Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals' Playoff Hopes

By The Common Man

Today’s shocking news out of Cardinals camp, broken by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that ace Adam Wainwright likely has a “significant injury” and is possibly facing Tommy John surgery, is a huge blow to the Cardinals playoff chances for several reasons.

One reason is that the Cardinals were not that far out in front of their competition. Both Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system and Baseball Prospectus were high on the Cards, predicting them to win the NL Central by a handful of games each. So any major injury to one of the big four (Carpenter, Wainwright, Pujols, and Holliday) was sure to put the Cardinals behind the 8-ball. And no one in the NL Central is likely to challenge for the Wild Card. So there’s little doubt the Cardinals playoff odds just took a big hit.

And if they were going to lose any pitcher, Wainwright is the one that is going to hurt the most. The Cardinals made moves this offseason to upgrade their offense, bringing in Lance Berkman to play a corner outfield spot (despite not playing anywhere but 1B since 2007) and Ryan Theriot to play SS over Brendan Ryan. These additions, however, come with a significant cost to the team’s defense. Wainwright has struck out 8.3 batters per 9 innings over the last two seasons, easily leading the Cardinals staff. Losing a few strikeouts will put additional pressure on the St. Louis defense and lead to extra hits and more balls in the gaps of New Busch Stadium. This problem is only going to be exacerbated by the injury to defensive specialist Nick Punto.

Wainwright was also excellent at limiting baserunners with a strong GB/FB rate (a trait shared by most St. Louis pitchers) and impeccable control. The men in line to replace him, reliever Kyle McClellan (who hasn’t really been a starter since 2005, when he was 21) and minor leaguer Lance Lynn, both suffer greatly in comparison in both respects.

Losing a player of Wainwright’s abilities is hard enough for the Cardinals, but given how he helped alleviate some of the team’s other weaknesses, it’s very hard to see this as anything more than a disaster. One that may destroy the Cardinals chances this year.

There is one silver lining, however. After finishing 2nd in the NL Cy Young voting last year, Wainwright was in line to have a vesting option picked up on a two-year, $21 million extension this fall. As Derrick Goold’s reported, however, that option does not kick in if Wainwright finishes the season on the 60-day disabled list (which, if he has TJ surgery, he almost certainly will). With the uncertainty surrounding Wainwright and his recovery, this could (in theory) free up more money for the pursuit of Albert Pujols this Summer and Fall. Every little bit helps.

1 comment:

Cardinal70 said...

The options are for 9 million and 12 million. I don't believe that the Cardinals would turn down the chance to exercise those, even with Wainwright's surgery. Even if Wainwright is only around for half of '12, 9 million is a bargain compared to what else they'd have to spend to find a replacement.

I still think that the Cardinals are in the mix of the NL Central. Granted, it's a much tighter race, but the rotation is still fairly strong, the bullpen doesn't have any major holes, and the lineup is formidable. Not saying they are destined to win or that the loss of Wainwright isn't a huge blow, but I think they can overcome it and at least be competitive.

That said, I am a Cardinal fan, so it's possible my glasses have a tint of rose to them.