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Chris Carpenter And The St. Louis Cardinals' Rotational Surplus

Chris Carpenter's injury leaves the St. Louis Cardinals with some pretty good problems to have. Just don't stare at him, he doesn't like that.

Apr 8, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn (31) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first innings at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE
Apr 8, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn (31) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first innings at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

The Cardinals are rolling. After a minor speed bump against the second-class citizens of the NL Central, the Cards are on the upswing again out west against the struggling Arizona Diamondbacks. They've gotten great starting pitching, just enough outs in relief to get by and an offensive performance reminiscent of the breakout the 2011 Cardinals experienced in Arizona in mid-April. Yep, everything is perfect in Cardinal Nation.

Well, almost everything. Pay no attention to the elephant in the room. The one with the leg tats and the 5 o'clock shadow staring a hole through your head as we speak. No, that elephant exists, but we don't know what to think about it. So lets not think about it at all. And dear god, whatever you do, don't look it directly in the eyes.

The Chris Carpenter dilemma is an interesting one. When word of Carpenter's injury first came, there was much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth among Cardinals fans. 'What now?' they asked. 'This storyline again?' they cried. 'Quit listening to my personal conversations,' they warned. Roy Oswalt could hear them clamoring for him from his tree stand.

But Lance Lynn arrived to save the day. And then Lance Lynn arrived. And he saved the day.

Now, the fan base is left to wonder how the Cardinals deal with their impending surplus of starting pitchers. It's not terribly impending - there is still no timetable on Carpenter's return, making this discussion somewhat academic at this juncture - but the expectation is that at some point in the future the Cardinals will have six guys for five spots.

How should the Cardinals deal with their newfound depth? First, lets identify some truths.

If Lynn continues on like this, he's too valuable to move to the bullpen. Relievers are both easier to find and are worth less to their teams than starters. The first reliever doesn't show up until the middle of the second page on FanGraph's 2011 pitching WAR leaders, and only six guys among the top 88 made fewer than 17 starts in 2011. Relievers can post decent WARs, but they have to be pretty darn good (and used pretty darn often) to make any kind of meaningful positive impact.

It's not hard to argue Lynn has been the best Cardinals starter thus far. He's got the best blend of results (6-0, 1.40 ERA) and peripherals (8.61 K/9) of anyone on the staff, and a 2.89 FIP suggests he's not just smoke and mirrors. Some of his numbers are unsustainable - his .209 BABIP will surely go up, and his 93.8% strand rate will surely go down - but everything seems to suggest this is more or less the pitcher he is. And the pitcher he is belongs in the starting rotation.

Carpenter belongs in the rotation, too. The last time he pitched in relief was in 2008. It was one inning. In September. Before that, he hadn't pitched out of the bullpen since his early Toronto days. Chris Carpenter is a starting pitcher, and while he'll say all the right things and do what is best for the team, what's best for the team is to have Carpenter start every fifth game.

Still, a six-man rotation seems unlikely. Maybe in the earlygoing it'll happen as they ease Carpenter back into the mix. Teams like the Rays and White Sox went to six-man rotations for parts of 2011, but each example is short-lived.

The Texas Rangers had plenty of reason to switch to a six-man rotation to begin 2012 but still chose to send Alexi Ogando to the bullpen instead. With an increased emphasis on matchups and starting pitchers' outings becoming shorter, teams can't afford to sacrifice that extra arm in the bullpen. And the Cardinals are no exception.

Trading one of the starters to open a spot is a bad idea. Teams in contention rarely deal away starting pitching, no matter how great their depth. The two usual suspects are Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, both of whom have no-trade clauses, so a trade is even less likely to happen. One need look no further than the Cardinals' hockey counterparts to see that a surplus can quickly evaporate with an ill-timed injury. Unless the Cardinals can get a piece in return that upgrades their chances of winning the World Series, it seems to make the most sense for the team to hold onto its chips.

So what's the answer, then? Simply, wait. Lohse is a traditionally strong starter who begins to falter in the summer months. Westbrook, while having a track record that suggests last year was the exception and not the rule, still can't be fully trusted despite the promising start. And in a rotation in which four members have now had Tommy John surgery in their lifetime health can't be assumed, either. More likely than not, the decision will be made for Mike Matheny & Co.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride. And seriously, do not look Carpenter directly in the eyes. Just don't.