St. Louis Cardinals fans have been waiting for something to break on Chris Carpenter from the moment he came back from a two-year layoff pitching as well as he ever had, but it's still disconcerting to learn that the Cardinals are worried enough about his recent neck injury to audition some internal spring replacements. With a Roy Oswalt acquisition still seemingly ruled out, any short-term replacement, says Mike Matheny, will come from inside the house. If that stays true, here are the Cardinals' options, in order of perceived likelihood.
1. Kyle McClellan is the default option—last year, as Adam Wainwright's abrupt replacement, he filled in for half a season that was about as vanilla replacement-level-plus as a pitcher can get—high-80s fastball, a bunch of difficult-to-distinguish off-speed stuff, and command that was just good enough to mask his low strikeout rate.
He could probably do that again, and if the Cardinals' goal is to minimize the disturbance of the rest of their pitching staff McClellan, who seems destined to be relegated to a low leverage, long-relief role, is the best choice. But if the Cardinals are willing to risk anything for a better outcome, they'd be better served looking further down this list.
2. Lance Lynn is a good bet if you draw the right conclusions from Derrick Goold's Sunday kremlinology tweet:
#Cardinals mgr Matheny says he'll reveal pitcher who will be insurance starter Mon, day S-Miller pitches, after Lynn was targeted for 2 inn.— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) March 11, 2012
That makes it sound like Lynn has a leg up on McClellan, which makes sense—last year he pitched considerably better. Lynn's conversion from a mid-grade sinkerball prospect to a mid-grade mid-90s-fastball prospect precipitated his major league move to the bullpen, but he remains a big, starter-shaped guy whose skill-set makes sense in the back of a big league rotation.
Given the Cardinals' surplus of right-handed bullpen arms—Mitchell Boggs has emerged, of late, as a relative long-shot to make the team, not to mention Scott Linebrink—they seem prepared to let Lynn make the shift at some point. It might as well be now, if they need it.
3. Shelby Miller could take this opportunity to put himself in the major league rotation for good—and whatever you think of such a move's financial viability, given the Cardinals' incentives to hold off his call-up until midseason, this is the most exciting option.
Sending the Cardinals' 21-year-old top prospect to the Busch Stadium mound in April might be a little early, but I'm not sure it's a lot early. Miller's 16 starts in AA Springfield—where he was sometimes characterized as struggling—led to a 2.70 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and just two home runs allowed. He could use a few starts in AAA, but he's probably ready to be better than Lance Lynn and Kyle McClellan right now.
Honorable mention: The Cardinals don't seem to have any burning desire to try Marc Rzepczynski out at starter, despite his excellent strikeout rates in Toronto; I'd rather see him out there than McClellan or Lynn, even though he's much less replaceable in the bullpen.
Of course, all this wondering about who the Cardinals like the sixth-most is irrelevant if Chris Carpenter's neck problem resolves itself like they hope it might. Whatever happens, Chris Carpenter is likely to suffer from day-to-day maladies through his next two years in the rotation, and all of these pitchers—particularly Shelby Miller—are likely to show up in important places this year.
If it's all the same though, I'd rather that important place wasn't Chris Carpenter's spot in the rotation in April.