From today's season preview of the Cardinals...
Can a rotation headed by Adam Wainwright returning from injury still be one of the top staffs in the National League, even if Chris Carpenter misses an extended period of time?
Before blowing his elbow out last spring, Wainwright was one of the best pitchers in baseball. In 2009 and 2010, he topped 230 innings in each season, struck out more than eight batters per nine innings, and had ERAs under 3.00. He combined for 11.8 fWAR over those two seasons. As he makes his return in 2012, Wainwright will be hard pressed to repeat those results. Usually, it takes about 18 months for a pitcher recovering from Tommy John to revert to his former self, so Wainwright will probably be at 100% in 2013. If you like looking at spring stats (which I don't), he's struck out nine and walked five in 14 innings without allowing a run. So he's still working himself into game shape.
But despite Wainwright's return, the Cardinals will be without ace Chris Carpenter for an indefinite time. The bulging disc in his neck is sidelining him currently, and the rock of St Louis's rotation will not start the year with the team. Injuries are nothing new for Carpenter. He threw a total of 21 innings in 2007 and 2008, and missed all of the 2003 season as well. But the soon to be 36 year old has been healthy for the last three years and has stablized St Louis's rotation, accumulating 14.3 fWAR over 97 starts. Without him in the fold, and with a recovering Wainwright, it will be hard for the Cardinals to repeat their 2011 numbers, which included a 3.69 FIP, the fifth best mark in baseball.
The quartet following the recovering Wainwright in the rotation include Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, and rookie Lance Lynn. Lohse is actually going to be the team's Opening Day starter, after a 2011 season that saw him post a 3.39 ERA despite only 111 strikeouts. His 2.5 fWAR season came a year after a 92 innings, 6.55 ERA stint with the Cardinals. The 33 year-old is probably a good bet to regress in 2012, as his 3.67 FIP was only the second mark below 4.00 in his 11 year career. His 0.76 homer rate was also a career low. Maybe he's finally putting it together late in his career. Or maybe, it was a flash in the pan and he'll go back to being the same old Kyle Lohse in 2012.
Garcia is the real gem in the Cardinals rotation past their frontline of Carpenter and Wainwright. The 25 year-old has two full seasons in the majors, and each have been 3 fWAR seasons. He was plagued by bad luck last season, with just a 66.8% strand rate, but still managed to post a 3.23 FIP. Westbrook on the other hand, was pretty much a disaster, relegated to the bullpen during the playoffs. He struck out only 104 batters despite not missing a start all season, and walked 73. The 34 year-old is pretty much the definition of league average, and you know what you're getting out of him at this point. Expecting him to have a renaissance as someone like Carpenter has is asking for a little too much.
Lynn is the wild card of the bunch, The 24 year-old was a beast for the Cardinals late in the season, mostly residing in the team's bullpen. He struck out 40 in 34 2/3 innings, and only walked 11. In AAA last season, he struck out 64 and walked 25 in 75 innings. I think at worst, he'll be a league average arm. Another young arm for the Cardinals, Shelby Miller, could make his debut later in the year after being cut early on this spring.
The general sense I'm getting from looking at this Cardinals rotation is that they're in for some hard times if Carpenter misses a substantial period of time. Wainwright is still getting fully right, and expecting him to perform like he did in the two years prior to his arm surgery is a tall order. Garcia is an exellent young starter, while Lohse and Westbrook look like they're nearing the end of time. Lynn and (eventually) Miller are young wild cards that could perform very well, but could also struggle and require more seasoning.
I don't think the Cardinals are going to have a top of the line rotation in 2012, with or without Carpenter. With him, they could be in the top third of the league. Without him, I think they're just an average staff.
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