Spring Training Spotlight- Kip Wells

The Cardinals signed free agent pitcher Kip Wells to a one-year, $4 million contract in November with the intention of him filling in any rotation vacancies that may be created by the loss of free agents Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis.

At the time of his signing the Cardinals were still confident that they were going to reach an agreement with either Jeff Suppan or Jeff Weaver or even both and that Kip Wells would take a spot in the middle or back end of the rotation to start the 2007 season.

Now, the Cardinals are without the services of both Jeff Weaver (Seattle) and Jeff Suppan (Milwaukee) and in addition, starting pitcher Mark Mulder will begin the season on the 60 day disabled list and isn't expected to return to the rotation until June or July.

The signing of the veteran Wells takes on significantly more meaning because behind the club's staff ace, Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals are looking at a group of pitchers with practically no starting experience to fill the other potential three holes in the rotation.

Wells was limited to just nine starts last season due to a blood clot in his throwing shoulder and then subsequent foot problems with Texas following a trade from Pittsburgh. His control problems continued in '06, as he walked 21 batters in just 44.1 innings, and for the third season in a row failing to regain the form that helped make him one of the top pitchers in 2002 and 2003.

A career underachiever, the word around baseball is that Wells has always had the arsenal to be a potential top of the rotation type of pitcher. He has a lively fastball that he can throw in the 90-92 MPH range and can take it up a notch or two to 94-96 MPH when he needs a little something extra. He also has a hard slider with a good late bite and a decent curveball, but unfortunately he has never garnered command of his considerable talent.

Most Cardinals fans will look at Kip Wells and see the major league-high 18 losses he had in 33 starts back in 2005. He won just eight games that seasons and had a bloated 1.57 WHIP in 182 innings. The knock against him at the time was that he tossed too many five-inning games with 120-pitch counts.

His best season came in 2003 for Pittsburgh, going 10-9 with a 3.28 ERA and a more reasonable 1.25 WHIP in 31 starts. Cardinals fans may be looking at those numbers in 2003 and think that even when Wells is at his best, he is still just a .500 pitcher. This may give some comfort to those fans. In 2003, in nine of his losses, the Pirates scored a total of just 14 runs. Wells left seven other games with the lead, only to have the Pirates bullpen blow the games.

My take is, for $4 million in today's free agent market you can't go wrong bringing Wells to St. Louis as a new reclamation project for St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan. According to general manager, Walt Jocketty, "Kip is a pitcher that we've had our eyes on for a while, and I can tell you that Dave Duncan is especially happy to see this move," said Jocketty. "For years Dunc has tried to persuade me to acquire Kip Wells at some point."

Why would Duncan want somebody with a career 57-74 record and a lifetime ERA of 4.46, who missed most of last season due to injuries?

If I may step in Dave Duncan's spikes for a few minutes, here is what I think the keys to success are in relation to Wells;

1. Wells came back from elbow and hand injuries and he still has the same four pitch arsenal as before and pitched 182 innings in '05 for a team that finished almost 30 games below .500 with a regular season record of 67-95. (You won't have a post season record with a 67-95 won-loss record). Success breeds success and Wells should improve in a winning environment.

2. Playing for the Pirates forced Wells to try to do too much on the mound and he didn't have the opportunity to challenge batters, as he will be called on to do in St. Louis and he should feel more comfortable with the offensive and defensive support from the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

3. Wells has a fastball that stays between 82-92 MPH and can do that all day long, up to 100 pitches. At times Kip can hit up to 95 MPH on the radar gun and he'll be called on to do that as well in St. Louis. The Cardinals will have Wells better prepared for his matchups.

4. Wells lost control of his slider in 2005, causing it to drift on him out of the strike zone and he still had problems with it at times last season, but my take is that Duncan believes that Wells problem is mechanical and not physical, and Duncan can address the mechanical problems.

5. Throughout his career Wells has been an underachiever with a significantly higher ceiling than he has shown to date and the Cardinals think in "Baseball Heaven", that he'll have a better chance to living up to his potential, which is significant.

My take is, if pitching coach Dave Duncan can get him to slow down, trust in his stuff, make some minor mechanical adjustments on his slider, improve the control of his curve ball and get him to be more aggressive on the mound, Wells will fall in behind Chris Carpenter as the #2 starter in the rotation until Mulder returns some time during the mid-season.

Wells has as much upside as some of the other pitcher this winter who signed big multi-year contracts and he'll be given every opportunity to live up to his potential.


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