Is Chris Carpenter a #1 pitcher?

The title is the question we’ve all been asking ourselves for a little over two weeks now as we consider the ramifications of the loss of Adam Wainwright.

Adam Wainwright, 29, was a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves. He made four Baseball America top-100 prospect lists, the last one in his first season in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system. He was considered the Braves’ top pitching prospect at the time and the trade ended up being a major steal for the Cardinals’ organization.

His first full season in the big leagues was 2006 and he was tested by fire as he was named the Cardinals’ closer late in the season and then through the playoffs on the team’s playoff run. He was destined to be something special as he moved into the rotation the following year.

But last year, Wainwright’s 20 win season signified something greater than just a great season, to me and a lot of other Cardinals fans, it signified the passing of the torch as the Cardinals’ #1 pitcher from Chris Carpenter to the younger Wainwright.

Carpenter, 35, was a first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993. Along with Roy Halladay, who you may have heard of, they were supposed to be the top of the Jays rotation for years to come. He made three Baseball America top-100 prospect lists with the Jays. However, injury derailed Carpenter’s career and ultimately he was released by Toronto.

The Cardinals took a chance on Carpenter, who was 27 at the time, by signing him to a two-year deal. They basically paid him to rehab from his latest injury, which Carpenter has said was a deciding factor in his decision to accept St. Louis’ offer. He would make his Cardinals debut in 2004, notching 15 wins. However it was his 2005 season that assumed the mantle of #1 starter as he won 21 games on his way to the Cy Young Award.

Over the offseason, the organization was relaxed about the prospects of it’s starting rotation. It had Adam Wainwright, who had finished in the top-3 in Cy Young voting the previous two seasons, as it’s #1 pitcher. It had Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter right behind him. Young Jamie Garcia was coming off an impressive rookie year that placed him third in rookie voting. Veteran Jake Westbrook had finally been acquired by the Cardinals and had pitched phenomenally over his starts with the Cardinals. The back end would be Kyle Lohse who was coming back from injury but had yet to live up to his big contract signed after 2008 when he won 15 games for the big birds.

That optimism didn’t last very long. On February 23rd, news came down that Adam Wainwright was being sent back to St. Louis for tests on his throwing elbow. The dreaded words “Tommy John” were used by Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak. The following Monday, Wainwright was under the knife and officially out for the rest of the season.

Cardinals’ fans began looking at Chris Carpenter with increased criticism. Could the former ace regain his form?

The most recent memory in Cardinals’ fans’ heads for Chris Carpenter is the month of September of 2010. Or more specifically, September 10th in Atlanta (5 IP, 6 ER), the 15th against Chicago (6.1 IP, 5 ER), and the 20th in Florida (6 IP, 4 ER). The talk over the winter was how fans didn’t trust Carpenter to be the go-to guy anymore and how the Cardinals’ rotation was no longer headed by a pair of aces.

I’ll admit, I was in this group as well. Despite the solid ERA, his win totals were dropping. According to ERA+ he had been the best pitcher in the league in 2009, but fell far from that number in 2010. Was he aging and had he begun his decline?

Then I decided to look at the numbers. Over the first five months of the season, Chris Carpenter had a 2.92 ERA and was 14-5. He’d thrown 197.1 innings. Having thrown just 192 innings the year before, his first full season back after injury, Carpenter had already exceeded both his innings total and his starts total from the year before.

In his six starts in September, Carpenter struggled in those three starts, and put up a combined 4.78 ERA and a 2-4 record. But his final start of the season was a complete game only allowing one run. So he still showed that he has that ability.

While I doubt his 2011 season will be as impressive as Wainwright’s 2010 season, with some improved offensive help he could easily be a 20 game winner.

The Cardinals were 22-13 in games that he started, while they were only 20-13 in games that Wainwright started.

What does this tell me?

Chris Carpenter still appears to be capable of commanding the top of the rotation. Is he the pitcher that he once was? No. But he threw a ton of innings last year and should be solid to go just above 200 innings again this year with a very good ERA.

A solid season by Carpenter combined with improvement from Garcia, a full season of Westbrook, and a decent season by Lohse that isn’t hindered by injury and the Cardinals will be capable of contending in the division.

As with last season, I think the Cardinals’ success will be defined by the offense, not the pitching staff.