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Monday 21st Aug 2017

No, that isn’t the name of a prestigious law firm specializing in corporate litigation.

Fantasy baseball players already know those four individuals as Shelby Miller (age 22), Trevor Rosenthal (23), Michael Wacha (21) and Carlos Martinez (21). The quartet is a major reason the St. Louis Cardinals farm system was rated first in Major League Baseball by a number of national raters this spring.

In my day job covering the Cardinals system, I have often been asked about these young starting pitchers. Sometimes, the questions are immediate – as in who to start the next week. Other times, the queries are more keeper-oriented.

The latter is the subject this week. Of course, to get to the future, we must start with the present.

In this season and for the foreseeable future, the names of two pitchers can be inked into St. Louis’ rotation – a pair of 13-game winners to date in ace Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn.

Actually, a third name should be listed, that of the rookie Miller. If not for the fantastic exploits of Yasiel Puig and the amazing resurgence of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals would have their first National League Rookie of the Year since Albert Pujols in 2001.

Despite making noises that he might be able to pitch at this season’s end, Jaime Garcia is almost certainly done for 2013. While the left-hander will be back in 2014, shoulder injuries are dicey. For that reason, I am not counting on Garcia until he demonstrates he can perform.

Right-hander Joe Kelly made 16 starts last season and once again was moved into the 2013 rotation when other alternatives fell by the wayside. Compared to the other options available to the club, Kelly may be returned to the pen in 2014.

Veteran Jake Westbrook began 2013 strongly, but is currently in serious danger of losing his rotation spot. It would not be the first time, as it previously occurred en route to the Cardinals’ 2011 World Championship. A free agent following the season unless a mutual option is exercised, Westbrook almost certainly will not be back next year.

The same fate likely awaits for former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter. At 38 years of age, the oft-injured warrior is pondering retirement and is not under contract for 2014.

To summarize, the givens in the Cardinals rotation to open 2014 are Wainwright, Lynn and Miller, with Garcia and Kelly as possibilities.

That leaves at most two openings for three talented youngsters.

Earlier in the season, Martinez seemed to hold the edge, shifting to relief to remain in the bigs, only to return to the rotation in Triple-A, then repeating. After 10 relief appearances with St. Louis, “Baby Pedro” Martinez finally made his first MLB start on August 8. Almost immediately after allowing four runs in 4 2/3 innings to the current World Series favorite Dodgers, Martinez was returned to Memphis.

A number of observers have seen Martinez’s 100 mph offerings and slight build and suggest late-inning relief might be his eventual destination.

Speaking of late-inning relief, that is the role Rosenthal has played this season. Specifically, the rookie has solidified his spot as the eighth-inning man for manager Mike Matheny. While Rosenthal has the offerings to start and also possesses upper 90’s velocity, his relief success may work against him.

The club could consider him too valuable in relief to let him out of the pen. Though closer Jason Motte is scheduled to return from Tommy John surgery in 2014, current closer Edward Mujica will be free-agent eligible following this season.

Rosenthal was allowed – at least in theory – to compete against Miller and Kelly for the final rotation spot this spring. In reality, as soon as Rosenthal stumbled a bit, he was returned to relief. That could happen again in 2014.

I haven’t even mentioned the young left-handers, starting with Tyler Lyons. Though the 25-year-old has been uneven in seven starts for the Cardinals, he has been steadily improving and very strong in Triple-A. If Garcia cannot answer the bell in 2014, Lyons may be the only available left-hander to compete - unless John Gast is ready following surgery for a torn lat muscle.

That leaves Wacha. The club’s 2012 first-round draft pick from Texas A&M has made four starts for St. Louis, essentially passing Martinez as the club’s unofficial sixth starter. In fact, Wacha has been kept in St. Louis as Martinez was sent down this past week. The explanation is that the organization wants to use the 21-year-old in late-inning, high-leverage situations. They also intend to manage Wacha’s workload carefully.

Coming into 2014, Wacha should be in the driver’s seat to earn a rotation spot in a comparable position as Miller the year before.

In summary, I see Wacha as being the most likely to open in the Cardinals’ 2014 starting five, with Rosenthal perhaps ahead of Martinez and Lyons to compete with Kelly if another rotation opening occurs.

A final note. The club has open questions at shortstop and center field. If the Cardinals are able to swing a trade or two during the off-season, these young starters should be at or very near the top of every potential trade partner's want list.

That route could very possibly be taken to reduce the number of candidates from what in the best case could be ten legitimate competitors for five starting jobs. 

 

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 14-year history. Though he is the only one to remember or care, he also finished second in each of the two subsequent seasons. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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