La Russa: Top 4 starters rank with the best

By R.B. FALLSTROM

AP Sports Writer

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) 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.”

Updated February 19, 2010