With two weeks left until Opening Day the St. Louis Cardinals still have not declared a winner in the competition for the fifth starter spot. Trevor Rosenthal was eliminated one week ago and told he would be in the bullpen to start the year. Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller remain as the two contestants. According to this morning's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, management has not announced any decision on the fifth stater. Still, there are good reasons to believe that Kelly already has won the job.
While Kelly likely has the least potential of all the candidates, he has the most proven experience by far. Kelly started 16 games last year, compiling a very respectable 3.53 ERA over 107 IP. Kelly was never spectacular, but he turned in quality starts against good lineups, including the Brewers and Reds.
Miller’s MLB experience is limited to less than 10 bullpen appearances and one start against the Reds, albeit a very good one.
Miller is certainly more exciting, but MLB teams often go for a safe, proven choice over the “wow factor” when picking a fifth starter. Such will likely be the case with Kelly and Miller, particularly when considering the following factors.
If there were a tie between Miller’s potential and Kelly’s experience the tiebreaker could very well be the two pitchers spring training performance. Here too, Kelly has the edge.
Kelly has a 2.25 ERA this spring over 8 IP. Miller has a 7.04 ERA over 7.2 IP with a 1.57 WHIP. Miller has struck out more batters, eight compared to Kelly’s five, but Kelly has found a way to keep runs from scoring, which is the quality prized most in a starter.
Miller’s Arbitration Clock
If the Cardinals and other scouts are right about Shelby Miller he will soon be a number two or one starter for a contending rotation in the coming years. Once they qualify for free agency, quality number two starters can earn over $20 million per-year (i.e. Matt Cain). The Cardinals, therefore, have a financial interest in making sure Miller’s free agency is delayed as long as possible.
Under the labor agreement players signed with MLB owners a player normally qualifies for arbitration three years after they are placed on the 25-man roster. (see the full details here) If Miller starts the year as the fifth starter he will be eligible for salary arbitration in 2016 and eligible for free agency in 2019. If Miller instead starts the year in Memphis and gets called up in June or July the Cardinals gain a full year of keeping Miller for near minimum MLB salary.
Kelly’s “arbitration clock” has already started given his MLB exposure last year, so the same financial concerns do not come into play in that situation.