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April 11, 2007

Starting Over Again

The Cardinal Rotation

by John Perrotto

Even before the St. Louis Cardinals assembled in Jupiter, Florida two months ago to begin spring training, they were written off by almost everyone as having little chance to repeat as World Series champions. The Cardinals won the National League Central with just an 83-78 record last season, then got hot in October, going 11-5 in winning series against the Padres, Mets, and Tigers en route to the franchise's 10th world championship, and their first since 1982.

The pedestrian regular-season record of a year ago is one reason why few seemed to take the Cardinals seriously coming into the 2007 season. An even bigger reason was the state of the Cardinals' starting rotation. Jeff Suppan, Most Valuable Player of the seven-game victory over the Mets in the National League Championship Series, left for Milwaukee and a four-year, $42 million contract as a free agent. Also departing as free agents were right-handers Jason Marquis to the Chicago Cubs for three years and $21 million, and Jeff Weaver to Seattle for one year and $8.3 million.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals' only offseason starting pitching acquisition was signing right-hander Kip Wells to a one-year, $4-million contract. Wells went a combined 2-5 with a 6.50 ERA in nine games last year with Pittsburgh and Texas; his season started late because of a blood clot in his right shoulder, and ended early with a torn ligament in his left foot.

"I know what was written and said about our rotation, but there's a certain expectation level you have with a franchise like this," said starter Anthony Reyes, who won Game One of the World Series as a rookie. "None of us in the rotation feel like we're going to go out and fail this season. We have a lot of new faces in the rotation, but that doesn't mean we don't have talent. We don't doubt that we can do well."

When spring training ended, the Cardinals were left with an all right-handed rotation that included ace Chris Carpenter, followed by a bunch of question marks in Wells, the relatively inexperienced Anthony Reyes, and converted relievers Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright.

That quintet combined to make only 58 major-league starts last season: 32 by Carpenter, 17 by Reyes, nine by Wells, and none by Looper and Wainwright. Yet PECOTA was somewhat optimistic that the Cardinals' rotation might be better than what conventional wisdom held, as it had these projections for the five starters:

PITCHERS   W-L    ERA    WARP
-----------------------------
Carpenter  14-8   3.26   5.6
Wainwright 9-8    3.88   3.9
Reyes      11-9   3.81   3.8
Wells      4-5    4.47   1.5
Looper     6-8    4.82   1.5

Through the early days of the season that confidence hasn't just been a bunch of false bravado. The Cardinals' reworked starting rotation has produced a sparkling 2.88 ERA through the first eight games of the season.

"From the first day of spring training through the first week and a half of the regular season, the starting pitching has been the brightest spot of our team," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I know from the outside it appeared that we had a lot of question marks, but we felt we had a lot of talented pitchers already on our roster and in the organization. Even though we lost some very good pitchers, we always felt we could still have a quality rotation."

The Cardinals' depth will be put to the test even more now that Carpenter, who has not pitched since Opening Day, has been diagnosed with arthritis in his pitching elbow and will miss at least a month.

"It's not so much what people write and say about you that drive you as a professional athlete as it is that inner drive you have to perform," Looper said. "You want to be the very best you can be, and we have a lot of guys with talent. That's why nobody should be surprised by what we've done as a rotation. We may have guys in new roles this season who are being counted on more heavily, but the talent is here and it is showing."

So far, only the two holdovers have been shaky. An ailing Carpenter gave up five runs in six innings in a loss to the Mets in the first game, and Reyes also lost his first start by giving up three runs in five innings to the Mets. In the meantime, the three newcomers have shined.

Having Jason Isringhausen back as closer has allowed Adam Wainwright to settle into the rotation and help his ballclub by pitching more innings. "Our intention has always been to make him a starting pitcher," La Russa said. "He was able to get his feet wet last year and we think he's ready to be a quality starter." It will not be a surprise if Wainwright becomes an above-average major-league starting pitcher. He was a highly regarded starting prospect in the Atlanta organization before being traded to the Cardinals prior to the 2004 season and was only moved to relief last season as a rookie because the rotation was full.

Kip Wells is 1-1 with a fine 1.38 ERA in his first two starts, allowing four runs, two earned, and six hits in 13 innings with 14 strikeouts and five walks. Wells has been a perennial disappointment, compiling a 57-74 lifetime record with a 4.46 ERA in eight seasons prior to this year. However, Wells came highly recommended to the Cardinals by Detroit manager Jim Leyland, who spent six years scouting for St. Louis until returning to managing last season. Leyland lives in Pittsburgh and often saw Wells pitch for the Pirates. "Jim always loved the guy and thought his stuff was as good as just about any pitcher in the league," La Russa said. "We thought, with the kind of talent he has, that he was worth taking a shot on."

Looper has been a revelation in his first two starts after pitching the first 572 games of his nine-year career in relief, splitting a pair of decisions and posting a 2.08 ERA, allowing three runs and 10 hits in 13 innings. La Russa credits pitching coach Dave Duncan for spotting the starting potential in Looper. "Dunc really thought that Looper had enough pitches to be a starter, he was sure of that," La Russa said. "He was right. The guys is throwing four pitches for strikes and anyone who can do that is going to be tough to beat."

Duncan first approached Looper about the possibility of starting late in the regular season last year; Looper didn't take him seriously. "We got into the playoffs and World Series and I forgot all about it," Looper said. "Then, Dunc called one day in the winter and told me they were going to try me as a starter in spring training."

Looper admitted he was a little skeptical at first. He warmed to the idea quickly. "It really made a lot of sense, because I do throw four pitches," Looper said. "As a reliever, though, you rarely throw more than two because you're usually pitching with the game on the line, and you're not going to fool around and get beat by your third-best or fourth-best pitch. Being a starter is a whole different world, but I like it. You have four days off between starts, and that gives you a lot of time to work on all your pitches. I feel I can throw them all for strikes at any point in the count now."

"I understand why people had questions about our starting pitching, because we only had two guys back from (last postseason)," first baseman Albert Pujols said. "I think the questions are already being answered. With the way these guys have been throwing, there is no question that starting pitching is going to be one of this team's strengths."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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