The news the St. Louis Cardinals will be without Adam Wainwright for the remainder of the 2015 season with an injury to his left Achilles is a huge setback in the way any team losing a No. 1 starter automatically has to be. But paradoxically, it’s also something that perhaps no team is as well prepared, on paper, to endure as this one organization.
How effective has Wainwright been as a “get us a win” guy? In situations where you need someone as close to guaranteed to give you seven or more innings while giving up two or fewer runs, there are few better than Wainwright. Just from 2012 through his four starts this season, he’s thrown 47 such starts in 102 turns, and 72 quality starts overall. Give yourself opportunity that kind of chance to win, and it’s no surprise the Cards are 65-37 in Wainwright starts over these last four seasons.
This will be the third major interruption in Wainwright’s career. He missed all of the Cards’ 2011 championship season recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and also missed 75 days in 2008 with an injury to pitching hand. He isn’t fragile. And the freak nature of the injury -- suffered stumbling out of the box while batting -- shouldn’t undermine his hard-earned reputation is a workhorse. (Add that to Max Scherzer's thumb injury suffered while batting and subsequent observation that nobody wants to see pitchers hit, and maybe we will live to see the National League do the smart thing and finally adopt the DH.)
Beyond Wainwright’s situation and the hope for a complete recovery, there are two major immediate considerations for the Cardinals. First, there’s the problem that, come Thursday when Wainwright’s turn comes up next, neither of their best long-term alternatives to fill in for him for the remainder of the season will be available. Oft-injured veteran lefty Jaime Garcia is on the DL for the sixth time in his career, nursing a sore throwing shoulder that should keep him shelved until at least late May. Given Garcia’s fragility, that’s perhaps no surprise.
The surprise is that the Cardinals’ other best option, lefty Marco Gonzales, is also on the DL with tightness in his shoulder, but down in Triple-A Memphis. The former 2013 first-rounder is expected to ultimately be a front-end rotation regular.
So while there might be no time like the present for the Cards to be able to turn to either their No. 6 or No. 7 picks for the rotation, that will all have to wait at least until a second pass through the Cards’ rotation. Tyler Lyons might have to get the call in meantime. He’s already on the 40-man roster, but despite 20 K’s in 13.2 IP with Memphis, he’s also taken beatings in two of three turns, leaving him with a 4.61 ERA. The alternative would be squeezing Tim Cooney, yet another lefty, onto the 40-man. Lyons and Cooney are an interesting study in contrasts: Lyons is a classic sinker-slider southpaw with a fastball that sits at 91, while Cooney changes speeds effectively with heat in the 88-92 mph range while mixing in a good changeup.
Assuming the Cardinals get both Gonzales and eventually Garcia back, either would round out a strong rotation that should be able to deliver another NL Central title to St. Louis. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have both thrown quality starts in each of their first three starts and look poised for breakout seasons, while Lance Lynn and John Lackey give the Cards a strong pair of right-handed innings eaters to give them winnable games more often than not.
However, the problem with that group brings me to my second major consideration: Even if the Cardinals do win the division, none of those four, or Garcia or Gonzales, are that true staff ace you count on to get two wins in a postseason series, at least not yet. Wacha was 2013’s phenom, but he was also 2014’s disappointment. The Cards might have the depth and talent in starting pitching to win the division over the course of 162 games, but without Wainwright I’d worry that they’ll be at a disadvantage against an opponent that has that guy in a short series. That said, Wacha and Martinez both have the talent to be that guy, but there’s a whole lot of season between now and their chance to prove it.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.