Surviving Wainwright

With the news expected to be catastrophic regarding the condition of Adam Wainwright‘s elbow, the reactionary “experts” are already declaring the Cardinals 2011 season over.

A team managed by Tony La Russa; with Dave Duncan as a pitching coach; that still has Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Matt Holliday has had their season declared over.

It’s a bit premature.

Does it make things more difficult?

Absolutely.

Does it end their season in February?

Of course not.

Here’s how and why the Cardinals can survive the loss of Wainwright.

WAR—this is what it’s good for.

This is one of the few instances in which the statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has some use. For me anyway.

Granted, Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball with a post-season resume of coming through with the games on the line.

Forever linked to Carlos Beltran as one who came through (Wainwright) and one who failed (Beltran), that defining career moment of a devastating and perfectly placed curveball to end the 2006 NLCS sent the Cardinals to their championship and the Mets into the beginning of their tailspin that’s still going on.

For the record, as I’ve said repeatedly, Beltran is not to blame for that strikeout; Babe Ruth himself couldn’t have hit that pitch. No one could’ve hit that pitch. It was beautiful in its devastation and the credit goes to Wainwright with no blame to be placed on Beltran.

Of course it’s impossible to “replace” Wainwright, but his 5.7 WAR from 2010 is something that can be accounted for with La Russa’s strategies; Duncan’s reclamation skills; a step up in performance from Kyle Lohse; and continued improvement from Jaime Garcia; and durability from Jake Westbrook.

The positive of WAR I just elucidated is also the negative—the Cardinals are not going to replace Wainwright with a ham-and-egger baseline minor league pitcher. They’re going to need either a step-up performance from the above mentioned names and to find someone to mold into a serviceable arm to take the innings. The innings are more important than that accumulated wins of Wainwright.

Garcia/Lohse/Westbrook and…?

There’s talk that the Cardinals are looking at Kevin Millwood. On the surface, Millwood was awful for the Orioles last season, but that may have been due in part to being an Oriole; that there’s a misinterpretation of his performance based on a 4-16 record; and that he’s still floating around with the dearth of pitching available.

A logical fallacy would suggest that if the 36-year-old Millwood had anything left, someone would’ve signed him already. Millwood wants a major league deal and looked to be biding his time for an eventuality like the Wainwright injury. He was very good for the Rangers in 2009; and last season, he provided 190 innings for the Orioles. Innings are what the Cardinals need right now and Millwood has proven that he can gobble innings.

Manipulated by La Russa’s bullpen management and Duncan’s mechanical tweaks along with having a very good team behind him, there’s no reason that Millwood can’t account for at least part of the Wainwright’s loss. No, the Cardinals won’t be as intimidating without Wainwright fronting the rotation, but they can absolutely survive.

Getting past the immediate response to a 4-16 record—look at Millwood’s Gamelogs from last season—you see he was quite serviceable and occasionally good.

There are other veterans like Pedro Martinez to consider or perhaps Jarrod Washburn. The in-house options include Mitchell Boggs who was a good starter in the minors.

You can forget about Joe Blanton.

The Phillies would be stupid to trade him considering the age on their rotation; he’d do the same things for the Cardinals as Millwood; and the Phillies would not want to send to Blanton to a potential playoff opponent.

It’s not ideal, but the Cardinals can get by without Wainwright.

A weak and winnable division is rife with opportunity.

Much was made of the Reds reaction when the news of Wainwright’s injury reached their clubhouse. Jonny Gomes was accused of  singing (which he denied and clarified—link); Dusty Baker commented in wonderment as to whom was going to get the blame for the injury.

Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa are not friendly and it was a wry message from Baker to the public at large that injuries happen to pitchers without the need for a convenient scapegoat.

Baker is a target for the dual downfalls of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood; it’s ignored that it was Jim Riggleman who abused Wood in 1998; that Prior was always an injury waiting to happen.

It’s meaningless whether or not Gomes was outwardly happen, misunderstood in his reaction or is quietly pleased that the Cardinals are weaker but saddened at the injury to a star of the game.

What matters is the truth; the truth is that it’s human nature to feel some sense of satisfaction at that which benefits themselves. These things happen between teammates, let alone competitors. Do you really believe that the on-the-bubble reliever in spring training is joyful when his competition for that last spot in the bullpen does well?

No.

The Reds chances to win the NL Central are helped by Wainwright’s injury and it’s dishonest to suggest that they’re having sympathy for the Cardinals.

I’m not sure if the Reds should be laughing all that much though.

I thought the Reds were remarkably lucky last season that they got a healthy year from Scott Rolen and were able to overcome Brandon Phillips‘s mouth to the degree that they did. They did almost nothing to improve this past winter and have dramatic question marks remaining.

The NL Central might only take 85 wins for the title; the Reds are in the mix for that number, but so still are the Cardinals along with the Brewers and even the Cubs.

Laughing now is probably not the best move for a Reds team that had a lot go right for them last season.

Selfish agendas stay the same.

With or without Wainwright, looking at my predictions for the 2010 NL Central, I doubt much would change aside from the numbers of wins the teams will accrue.

Casual observers, hypnotized by the star power of Carpenter and Wainwright, don’t realize how good Garcia was last year; Westbrook is a solid pro; and if the Cardinals are able to coax a better year out of Lohse (he can hardly be worse than he was), they’ll be okay.

The loss of Wainwright would be equivalent to the Yankees losing C.C. Sabathia; the Phillies losing Roy Halladay; the Dodgers losing Clayton Kershaw; the Giants losing Tim Lincecum. But it all has to placed in the proper context.

The division is open; the Cardinals have a good team that can hit and pitch; a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach tandem. The devastation is muted by these factors. It would be hard for the Yankees to compete without Sabathia considering their division; the same goes for the Dodgers in the NL West; the Phillies and Cardinals can account for the absence of such a force because of circumstances.

Count out the Cardinals at your own risk because it wasn’t all that long ago that they collapsed at the end of the 2006 season and nearly missed the playoffs, then recovered to win the World Series.

Greeted with such terrible news at the open of spring training, there are teams that would bag the season now. In February. The Cardinals are not one of those teams. In fact, they’re more likely to come out swinging with both fists. If you’re not paying attention, you might get caught with one of said fists and subsequently knocked out before knowing what hit you.

The Reds should take heed amidst their gloating, silent and otherwise. Because by October they may not find many things to laugh about.

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  1. #1 by Tim Berger on February 24, 2011 - 4:46 pm

    you can’t replace Carpenter. he’s worth 6 wins to the cards this season, which puts them back at .500. This doesn’t affect the win/loss percentages of the Brewers and the Reds (or if it does, it actually might give each of them a win). You can’t mute a loss of an ace, and your inference that they can recover even half of Wainwright’s wins back with Kevin Millwood is laughable. Healthy Scott Rolen – pretty lucky, run producing Jonny Gomes – pretty lucky. But Bruce and Stubbs are only getting better, Phillips actually had a down year, and Votto’s year is just a start. Lets start with facts, fill the middle with rational inferences, and end with reality – which spells an atom bomb sized whole for the Cards, one they likely cannot recover from.

  2. #2 by Jeff on February 24, 2011 - 5:03 pm

    The main issue (for me anyway) is that we don’t match up with the Reds, Brewers and Cubs when it comes to 1-2 in the rotation anymore. And, the bigger problem: team morale.

    It’s my team. I’m behind them all the way no matter what. But I’d be a liar if I didn’t say we aren’t the favorite in the NL Central anymore because of this. We’ll be lucky to be in the hunt after the All-Star break. And MY morale… well, not feeling much of it right now. Still dealing with the shock and everything.

    This just blows.

  3. #3 by The Other Mike on February 24, 2011 - 7:08 pm

    I watched Millwood in Texas and he’s no slouch. I don’t think he’s a big game pitcher, but he’s a grinder. He’s a durable veteran who does his job.

    He may not be suited to be your #1, but the Cards already have one of those. Millwood could slot in nicely behind Carpenter.

  4. #4 by Gabriel on February 24, 2011 - 8:14 pm

    I think nobody should bag the season without even playing the first game. No one knows how things are going to unravel. The tone of the news reminded me of tabloids, always looking to sell the shocking news instead of presenting objective analysis.

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