Heading into training camp, the first four spots in the St. Louis Cardinals' pitching rotation had been filled by Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, and Brad Penny. Along with a third baseman, a fifth starter would need to be decided on before the Cardinals headed to Cincinnati to face the Reds on Opening Day.
So far, two clear candidates have emerged for the final rotation slot, with a third "dark horse" in the mix. Mitchell Boggs was pegged as a fourth candidate coming in, but it has become clear that he'll start the season in the bullpen. This is my first look at the competition, now that all three men have had their go.
The Favorite: Kyle McClellan
McClellan, 24, lead the National League in holds as a rookie in 2008 for an otherwise shaky Cardinals bullpen, and saw his first start with St. Louis in Grapefruit League action Sunday. He dazzled the Florida Marlins through three innings, striking out four while giving up just one hit, and walked none. He received the win.
The main concern with McClellan is whether or not he can make the transition from reliever to starter. He has one full year as a starter under his belt with Single-A Peoria, although he was rather ineffective compared to his major-league domination out of the bullpen. Otherwise he has not topped 80 innings professionally. The problem that Cardinals face is a good one, similar to what the Yankees faced with Joba Chamberlain: We have this great reliever, who could be a serviceable starter. How do we pitch him?
The Contender: Rich Hill
Hill differs from McClellan in that he has plenty of starting experience in the big leagues. His best season was easily the 2007 campaign, with the rival Cubs. He pitched 195 innings that year, but broke down the next year, only throwing 19.2 innings. His curveball is one of the best in the league, and helped him to 183 in 2007, good for fifth in the NL.
On Sunday, Hill followed McClellan's dazzling performance with good, but not great pitching of his own. He pitched two innings and struck out two as well. He gave up two hits, one being a home run to Brett Carroll. I didn't see it myself, but if you believe the Cardinals' broadcasts, it was largely aided by a strong wind. Weather patterns aside, Hill pitched quite serviceably.
It is apparent from his '08 and '09 campaigns that the Cubs mishandled him, and that he is better suited for a lesser role. He should be fine, and if Dave Duncan doesn't overwork him, he could pitch as well as he did in '07, albiet in less innings.
The Underdog: Jaime Garcia
Garcia pitched three hitless innings, and struck out three against Florida on Saturday. He gave up no runs.
Garcia has a slim chance of making the Opening Day roster, but could fill in down the line, should McClellan or Hill go on the disabled list. Until they do, this is still a two-man competition.