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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pitch Gurus: Success on mound starts with coaches

The Cardinals opened this season with four starting pitchers who each had made fewer than 35 major-league starts and a fifth with a career losing record.

The alignment came one year after the team defended its World Series title by moving two relievers into the rotation, signing a third with seven starts the previous season and betting on another with 18 career starts. In 2005, the Cardinals paced the National League in ERA with a rotation costing $17.55 million and a bullpen that included six pitchers making less total than closer Jason Isringhausen's $7 million.

When the franchise next seeks a pitching coach, it should advertise this way: "Buy low. Sell high. Find bargains in an overheated market; develop alternatives within a depressed one."

Or just rehire Dave Duncan and bullpen coach Marty Mason.

"It's no disrespect to the other coaches, but I believe the pitching coach can extract more value for your team than anyone else," manager Tony La Russa said. "A hitting coach can do it, too. But I believe by their nature hitters are more reluctant to fine-tune or change, which makes it more difficult."

"I look at a pitching coach as the equivalent of a swing coach in golf," starter Todd Wellemeyer said. "In that way, I compare Dunc to (Tiger Woods' former coach) Butch Harmon. He's got credibility when you walk in the door. You should be open to what he says from day one."

In 12 seasons with the Cardinals, Duncan has overseen 21 seasons of 14 or more victories by 13 pitchers, only five of whom had previously accomplished that feat.

Wellemeyer represents a favorite Duncan project — a converted reliever blessed with a powerful arm who is owed $1 million this season. A waiver claim from the lowly Kansas City Royals last May 15, Wellemeyer has since gone 5-1 with a 3.90 ERA in 14 starts.

The difference?

"Some people might see a guy who throws 95-96 without great command and think that's enough to be an effective reliever," Duncan said. "I see someone whose stuff is very good, can execute a plan at 92-93 and who has the weapons to be a very good starting pitcher."

Duncan never reached Kip Wells and Brett Tomko, and he lost Jason Marquis after consigning him to bullpen duty during the 2005 playoffs. Marquis averaged 14 wins and more than 200 innings in three seasons with the Cardinals but believed Duncan's pitching plans did not fit him. Others, however, embrace them.

"He takes the preparation out of it," said Adam Wainwright, a 14-game winner last season, his first as a major-league starter. "If there's a question on a guy, Dunc's got every pitch logged on every batter you'll ever face. If you're a rookie or a guy struggling with mechanics, he gives you something to believe in."

The Cardinals saw enough in Wainwright last season to award him a potential six-year extension this spring.

"I think he's definitely responsible for some of it," Wainwright said. "I'm not quite ready to sign my check over to him. But what we have here is a good mix of veterans, coaches and manager. To me, Tony is the best I've seen at working a bullpen. Duncan's preparation is crazy. Marty is a mechanical guru who can address it right before you go on the field."

The Cardinals won the 2006 World Series with a rotation costing $30.9 million, then began last season with a $17.8 million commitment to its active five. (Mark Mulder opened the season on the disabled list and made $4.5 million.)

The Cardinals' current starting rotation makes $16.7 million, or about 56 percent of the $29.7 million Matt Morris, Darryl Kile, Andy Benes, Garrett Stephenson and Woody Williams received to open the 2002 season.

"I think there's a great deal of value to that. When you look at someone in terms of what he does with pitchers, it's one of Dunc's greatest attributes: giving the right preparation to succeed," general manager John Mozeliak said.

Storm Davis won 35 of 64 starts with La Russa's and Duncan's Oakland A's in 1988-89. Davis then jumped to the Royals as a free agent and went 21-34 in five injury-scarred seasons.

Kent Bottenfield won 18 games after transferring from the bullpen to the rotation in 1999. Traded to the Anaheim Angels, he won 10 games combined the next two seasons before retiring.

Todd Stottlemyre won 49 games for La Russa's A's and Cardinals from 1995 to 1998. Traded to the Texas Rangers in July 1998, he won 20 games before pitching his last major-league game at 34.

A rookie at 30, former tow-truck operator Jason Simontacchi won 11 games in 2002 and 20 games between the rotation and the bullpen in 2003-04.

"He's the best out there right now," offered one National League scout about Duncan. "He makes guys better than anyone has a right to expect. Anyone who doesn't recognize the value of that isn't paying attention."

The Cardinals philosophically oppose committing for more than three years to any outside pitcher and traditionally have exercised great fiscal restraint in the pursuit of relievers.

A case can be made that the Cardinals overextended to pay pending free agent Joel Pineiro $13 million for two seasons when last winter's market provided only one multi-year deal to a starting pitcher (Carlos Silva).

The Cardinals acquired Pineiro last July 31 as a reclamation after the Boston Red Sox sent him to Class AAA Pawtucket. Within two months, Duncan helped him morph into an indispensable pitcher.

Four of the five pitchers in the Cardinals' rotation have worked in someone's bullpen the last two years, Kyle Lohse being the exception. The Chicago Cubs dedicated $38.15 million to its opening-day payroll; the Milwaukee Brewers $23.73 million.

Another $18.5 million sits on the Cardinals' disabled list. Mark Mulder ($6.5 million) and Chris Carpenter ($10.5 million) either returned as a free agent or agreed to an extension after at least two seasons with the club. Guaranteed $1.5 million, Matt Clement represents the club's latest attempt at finding value from a medical rehab, as the team did with Carpenter, Sidney Ponson and Kip Wells, among others.

Coming off two shoulder surgeries, Carpenter earned the major-league minimum $300,000 in 2003 and 2004, a season in which the Cardinals came within one out of leading the league in ERA with three starting pitchers making $1 million or less.

Carpenter earned $2 million while winning the 2005 NL Cy Young Award and ultimately agreed to a five-year, $63.5 million extension in December 2006.

"There's no question he had a great deal to do with it," Carpenter said of Duncan. "I've thanked him for that a number of times, because I mean it."

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