JUPITER, Fla. • The Cardinals will spend most of spring training auditioning young pitchers for the opening Kyle Lohse’s departure left in the rotation and fielding questions about the opening Chris Carpenter’s injury left in the clubhouse. The absences will be addressed based on the candidates and their qualities.
And then there is the opening that can be quantified.
The Cardinals’ rotation has innings to fill.
“It’s all about stepping up now to fill those needs,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “We have capable pitchers to do that. Your No. 1 (pitcher), No. 2 and No. 3 guys are going to be the ones to push the envelope in terms of innings pitched. … It’s going to take a collective effort.”
The Cardinals’ rotation has ranked in the top four for innings pitched in each of the past four seasons, three of which ended with a playoff berth. In each of the past five seasons the Cardinals have had at least two starters each season throw 190 innings.
This year’s rotation is set to include four starters, beyond ace Adam Wainwright, who combined have one 190-inning season for the Cardinals.
Lohse, a free agent, led the team with 211 innings pitched last season. Carpenter, an uncertainty coming into the year because of shoulder troubles last summer, was pegged by a club official in January as a “50-percent” chance to throw 200 innings.
It’s a simple matter of math. The more innings handled by the starters, the deeper the rotation is taking the team into games and the less strain and chaos foisted on a bullpen. A starter who makes 32 starts and averages six innings per appearance will throw 192 innings.
“That’s just sort of the baseline rule of thumb. Get to six (innings), give yourself a chance to win,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “I’m going to say it’s a (measure) of a consistent rotation. I do think when you have the ability to turn over your rotation it leads to a lot of positives. It’s so rare. … Pitching in this league is not easy. To accomplish these feats of being able to go deep into games that takes certain mental toughness.”
The 200-inning milestone
The Cardinals’ rotation is set to include two pitchers who have topped the 200-inning threshold, a mark pitchers use to define consistency. Last year, 31 major-league pitchers had 200 innings.
Wainwright has thrown more than 200 innings three times, including 2009 when he led the league with 233 innings. Jake Westbrook had four 200-inning seasons in his career before joining the Cardinals.
Club officials do not believe the team is thin on innings because the next step in development for Lance Lynn, a second-year starter, and Jaime Garcia is providing quality on a quantity basis.
“I plan on picking up more innings than I did last year,” said Lynn, who threw 169 innings as a starter and won 18 games. “That’s what you see from the guys who year-in and year-out are thought of as your true aces and your workhorses, the guys you can depend on. That’s the mark that tells you you’re out there doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Garcia was the first of the Cardinals’ pitchers this spring to face hitters when he threw live batting practice Saturday against a group of teammates. It was the first time since Garcia left a playoff game last year because of a shoulder injury that he faced hitters.
Garcia, uninhibited by soreness, looked and said he felt more like himself Saturday.
He used the word “healthy” repeatedly.
“When you’re not healthy, you’re battling a lot of things,” said Garcia, who threw 45 pitches. “This year the biggest goals for me is, one, to take one day at a time and, No. 2, go out there every fifth day until November or however long we play. Battle. Grind. Do whatever you can to help this team win.”
Garcia was diagnosed with a tear in his pitching shoulder. The discomfort throughout last season caused pain elsewhere, like in his hips, and an erosion of his mechanics. That contributed to his inconsistency and limited him to 121 1/3 innings a year after he pitched 194 2/3 innings with 18 quality starts.
The fifth spot in the Cardinals’ rotation is a derby between young pitchers — Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. Lilliquist suggested the idea is to get 150 innings from each of the fourth and fifth spot in the rotation, even if it’s by committee. Any more is gravy, he said. With a young arm manning the fifth spot, the Cardinals are more likely to be conservative with the innings load, limiting that pitcher’s mileage.
“We have to be smart,” Mozeliak said. “We can’t take a pitcher like Shelby Miller and try to say to ourselves that we hope he does 240 innings. That’s just not a very smart strategy. What we have to think about is maybe at some point we have someone miss a start. We are certainly cognizant of making sure we don’t put a young pitcher in a place he shouldn’t be.”
A worthy target
For the returning starters, the bulk innings serve as an indicator.
Unlike wins and earned-run average and quality starts, several pitchers openly said 200 innings is a worthy target.
“If you get to that number it means you’re making all of your starts,” said Westbrook, who had an oblique strain halt his climb to 200 last season. “You don’t pitch 200 innings if you’re not pitching well. If you’re not pitching well, you’re out of there in the fifth (inning). Next thing you know those other numbers (wins and ERA) will probably be there.”
That is also true for the team.
Last year, three of the four teams that got the most innings in the NL from their rotation made the postseason. The same was true the year before, and the top two rotations in 2010 met in the National League championship series.
The Cardinals 2011 World Series team had four starters pitch at least 180 innings during the regular season. The Cards’ last six playoff teams have averaged at least three starters who surpassed 180 innings individually.
As Wainwright said, “The system works better when your starters go deep.”
For four of the starters, 180 innings would be more than they had last year.
For a couple, it would be a career high.
“I don’t mind that,” Lilliquist said. “That’s a good challenge. If you have four consistent guys you’re going to make some noise.”