Wednesday February 23rd, 2011

As if the failed Albert Pujols negotiations weren't enough to cast a pall over the Cardinals' spring training, things went from bad to worse for the Redbirds on Monday, when ace righthander Adam Wainwright left camp with an injured elbow. Wainwright was sent back to St. Louis for tests with expectations being that he'll need Tommy John surgery and thus miss the entire 2011 season. That's a devastating blow to a Cardinals team that is facing the possibility of losing Pujols to free agency at year's end and will have to contend with ascendant Reds and Brewers squads in the NL Central.

How good is Wainwright? Over the past two seasons, he averaged 231 2/3 innings, a 2.53 ERA (158 ERA+), 1.31 WHIP, 212 strikeouts and a 3.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2009, he led the majors in wins (19), the National league in starts (34) and innings (233), and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Last year, he won 20 games with a better ERA both in raw terms (2.42) and measured against the league average (161 ERA+), more complete games (5) and shutouts (2), more strikeouts and fewer walks (for a 3.80 K/BB), and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Roy Halladay, whose wins, strikeouts, and ERA were very similar to Wainwright's. Wainwright, now 29, has arguably been the best pitcher in the National League over those last two seasons having led the league in wins, innings, ERA and ERA+ (minimum 300 innings), and was on my November list of top candidates for this year's Cy Young award.

That's a lot for any club to lose, but especially for a Cardinals team that has had something of a stars-and-scrubs look in recent years and won five fewer games in 2010 than in 2009, surrendering their division crown to the upstart Reds in the process. The Cardinals haven't done much to improve their 2010 squad, either. Signing Lance Berkman to play in an outfield corner is an act of faith that seems unlikely to be rewarded. Berkman, now 35, hasn't played an inning in the outfield since 2007, and hasn't played more than 50 games in the pastures since 2004, when he was still in his 20s. Asking for more out his body in the field seems unlikely to aid Berkman's attempt to stage a comeback at the plate coming off a season that was not just his worst as a major league regular, but saw his once-elite power drop off significantly, a bad sign for a player coming into the pitching-friendly new Busch Stadium. Replacing Brendan Ryan with Ryan Theriot at shortstop effectively replaces a great fielder who can't hit with a weak fielder who doesn't hit much, a likely downgrade, and a detriment to a now weakened pitching staff.

As for the rotation, the Cardinals will have re-signed free agent Jake Westbrook for a full season and can expect more innings from 2010 Rookie of the Year candidate Jaime Garcia. However, it's unreasonable to expect Garcia to post another ERA below 3.00, and Westbrook might see a bit of regression as well after posting a 3.48 ERA in his 12 starts after being acquired from the Indians at the trade deadline. Opponents hit .284 on balls put in play against the groundballing Westbrook over those 12 starts, a number that's even more likely to increase in the coming season given the switch from Ryan to Theriot at shortstop. Meanwhile, the loss of Wainwright means Kyle Lohse will likely be guaranteed a rotation spot despite a miserable 2010 season that saw him miss three months due to surgery to correct compartment syndrome in his right forearm then post a 7.25 ERA in nine starts after his return.

Before Wainwright's injury, the Cardinals seemed poised to make Lohse fight for his job against the usual assortment of veteran non-roster invitees (washout Ian Snell, 40-year-old Miguel Batista, lefty Raul Valdes) and unproven low-grade prospects (righties P.J. Walters, Lance Lynn, Adam Ottavino and Brandon Dickson). Those pitchers will now be competing for Wainwright's vacated spot instead, with the best-case scenario for any of them still representing a significant downgrade.

What the Cardinals now face is a weakened team against a strengthened division led by the defending champion Reds, who will start 2009 Tommy John patient Edinson Volquez on Opening Day and have a deep starting corps that includes sophomores Travis Wood, and Mike Leake, 25-year-old Homer Bailey and incumbent stalwarts Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo. The Reds will also have Aroldis Chapman in their bullpen from Opening Day, giving them an impressive collection of live young arms (Chapman, Cueto, Leake, Bailey, and Wood all made Kevin Goldstein's list of the team's top talents under the age of 26 over at Baseball Prospectus earlier this month) to add to what was the National League's top offense in 2010.

The Reds will have their hands full with the Brewers, who, facing Prince Fielder's likely post-2011 departure as a free agent, have cashed in what was left of their farm system to add starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum via trades this offseason. After two years in the wilderness, the Brewers once again have a rotation -- headed by 25-year-old emerging ace Yovani Gallardo, 2009 AL Cy Young award winner Greinke, 27, and the 29-year-old Marcum -- that can help lift their already-dangerous offense back into the playoffs.

The Reds and Brewers are strong and young enough that the Cardinals already looked like a third place team before Wainwright's injury, but now that looks like their best-case scenario. As for Wainwright's future, post surgery, that's more encouraging. The Cardinals need look no further than their own rotation to find examples of successful returns from Tommy John surgery. Chris Carpenter (July 2007), Jake Westbrook (June 2008), and Jaime Garcia (September 2008) are all former Tommy John patients. Carpenter, who won the 2005 NL Cy Young award prior to his surgery, finished second in the voting, ahead of Wainwright, in 2009, his first full season after surgery, and was again one of the best pitchers in the league in 2010 (16-9, 3.22 ERA). Garcia finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last year, his first full season post-surgery, and Westbrook went right back to his old league-average innings-eating ways last year in his first action post surgery.

For more encouragement, the Cardinals can watch Tommy John alumni Marcum (September 2008) and Volquez (August 2009) as they help pitch the Brewers and Reds past St. Louis this season. Marcum set career bests in innings, WHIP, and strikeout and walk rate in 2010, his first season after surgery. Volquez returned to the Reds in July, less than twelve months after his surgery, and pitched well enough down the stretch to earn the Game 1 start in the Division Series against the Phillies.

As I wrote in August when Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg was awaiting the news that he was headed for Tommy John surgery, there were then roughly 43 pitchers on active major league rosters who had undergone ligament-replacement surgery at some points in their careers, including such big names as Carpenter, Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Ryan Dempster, C.J. Wilson, A.J. Burnett, Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria and Rafael Soriano. Those 43 men added up to more than 11 percent of the active pitchers in the major leagues at the time. In a 2009 interview, Red Sox head trainer Mike Reinold put the success rate of return from the surgery at "close to 85 to 92 percent in elite pitchers," of which Wainwright is one. In 2003, Dr. Frank Jobe, who invented the procedure, told Jayson Stark the success rate was 92 to 95 percent, if not better, which would mean that for every 43 successes there would be fewer than four failures. Given Wainwright's accomplishments, it would be surprising if he were to be one of those four.

Most likely, Wainwright will return to action on or around Opening Day 2012 and, though he might struggle a bit with his command to start, should return to being one of the best pitchers in the senior circuit at age 30 and beyond. The Cardinals shouldn't even have to think too hard about picking up his $9 million option for that season, as that and the $12 million option they hold on Wainwright for 2013 should still prove to be bargains, even after surgery. The catch is that Wainwright and Pujols may have already played their last game together for St. Louis, which might be enough reason to go about confiscating belts and shoelaces from the Redbird faithful, not matter how sunny Wainwright's long-term prognosis might be.

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