There are all kinds of story lines dissected each winter while actual baseball games hibernate, but even with that, things still get missed, or are assumed to be non-news. Count the Cardinals' rotation among that group. The story this off-season was about how they let Kyle Lohse walk away after giving him the qualifying offer, and how Chris Carpenter's career unexpectedly ended in the spring, leaving them without one of the better pitchers in franchise history. What went mostly ignored in that stretch, at least outside of St. Louis, was just how good the remaining Cardinals' starters were.
We're nearly a month into the season, though, and reminders of this are everywhere. As a unit, the starting pitchers own a 2.38 ERA, are averaging over 6-1/3 innings per start, and have struck out nearly three times as many hitters as they've walked. They're limiting opponents to a line of .234/.299/.345, and while you can expect the ERA to shoot up as more innings are pitched, their collective .299 batting average on balls in play tells you they haven't been lucky in terms of allowing hits. Maybe they've managed a few extra outs in the season's early going with runners on, but when that comes back to Earth, they should still be looking good.
No, Jake Westbrook isn't going to lead this team in ERA+ all season long. But he's not expected to do much more than be a back-end guy that shows up for 180-200 innings, and if he can be around average while doing that, his season will be just fine. Part of they reason they can afford the hit of Westbrook returning to his own reality, in which he's an average fourth or fifth starter, is everyone else in the rotation.
They might be without Carpenter, but they've still got Adam Wainwright leading the staff. Wainwright only managed a 97 ERA+ in 2012, but he was also in his first season since undergoing Tommy John surgery. He underwent the procedure on March 22, 2011, and was back on a major-league mound on April 7 of 2012: that's fast, even with today's ever-advancing medical techniques. He struggled to start the year, and owned a 5.77 ERA on May 17 after his first 43 innings, but then he began to channel the old Wainwright once more.
From May 22, when he threw a complete-game shutout with nine strikeouts against one walk, through season's end, Wainwright posted a 3.43 ERA with 8.4 strikeouts per nine and four times as many punch outs as free passes. Throw in his performance to begin 2013, and his last 192 innings and 29 starts combine for a 3.14 ERA with just under a K/BB of five. He is back, and has been back, and is likely to lead this rotation as he was capable of doing pre-TJ.
Then there's Jaime Garcia, who made just 20 starts in 2012 due to injury. He's not a top-of-the-rotation type, but he's someone who has, in his career, given the Cardinals above-average ERA+, and in 2011, threw 194 frames. If he can stay healthy, there's little reason to think he can't replicate his past, with an ERA about 10 percent better than the league average. That's plenty from a mid-rotation arm.
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Garcia isn't the only mid-rotation arm they have, either, as Lance Lynn is now in his second year of starting in the majors. The right-handed Lynn struck out over a batter per inning last year in his conversion back to starting -- Lynn was a starter in the minors before the Cardinals pushed him to their bullpen for the stretch in 2011 -- and is up over 10 strikeouts per nine through his first four starts. He walks a few too many batters, and it kept him around league average last season, but there's nothing wrong with that. He tossed 176 frames in 29 starts as a 25-year-old in his first full season in the majors, and if he is able to stay on a natural progression, should approach 200 this year. It might not be flashy, but nearly 200 innings of average-or-better pitching is significant, as it keeps lesser arms from having to soak up innings and increase their workload and the chances of the opposition scoring.
The real wild card, and the arm that will determine whether the Cardinals are merely very good without Carpenter and Lohse or are instead great all year, is Shelby Miller. Miller is 22 years old, and was rated the #6 prospect heading into 2013 by Baseball America. He held his own in the difficult and hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last season before finishing his year with the big-league club, and made the Cardinals' rotation out of spring training. In his four starts, he's struck out 3.7 times as many hitters as he's walked, allowed just one homer, and owns a 2.16 ERA.
He won't keep that up all year, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have the potential to be great already. His second half with Triple-A Memphis was excellent last year -- 70 strikeouts in his last 57 innings -- and was why he was called up in September despite earlier struggles: he's ready for the show, even if his overall Triple-A ERA looks like it could stand to be lower. He has a mid-90s fastball that can touch the upper 90s, and he complements it with a plus curve and a change-up. His ceiling is that of an ace, and given his stuff and his last 100 or so innings, he might even be approaching that already. It's not a given, but if the best-case scenario is also reality, then the Cardinals aren't going to miss Carpenter's presence in the rotation one bit. Not bad for a rookie.
If Miller needs some time off -- his career-high in innings is last year's 150-1/3 -- then they still have Trevor Rosenthal in the bullpen, as well as Joe Kelly. Kelly is no great shakes, but he handled himself well enough last year to be trusted for spot-starter duty, and while Rosenthal is in relief now, that's not his future. He was Baseball America's #39 prospect, and the only reason he isn't already in the rotation is because Shelby Miller earned a spot first. Like Miller, he throws in the mid-90s as a starter, and is likely developed enough to already be at least a passable major-league starter. That's not where he's needed at present, though, so he'll cut his teeth in the bullpen and make the switch back to starting when necessary. It's a system the Cardinals have utilized effectively, and is part of the reason their rotation is in such good shape right now to begin with.
Is it a surprise to see the Cardinals this good? Maybe, given their off-season losses. However, it's more of an unsurprising surprise, given who they still had left, and the tangible ceilings of those they are just introducing to the baseball world. The Cardinals have had successful rotations for a while now, and 2013 is just the latest iteration in that long line. With Miller emerging and Rosenthal next in line, we should probably just get used to it.