Without Wainwright, do Cards have a chance?

By now everyone has read the news. Adam Wainwright has been sent back to St. Louis to have his throwing elbow examined after experiencing some discomfort during a throwing session earlier this week.

According to an article about it at stltoday.com by Derrick Gould, Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak considers it a significant injury and apparently the words “Tommy John” were mentioned. If that were the case, Wainwright is done for the year and we’ll be lucky for him to start the 2012 season on the roster.

But what does that mean for the Cardinals, after all, you don’t lose a 20 game winner and expect to still be competitive do you? Do you?

When I first heard the news I just buried my head in my hands. So much hope for this season just washed away in one fell swoop. The loss of Nick Punto could be absorbed, not so much the team’s ace. My mind flashed back to 2007 and 2008 when we spent both of those seasons without Chris Carpenter.

At the time, Carpenter was our ace. We won 78 games and finished 3rd in 2007 and then won 86 games in 2008 while finishing 4th in the division.

Now, Wainwright is our ace. What can we honestly expect to do without him in 2011?

Well, let’s look at who’s behind him.

Chris Carpenter, 36, is now the staff ace again with Wainwright on the shelf. There are many fans who are unsure how much faith they can place in him after he struggled down the stretch last season. However, he was still 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA, and half of those losses came in September when the entire team was packing it in. Before September, he was 14-5 in 29 starts with a 2.92 ERA. Still ace-type pitching performance. The sheer number of innings he threw, which he hadn’t even come close to since his injury plagued years of 2007 and 2008 can be attributed to some of that fall off at the end of the season.

Jake Westbrook, 33, was signed to a 2 year, $17.5 million deal over the winter. This was after he pitched fantastically over his final 12 starts of the season with St. Louis. He posted a 3.48 ERA and a 4-4 record.

Jaime Garcia, 24, had a spectacular rookie season last year when he went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA. The question mark is that he only threw 163 1/3 innings over 28 starts last year as he was inefficient with his pitch count.

Kyle Lohse, 32, has spent the better part of the last two seasons injured and attempting to return to the rotation. His final numbers last season were 4-8 with a 6.55 ERA through 18 starts. There might be some hope, his best start of the season was his final start of the season against Colorado. It was also Lohse who was staff ace of the 2008 Cardinals rotation while Wainwright and Carpenter both spent time on the DL.

We know what we’re going to get out of Carpenter. A solid 17 or 18 wins with an ERA in the low 3s. I’m pretty sure we can pencil him in for that.

What this season is going to come down to is the following questions:

Will Jaime Garcia take a step up or regress? If Garcia steps up and improves on his 2010 campaign and becomes the pitcher we’re hoping he is, then he can step into that 17 or 18 game winner role as a co-ace with Carpenter. To do this he will have to become more efficient with his pitch count and go deeper into games. However, it’s just as likely that the league finally catches up with him and he struggles in his second season.

Will Westbrook continue pitching like he did last fall? During his time with the Cardinals, Westbrook pitched some of the best baseball of his career. If he can return to the 15 game winner form he was during his heyday with the Indians from 2004-2006, we will be in good shape.

What will Lohse give us? Kyle Lohse is motivated to prove that the last two seasons are not who he is and he is the pitcher the Cardinals saw in 2008 that won 15 games and that earned the $12 million salary he will command each of the next two seasons. If he can return to that form, even closely and give us double-digit wins we’ll be in better shape than we would have been earlier.

Who is our fifth starter? The team says they are looking strictly at internal options right now. That would include Kyle McClellan who seems to be at the top of the list, however, so too would P.J. Walters and Adam Ottavino who all spent time with the big league club last year while the team searched for a fifth starter. However, Memphis starters Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson could each get their opportunity. So could Ian Snell. But don’t expect to see Shelby Miller on the list any time soon.

Is the season done for the Cardinals? Not yet, it’s why we play the games.

Are we in worse shape than we were when we woke up this morning? Definitely. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the value of Adam Wainwright, who is one of the top pitchers in the league and as I write this I just realized he was my #1 draft pick in fantasy baseball.

But also, we don’t know anything for sure on Wainwright yet. It’s all speculation at this point. Hopefully it’s not bad and after a couple weeks off he will be good to go. Given the information we have though, that’s unlikely.

If we expect that 95 wins will win the NL Central in 2011, with an average of 23 wins from the bullpen (which is the average over the last four seasons), we need 72 wins out of the starting rotation.

Give Carpenter 17, that leaves us 55. Give Garcia and Westbrook each 15, that leaves us 25 for Lohse and the potential fifth starter to win. It’s a tall task, but not competely out of the realm of possibility.

Mostly, it depends just what the other teams in the NL Central that will make it more or less likely for the Cardinals to win the division. The lower the necessary win total to win the NL Central, the more likely the Cardinals are to win the division.

Milwaukee and Cincinnati are going to be the two closest competitors this season. Cincinnati won the division with 92 games last season, but can they do it again? Meanwhile, Milwaukee picked up two guys who were their respective teams’ #1 starters so you have to believe that they’ll be able to hit around 90 wins.

The fewer wins it will take to win the division, the more likely a Cardinals team winning the division title is.

Don’t give up hope, there’s still a chance. A small one, but a chance nonetheless.