2, 3.68) walked seven in his last outing, but overall has struck out 32 in 22 innings. Miller throws in the mid-90s with an excellent curveball. Off-season acquisition Mikael Cleto (1-0, 1.96) is flourishing in his second crack at High-A, with 27 strikeouts in 23 innings. Cleto throws 95 mph, but his control is a work in progress. Also in the Palm Beach rotation are right-hander Joe Kelly (1-1, 2.95) and left-hander John Gast (0-1, 2.42). Kelly is another live arm who was a third-round pick in 2009 out of UC Riverside. Gast hrows hard for a left-hander (92-93 mph) and has generated a lot of ground balls (1.50 G/F).
St. Louis will be tougher than a lot of people realized. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are famous for getting the most out of their personnel, and the strong starts of Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, and Kyle Lohse continue that trend. Albert Pujols' contract uncertainty might lend an urgency to 2011, although it's hard to see him signing with another team. Colby Rasmus is neck-and-neck with Matt Kemp for the mantle of the best young center fielder in baseball. The Cardinals are vulnerable to injuries, but if they stay healthy, they will be very tough for the Reds to fend off.