On Monday, the St. Louis Cardinals made official their plans to return pitcher Lance Lynn to a starter’s program in spring training camp. In fact, the 24-year-old will start Wednesday’s home game against Houston.
The reason is the bulging cervical disc in the neck of Chris Carpenter. The veteran ace has been sidelined indefinitely, his projected opening day start in considerable doubt.
Even if Carpenter was healthy now, odds are that someone else will be injured in good time. Even if Carpenter has a miraculous recovery and can take the ball in Miami on April 4, the sixth starter will be needed soon enough.
It isn’t as if their rotation hasn’t shown considerable signs of wear. Six weeks away from his 37th birthday, Carpenter just finished his first-ever stretch of three consecutive years without serious injury. Adam Wainwright is just returning from Tommy John surgery. Kyle Lohse has battled injuries the past few years.
Lynn is and has been the most obvious choice as sixth starter.
A very good starting pitcher throughout his minor league years, the right-hander was named the organizational Pitcher of the Year in 2009 after jumping three levels in one season. He is tested at Triple-A, including logging 13 wins in 2010, and is proven at the major league level as well, stepping into a key relief role last season. In our 2012 Cardinals top 40 prospect list, Lynn is the top-ranked starting pitcher other than Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez.
Other candidates don’t stack up.
Sure, top prospect Miller has made two spring starts, but he has yet to throw an inning at the Triple-A level and could use more time to prepare for what should be a long major league career. Why rush Miller when Lynn is truly ready?
Kyle McClellan went down this path in 2011, filling in Wainwright’s spot to start the season. After a spring ERA of 0.78, McClellan was effective early before running out of gas. Having gone over two months without a win due to injury and ineffectiveness, he was returned to the pen when Edwin Jackson was acquired.
Like Lynn, Brandon Dickson is a proven Triple-A starter whose stuff is not of the same caliber as his former rotation mate. At Cardinals prospect #32 overall, Dickson is just the ninth-ranked starter in the system.
Maikel Cleto is a fireballer who began 2011 in Palm Beach but was forced by injuries to others to make his MLB debut as a reliever. The 22-year-old needs more repetition to refine his pitches and prove he can do more than just throw hard.
While Lynn should have enough time in Florida to prepare to step into St. Louis’ rotation, why didn’t they plan for this from day one? Even if Lynn has to return to Memphis for awhile, I contend the 2012 Cardinals will ultimately be a better team with him continuing to start, and being ready to step into the rotation at a moment’s notice whenever needed.
Yes, Lynn was a valuable member of the 2011 St. Louis bullpen, but there are already more good relievers in camp than jobs available. In a dire situation, Lynn could return to relieving much more quickly than he could execute the reverse move.
I might even go a step further and suggest the 2013 and beyond teams may benefit as well. Lohse and Jake Westbrook will be free agents after this season. The Cardinals need to know if Lynn will be part of their rotation out into the future.