The Late Season Rotation – Risk and Reward

Brian Walton looks at the rotation and considers early alternatives for September and October.

As often seems to happen, things I see and hear take root, grow intertwined and the next thing I know, I am banging on my keyboard. That happened again on Monday.

A discussion on our fine message board is being held over whether or not Jeff Suppan is the best number five starter in the major leagues. Other than Bronson Arroyo of the Red Sox and El Duque, Orlando Hernandez of the White Sox, I am not sure of other viable contenders.

However, other posters debate whether Suppan is even the Cardinals' fifth starter, especially given Jason Marquis' recent troubles. After all, logging only one win in his last 12 starts for the team with the best record in baseball is most disconcerting.

Yet, ultimately what will determine the identity of the fifth starter is when one guy is told by Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan that he is out of the playoff rotation. You see, with postseason schedules as they are, teams typically go with just four starting pitchers during the League Divisional and Championship Series, as well as the World Series.

As a result of this, the need for the 12th staff arm sitting in the bullpen is often not viewed as crucial as having an extra bat ready on the bench. For that reason, the speculation has already begun as to which pitcher will be left off the postseason roster.

Message board posters' fingers are aglow with sparks as they bang out numerous theories about the unlucky candidates and their supporting logic. Marquis will be dropped because of his current struggles, say some. Suppan has been the true number five guy, so he is vulnerable, suggest others. Brad Thompson is the new guy, and he'll have other chances in the future, so he will be the chosen one, speculate others.

Without even asking La Russa, I am confident of his answer. "These things have a way of working themselves out", the Skipper often repeats, knowing that an unforeseen injury can turn matters on a dime. Honestly, I see where he is coming from. After all, there is an awful lot of baseball yet to be played. Yuck! I am becoming a cliché machine, myself.

During our weekly Cardinals Report on KCWD 96.1 FM Monday morning, host Gary Campbell asked me if I thought Anthony Reyes would get brought back up again in September to get some starts. My answer was "I sure hope so". That answer was based partially on wanting to see if Reyes truly looks ready to step into the 2006 Cardinals rotation.

(As an aside, keep watching this space as we will soon be running audio clips here on the site of the Cardinals Report as well as interviews and other goodies.)

Of course, the other reason I hope to see Reyes starting in September is because every time he starts, that means someone else is not. The five regular starters are on pace to start 161 games among them this season and while they have regularly been able to pitch deep into games, that also means they are racking up the innings on their arms. Some additional rest to ready themselves for October is nothing any of them would ever request or admit they need, yet common sense says it may be the best thing for all, if handled properly.

With the end of Scott Rolen's season and question marks surrounding other important hitters, it is clear that this Cardinals team will need to ride its starting pitching to playoff success. It has been the only healthy part of an aging core of players all season long. As a result, it is not a stretch to assume that the 2005 Cardinals team will go as far as this rotation can carry them.

Here are the pertinent numbers. Note that all five Cardinals starters are in the top 36 players of the entire 16-team National League in terms of innings pitched.

Through 8/22

Innings pitched

NL rank


Starts ahead*

Forecasted IP

Career high IP (year)

Career 200 IP seasons







216.2 (2001)








229.1 (2002)








201.1 (2004)








218.1 (2001)








217.0 (1997)


















First of all, did anyone realize that Jeff Suppan has as many career 200 innings-pitched seasons as Mulder, Carpenter and Marquis combined? I have always been critical of those who have attached the term "innings-eater" to Suppan because I think it belittles his abilities. However, given these stats, I have to at least characterize him as "most dependable".

* You may have noted the asterisk above. I looked at the rotation as it exists today and with no changes in the order, that column represents the number of starts remaining for each of the five starters.

The question on the table is "how many starts should they make and how many more innings should they pitch?" It is a question for which there is no definitive answer.

On one hand, all five starters have thrown over 200 innings at some point in their careers, so they have proven they are capable of handling a decent workload.

Yet, when looking at the forecasted innings pitched, we see that Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter each is on pace to register a career high mark this season.

Carpenter's arm problems are well-chronicled, including most recently, the nerve problem that shelved him for the final month of the 2004 season as well as the playoffs. Marquis' 2004 season caused many a concern, as he had never pitched anywhere near 200 innings prior to then. Yet, if he did it once, why can't he do it two years in a row?

Still, with the offense hobbled, can the Cardinals afford to ride the starters as hard in late August and September as they were in April and May? Up comes the prospect Mr. Reyes.

Why shouldn't Reyes be installed in the regular rotation in September, allowing each of the regular starters to slide back a day every time through, just like Reyes allowed them to do on a spot basis two weeks ago? (As a side point, Reyes, who has had injury problems of his own in the past, has thrown 123 innings so far this season. He logged 111 in 2004.)

In fact, taking another spin on this idea, why shouldn't the Cards just declare their four playoff starters a month early, bring up Reyes to be the September number five starter and condition the "former" number five starter to coming out of the pen so he is fully prepared for his postseason role?

Having that experienced starter coming out of the pen would also enable the other four starters to potentially go less deeply into games and help ensure the bullpen does not become overworked as a result of trying to pace the starters during September.

Or, worst case, if that former number five fails in long relief, at least there would be an obvious reason to exclude him from the postseason roster. As-is, given La Russa's loyalty to his troops, it seems unlikely that Suppan or Marquis would be bypassed for October play – unless one of them was to get an itchy middle finger down in the pen, that is.

In any workload reduction scenario for the staff, Carpenter clearly represents the biggest dilemma for La Russa and Duncan. Carp needs continued visibility and more big wins down the stretch to further strengthen his Cy Young Award candidacy. A few more complete-game shutouts would be nice, too. Yet, with all that comes a risk, as Carpenter is on pace to blow away his busiest season ever by over 30 innings.

I guess this is one reason La Russa is paid all that money – to make the tough calls. And, he surely has some difficult decisions coming in terms of how to ready his prize rotation for the playoffs. I sure hope he pushes the right buttons.

Addendum: I have received several requests asking my view of pitch counts, pointing out that some pitchers must be more efficient with each individual batter and in each inning than others. Here is that data.

Through 8/22

Batters faced

NL rank

Total pitch count

NL rank

Pitches per batter

Pitch count per inning




































While this perhaps paints a slightly less-concerning view of Carpenter's workload, he is still in the top ten in the league in terms of total pitches made. However, as might be guessed, his pitches per inning are lowest among the five Cardinals starters. This data also points out Marquis' relative inefficiency when compared with the other four.

In my view, no matter the indicator - innings pitched, batters faced or pitch counts – the point remains the same. The Cardinals starters have gotten a lot of work this season and as a result, La Russa and Duncan should consider conserving their arms for October action.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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