McClellan Still Prefers to Start

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan is one player potentially impacted by the uncertain plans for ace Chris Carpenter. Manager Tony La Russa’s recent comments about the potential of starter Carpenter to perhaps close instead if it is better for the pitcher’s health could also help determine McClellan’s role in 2009.

A starting pitcher in the minors, including when he was injured for much of the time between 2005 and 2007, McClellan came into 2008 Cardinals spring camp as a unheralded starter with almost no shot to make the team. As he impressed in each successive outing, he was formally converted to relief and pitched his way onto the club.

After a fast start, McClellan cemented his role in the Cardinals pen and remained in the major leagues the entire season. He tied Chicago’s Carlos Marmol for tops in the National League with 30 holds. This despite the fact he had accrued just 30 innings of experience at Double-A and no Triple-A time prior.

For 2009, McClellan will likely reprise his bullpen role, but with an appealing four-pitch repertoire and his versatility, the club might be tempted to move him back to starting. This could be dependent upon at least four factors:

  • Carpenter’s ability to recover from an ongoing nerve problem as noted above.
  • The team’s success in acquiring another veteran starter via trade or free agency.
  • Whether Mitchell Boggs, with six starts last season, can step up and claim a rotation spot.
  • Whether or not another reliever can move up and assume McClellan’s current role.

Depending on who you ask, the relative importance of those four factors vary.

Over the weekend, McClellan made an appearance at a sports memorabilia show at John A. Logan College in Carterville, IL. There he addressed the question openly, closing with the expected “team-first” remark, while also honestly expressing his personal preference.

“I would like to start, but really, it doesn’t matter to me whether I start or relieve. Whatever helps the club the most,” McClellan told The Southern Illinoisan.

Cards pitching coach Dave Duncan, perhaps McClellan’s strongest supporter, seems to agree. The Post-Dispatch’s Jeff Gordon says Duncan is leaning toward moving the second-year pitcher back to starting if Carpenter isn’t 100 percent this spring.

Duncan made this observation during a recent radio appearance on KFNS about the 24-year-old:

“He has four pitches and three are above-average pitches. That’s what you look for in a starting pitcher. I’m of the belief Kyle McClellan has the attributes to become a starting pitcher, and a good one, at the major league level.”

In remarks on another radio show on 1380 AM last Friday, La Russa said his clear preference is to not shift McClellan and acquire another starter instead.

“I think it is just going to come down to maybe literally the first day of spring training and you look at who you signed. I think Kyle could move into the rotation competition in spring training and have an excellent chance to be a good pitcher.

“But if we’re identifying the end of the game as our number one priority and if you are taking a guy out of the bullpen who was a major weapon for us, that doesn’t seem to add up to me.

“We’ve got other starters so yeah, if we don’t do anything else for the starter and you do something for a reliever, then you’d consider Kyle that way. But if you don’t do anything for the bullpen – if you have the same guys there as you do now – I would hesitate to take a guy like Kyle McClellan, who is such an effective reliever, and in 2009 make him a starter when we’re looking for help at the end of the game.”

The following is the scenario I prefer, but it would require a perfect storm to actually occur. If Carpenter AND the new starter are proven to be ready to go AND the Cards acquire a ninth-inning man, as are on their shopping list AND everyone is healthy, it would probably take much of the month of March to play out. So here is what I would do.

Proclaim McClellan to be a starter, now and for the forseeable future. After all, it seems his greatest value to the organization is in that role. Have him start the season in Memphis to re-familiarize himself with the routine of starting and to increase his endurance. He would be of more value if he could get into the final three innings of the game, an unlikely occurrence out of the gate. After all, McClellan has pitched over 76 innings in a season as a professional only once, way back in 2004.

This way, McClellan would get stretched out and probably become more at ease with starting at the upper levels of the game. He should then be more ready for the call if/when Carpenter or another starter goes down during the season.

Bottom line, no matter how good McClellan is, I would consider having just one month of spring training to execute a successful shift to a major league starter to be taking an unnecessary risk, both for the player and the club.

Like so many other parts of the yet-to-be-fully-assembled 2009 Cardinals, McClellan will need to remain flexible and be prepared to play any role come spring. There is no reason to believe he won’t be up to the task, especially if handled properly.