2007 Cardinals - Starting and Finishing

The St. Louis Cardinals need starting pitching to make it into the playoffs, but if they could somehow get there, the road might actually become easier.

Even before St. Louis Cardinals starting pitchers allowed 14 runs over just six innings in their first two post-All-Star break contests, team watchers generally agreed that the rotation badly needed help.

At the All-Star break, the Cardinals starters in aggregate were last in the NL in wins (22), win percentage (.355), ERA (5.31) and second to last in strikeouts (269). Keeping the woeful Washington Nationals' pitching staff out of the league cellar takes some doing, but this gang seems to have done it.

Overall, the Cards have already tried nine different hurlers to start games and have called upon 22 pitchers in total this season, including position player Scott Spiezio.

At least four relievers were converted to starters for the 2007 Cardinals, including two who now stand at the head of the rotation - Adam Wainwright (8-7, 4.36 ERA) and Braden Looper (6-7, 4.72). Others are Brad Thompson (4-2, 4.92 as a starter) and Todd Wellemeyer (3-1, 4.46 while in the rotation). The former was a starter in the minors while the latter was a career reliever claimed off waivers two months ago.

High 2007 hopes were placed upon Kip Wells (2-12, 6.97 ERA as a starter), but the veteran has been a major disappointment, as has youngster Anthony Reyes (0-10, 6.40), banished to the Minor Leagues for a second time this season. Newcomer Mike Maroth has been inconsistent at best in his four starts since arriving from Detroit (0-2, 5.75).

Recent history

To help put the Cardinals' distress into context, 22 is the highest number of pitchers used by the team in an entire season since 2003, when they called upon a total of 24. Pitchers during that non-playoff season included relievers like Pedro Borbon Jr. and Estaban Yan and starters like Jeff Fassero and Sterling Hitchcock.

More recently, the Redbirds utilized nine starters all of last season. Their decade-high is 14 starters used in 2002. Overall, the Cards called on 19 pitchers all of last season and 20 pitchers in each of the 2004 and 2005 seasons, years during which the team won over 100 games.

With two-and-half months to go in the 2007 campaign, it seems quite likely that the current edition of the Cardinals will even exceed that 2003 rate of 24 pitchers.

Looking around the game of baseball provides other points of comparison. In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies lead all clubs with 25 pitchers used this season. In the American League, the New York Yankees lead the way with 23 hurlers called upon in 2007, including an MLB-high 12 starters.

What should the Cardinals do?

In reality, the Cardinals are in a very tenuous situation. Their 40-45 record at the break implied also-ran status, but the standings indicated otherwise, being just 7 ½ games out in a very weak NL Central Division.

Given that, strong core players and their recent track record of success, once again this trade season Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty says he plans to be a buyer, not a seller.

As recently as 2001, the Cardinals were just two games over .500 in early August and still won 93 games, making the playoffs. Optimists might think they can do it again. But, just as in ‘01, when the addition of Woody Williams was a huge shot in the arm, these Cardinals need help.

Still, one might think that in order to convince ownership to open the purse strings for meaningful acquisitions, the 2007 Cardinals would need to demonstrate some life on the field. That is where the comparison starts to break down.

Can they make another run?

To make up considerable ground in the standings, St. Louis needs to go on a tear. For example, in the final two months of the 2001 season, those Cardinals cracked off separate streaks of 11, nine and six consecutive victories as they rushed from the middle of the pack to a share of the top.

What that 2001 club had that the 2007 Cardinals do not are shutdown pitchers like Matt Morris, who put together his career-best 21-win campaign and the late Darryl Kile, who added 16 W's.

In 2007, ace Chris Carpenter made just one start, on Opening Day, before requiring elbow surgery and number two starter Mark Mulder's return to effectiveness remains very cloudy. After a setback in his rehab at the end of last week, Carpenter's schedule has to be reset, and is currently open.

Without Carpenter and Mulder or similar, the current club seems to lack the constitution for such a run. From August, 2006 through today, the Cardinals have managed just one winning streak of as much as four games and that was back in the first week of this season. For the last year, they have basically been a .500 club.

To summarize, the most optimistic scenario for the 2007 Cardinals seems to be to show just enough to justify calling in reinforcements, then to somehow make it into the post-season.

As the cliché goes, once the post-season starts, anything can happen. While that is true, one still needs the horses to compete. But how many are required?

The post-season schedule

A stable, solid four-to-five man rotation seems to be a necessity just to get a ticket into October play, but that may be even less of an October requirement than past seasons.

Once in the playoffs, the 2006 Cardinals demonstrated to the world that a three-deep rotation can be enough. 14 of their 16 games in the last post-season were started by their top three pitchers, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. (Anthony Reyes had the other two.) Number five starter Jason Marquis didn't even make the post-season roster.

Last October, the Cardinals were aided within their three series by the schedule and spacing due to rainouts, playing their 16 games over 25 days. This year, MLB is cooperating right up front by having built even more down time into October.

The 2007 post-season schedule includes extra days for the first time before a fifth and deciding League Division Series and up to a full seven-day break to enable the World Series to start on Wednesday. (The gap between the League Championship Series and World Series could be as short as two games, depending on the length of the CS.)

While the reasons stated are to ease travel and facilitate getting around weather difficulties, a side benefit, whether intended or not, will be to enable teams to pitch their top starters more often - even on normal rest.

How the changes translate from last year to this would be as follows. If the World Series again goes five games, it would end on October 29. The 27 elapsed days for 16 post-season games to be played would be two days longer in duration than the previous year.

If the Cards could get by quite nicely with three October starters in 2006, the particular part of the path called scheduling should be even easier in 2007.

In conclusion

Again, will any of this matter for this Cardinals team?

For them to be in a position to take advantage of the extended postseason schedule and keep alive their most unlikely chance of winning back-to-back championships, they have to make it to the competition in the first place. That would require top-flight baseball to be played for the better part of two-and-a-half months, the likes of which haven't been seen around these parts for some time.

Even more short-term in focus is the open question as to whether or not this team – right here and now - can deliver enough results to justify the investment in the acquisition of an additional top arm before the trade deadline.

Time is quickly running out to answer the question, one that will have to be decided before Carpenter and Mulder can help set the tempo on the field.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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