When the St. Louis Cardinals lost ace Adam Wainwright to injury this spring, most people thought they had fallen behind the Reds and Brewers in the NL Central in terms of talent; after all, Wainwright had a lot to do with their success in recent years.  But here we are, it’s almost June and the Cardinals find themselves in first place, two-and-a-half games up on the surging Brewers and five up on the scuffling Reds.

Now, obviously, we are still just a third of the way through the season; there’s a lot of baseball to be played, but what has to be encouraging to the Redbirds is the fact that they have this divisional lead despite the struggles of the best player in the game, Albert Pujols.  They find themselves atop the Majors in many offensive categories including runs scored.  The surprising play of Lance Berkman along with the continued consistency of Matt Holliday has led to this, but how much of it has to do with the pitching staff?  After all, that’s where our doubts were housed at the season’s commencement.

For this week’s What’s Your Fantasy, I want to look at four Cardinals starters who have all had surprising seasons so far.  I’ll tell you whether or not you’ll want to buy-low or sell-high on these hurlers.

Crystal ball, ignite*

Sell-High — Kyle Lohse
Lohse has defied logic this year.  After a season in which the 32-year-old right-hander had a 6.55 ERA in an injury-shortened campaign, Lohse has a stunning 2.13 ERA and a 7-2 record so far in 2011.

Despite a few decent seasons, Lohse has been the epitome of mediocrity throughout his career, accumulating a middling strike-out rate, a solid but not spectacular walk-rate and an ERA, FIP and even xFIP in the middle-fours.  That alone should be enough to deter you from keeping Lohse if you still have him on your roster.

His K-rate is right around his career average while his walk and homerun rates are substantially better.  He has been helped out by well-below-average HR/FB and batted-ball averages, which sit well below his career and league marks.

Lohse never keeps this up for long and should regress back to a pitcher with a middle-four ERA before long.  If you have him, try flipping him for slightly better commodities.

Buy-Low — Jaime Garcia
Garcia had an excellent rookie campaign in 2010 posting a 2.70 ERA, but was a candidate for at least a slight regression heading into this season due to his low HR/FB rate and FIP numbers that were higher than his ERA.  Garcia’s ERA has regressed a bit, but he’s been pitching very well.  His peripherals this season are actually better than they were last year despite the slightly higher ERA.  His strike-out rate is up about a K per nine innings, while his walk rate is down significantly, making his FIP 2.62.

Garcia’s BABIP is well in line with the league average and his left-on-base percentage is actually much lower, suggesting that in some ways, he’s actually been unlucky.  I will admit that Garcia is better than I thought.  He was and seems to be rounding into at least a solid middle-rotation pitcher.  You may not be able to buy-low on him at the moment, but if you could flip Lohse for him, I have a feeling you’ll be laughing soon enough.

Buy-Low — Chris Carpenter
Yes, Carpenter is 36 and yes, his best years are behind him but he’s been a very unlucky pitcher so far this year.  His fielding independent numbers are consistent with his career norms and his high HR/FB rate has slightly elevated his homerun totals overall.  His elevated .330 BABIP could also be contributing to his poor numbers so far this year.

The bottom line is that Carpenter’s 1-5 record and 4.58 ERA are very misleading and if you’re looking for a starting pitcher for second-half run in your league, Carpenter might be someone you can gleam off someone else’s roster for fairly cheap.  Hell, he’s even been on waivers in some Yahoo(!) leagues.

Sell-High – Kyle McClellan
In a desperate attempt to find a fifth starter after the news of Wainwright’s injury broke, the Cardinals turned in-house and converted McClellan, a reliever, to a starting role; something he hadn’t done for a few years.  The results so far have worked out for St. Louis as McClellan has a 3.11 ERA so far.  The problem is that his strike-out rate is down quite a bit to just 4.52 per nine innings and his FIP sits at a less-than-great 4.28.

McClellan’s average sinker velocity (his most-used pitch) since converting back to the rotation has dropped from just under 92 mph, to 88.5mph.  Whether or not this is the reason for his lack of strike-outs, he clearly isn’t missing bats enough.  He also has a left-on-base percentage much higher than average and a very-low .249 BABIP; eventually those numbers will regress and McClellan’s value will tank.

Until next week, Happy Baseball!

*yep, that just happened