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