La Russa: Top 4 starters rank with the best

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will stack up his top

four starters with those of any team in the major leagues. And he’s

not too worried about the fifth spot, either.

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright finished 2-3 in the NL Cy

Young voting. Kyle Lohse is one year removed from a 15-win season

and healthy again, and Brad Penny apparently is back on his

game.

“The biggest variable is justifying the confidence quite a few

people have in our rotation,” La Russa said Friday. “I believe in

this club, I believe in this rotation. I believe we can compete

with any rotation in baseball.”

One member of the big four cracked a wide smile at that

statement.

“Who am I to disagree with a Hall of Fame manager?” Wainwright

said. “On paper, we’re pretty tough. We’ve just got to go out and

perform and pitch like we should.”

At the top is Carpenter, 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA and the first

Cardinals pitcher to win the NL ERA title since Joe Magrane in

1988. He owns the franchise’s best career winning percentage at

.739, going 68-24.

Wainwright led the league in victories and innings (233) and had

an iron man run of 26 consecutive starts of six or more innings.

The 6-6 right-hander’s 2.63 ERA was fourth-best in the league.

Lohse had more than his share of misfortune last season,

suffering from a variety of injuries that landed him on the 15-day

disabled list for the first time in his career. The most

troublesome setback by far came in late May when he was drilled on

the right forearm while squaring to bunt, which saddled him with

mechanical difficulties the rest of the way while going 6-10 with a

4.74 ERA.

“It was an experience I hope I don’t have to go through again

for sure,” said Lohse, who was 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA in 2008. “But

everything’s good now.”

Penny, a two-time All-Star long coveted by St. Louis, got his

career back on track last season. A 4-1 record and 2.59 ERA in six

late-season starts with the Giants after a trade from Boston

convinced the Cardinals to sign the right-hander to a one-year,

$7.5 million free agent deal.

“When a guy pitches against us and I’m really concerned that

he’s going to shut us down, I’d like to have him,” La Russa said.

“Seeing him with the Marlins I always had that, ‘Oooh, I hope we

don’t get this guy this series.”’

As for the fifth starter, the Cardinals have three viable

candidates. Left-hander Rich Hill is coming off shoulder surgery

but was an 11-game winner with the Cubs in 2007, fellow lefty Jaime

Garcia is considered one of the franchise’s top pitching prospects

although he’s also coming off surgery, and right-hander Kyle

McClellan has been an effective setup man the last two seasons.

Hill, who’ll be 30 next month, was 3-3 with an unsightly 7.80

ERA with the Orioles before undergoing season-ending surgery in

August. He signed a minor league deal with St. Louis and was a

non-roster invitee to camp.

“What he was looking for was a club where he had a legitimate

shot at making a team,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “He

looked at our team and saw it as a good fit.”

Hill liked the idea of working with pitching coach Dave Duncan,

who has resurrected numerous pitchers’ careers.

“How he’s helped some guys bounce back and get back on track is

something that was appealing,” Hill said. “The biggest thing is I

feel good, I feel healthy.”

The Cardinals will take care not to expect too much too soon

from Garcia, who had a light workload last season at three minor

league levels following reconstructive elbow surgery.

“He’s a really good-looking prospect and you definitely should

be thinking long-term,” La Russa said. “He’ll be one guy talked

to on a personal basis: ‘You want to have a long career, man, don’t

do anything crazy.”’

The same goes for McClellan, who has worked 68 and 66 innings

his first two major league seasons.

“This is not rocket science, it’s just common sense,” La Russa

said. “Let’s get there gradually. Whoever wins that spot, I think

we’ll be able to do that without pushing and risking.”