One of the more intriguing position battles of the spring is taking place in St. Louis Cardinals camp where Joe Kelly, who went 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA in 15 starts last season, is trying to hold off talented 22-year-old rookie Carlos Martinez for the last spot in the starting rotation.
If you're wondering why the 25-year-old Kelly isn't being guaranteed a spot after his successful rotation stint, keep in mind that Lance Lynn, who is 33-17 with a 3.88 ERA over the past two seasons, was also expected to be part of the battle for the last spot until soreness in Jaime Garcia's surgically-repaired shoulder—the lefty is expected to start the season on the disabled list—appeared to have cleared a path for him. But even now, Lynn should probably be looking over his shoulder.
The Cardinals have one of the deepest pitching staffs in baseball, and this heated battle for a rotation spot is simply one of those "good problems" that talented and successful teams often come across.
Whoever loses this competition is still likely to fill a key role in the bullpen—Kelly has a 3.25 ERA with 14 walks and 49 strikeouts in 52.2 big league innings as a reliever; Martinez had a few rough outings in relief during the regular season but finished strong and became the team's primary setup man for closer Trevor Rosenthal throughout the playoffs—though the rotation is where they are hoping to find themselves at the start of the season.
Tale of the Tape
While he is clearly the safe pick and was entrusted with four postseason starts last season, Kelly isn't being anointed the No. 5 starter early in camp because of Martinez's huge upside and what he is capable of doing if he proves that he's ready to be a big league starter.
Even if the organization is leaning toward Kelly in the rotation and Martinez in the 'pen, it doesn't hurt to stretch Martinez out in camp and at least give him an opportunity to win the job.
There is a significant upside, however, in keeping Martinez in a relief role for at least another season, which should work in Kelly's favor. While Kelly's strikeout rate is drastically better out of the bullpen—he has a 5.3 K/9 in 178.1 big league innings as a starter and an 8.4 K/9 in 52.2 big league innings as a reliever—he's not viewed as the type of lights-out eighth-inning setup man that Martinez can be.
As a starting pitcher, Kelly utilizes a sinking fastball that averaged 94.9 mph in 2013, according to FanGraphs, to keep the ball on the ground and in the ballpark (51.1 percent ground-ball rate; 8.9 percent homer/fly-ball rate).
The right-hander allowed four earned runs in two starts, three earned runs in two others and two earned runs or fewer in his 11 remaining starts. Kelly was the definition of a pitcher who gives his team a chance to win, which is all any team can really ask out of a back-of-the-rotation starter.
One concern is that he won't be able to repeat his 82.4 percent strand rate that was necessary because of a relatively high 1.333 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). If ground balls are finding holes in the infield at a much higher rate than in 2013, Kelly could find himself with an ERA that is well into the 4.00s.
Although his first outing of the spring isn't likely to have much of an influence on the competition, Kelly's not off to a great start. He allowed two earned runs on two hits and two walks in 1.2 innings pitched. He also struck out two hitters.
If it's clear that Martinez is the Cardinals' best option to set up for Rosenthal, it will be difficult to break camp with him in the rotation. If he happens to win the job, though, Kelly, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness would be the leading candidates for the eighth-inning role, and the bridge to the ninth inning would likely appear a bit less stable.
Jason Motte's return from Tommy John surgery could play a major factor, though, in reversing that perception. The former closer isn't expected to be ready for the start of the season, but he told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that sometime in April is a "possibility."
"Even if I’m throwing bullpens at the end of March and I’m firing balls in there that’s great but it’s still not the same as getting in a game with that intensity, that adrenaline," Motte said. "So you don’t want to go straight from there to the big-league ballgame without facing hitters or doing anything back-to-back. April may be a possibility, I don’t know."
If the Cards feel confident that the 31-year-old Motte, who posted a 2.75 ERA and saved 42 games in 2012, will be able to return to form and step into the role of primary setup man early in the season, they could feel much more comfortable with Martinez in the rotation to begin the season.
Of course, Martinez will still have to prove himself this spring. In his first start, he allowed two earned runs—Marlins first baseman Garrett Jones hit a two-run homer against him in the first inning—on two hits over three innings with no walks and two strikeouts.
By allowing Martinez to get his pitch count up in preparation for a starting role to begin the season, the Cards are setting themselves up to have a pretty good backup plan in place should they need another starting pitcher within the first month or two of the season. They also ensure that their bullpen is in the best possible shape with a much-feared late-inning combination of Siegrist-to-Martinez-to-Rosenthal.
A healthy and effective Motte returning by early May, combined with a struggling Kelly could result in the team moving Martinez into the rotation then. For now, there is no need to go away from the safe decisions of Kelly as the No. 5 starter and Martinez to the 'pen.