Starters Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright hold the keys for defending champion Cardinals
JUPITER, Fla. – Interesting ballclub, the St. Louis Cardinals.
They’ve been game for so long, just this side of arrogant, oddly likable, cast in tumult and yet unduly stable.
They’ve been moody, forgiving, blissful and distraught, if you count Albert Pujols, Mark McGwire, the life of Jack Buck and the passing of Jack Buck. They play in a market unlike any other, in an era that doesn’t do delightfully hokey except in one market.
Even in the worst possible scenario – the departure of Pujols – the unfolding at club headquarters occurred in the best possible way, beneath a competing offer that so outran anything the club could sanely do as to appear positively faultless.
It’s not been five months since the Cardinals completed the unthinkable, that being turning a 10½-game, late-August death march into a two-hour, late-October infield party, which everyone pretty much assumed doubled as Pujols’ farewell bash.
Few expected it would be Tony La Russa’s last gig, too, but it figured TLR would go unlike anyone else ever had, with a wave and a ring and not an ounce of nostalgia.
Yes, the Cardinals are their own men, even down an El Hombre, as the Southern California billboards misguidedly read.
What’s left is an intriguing mix of World Series heroes and unknown quantities, sometimes in the very same uniforms.
That’s where we come to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, either the best one-two starting duo in the National League or a guy dealing with a bulging cervical disc and another guy coming off Tommy John surgery. There’s a lot of in-between there.
This comes in lockstep with the news that a team that is aging or vulnerable in places already this spring has had to do without Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal because of various circumstances, is protecting the occasionally fragile David Freese as standard practice and must keep an eye on 36-year-old Lance Berkman.
The Cardinals will turn presumed reliever Lance Lynn into a safety-valve starter in case Carpenter can’t go. Wainwright, a year out from surgery, is expected to be front and center come April, however.
It all gives the club a somewhat scattered feel, which, granted, is better on March 12 than on April 12, and may have no bearing on the season at all. Manager Mike Matheny seems unconcerned. General manager John Mozeliak said he was encouraged by the latest news on Carpenter, given Carpenter has pitched through this sort of trauma before.
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“The way he feels and what he’s experiencing is good news for us,” he said Sunday morning. “It’s something he’s had for a while. He worked through it and pitched through it. We’re going to hope we can just manage through this.”
Carpenter corrected his general manager a day later, telling reporters in Jupiter the ailment is new, perhaps tempering Mozeliak’s relief.
Carpenter will turn 37 in April. He threw 273.1 innings last season, April through October. He’s a tough guy, as he’s displayed every time he’s ever taken the ball, perhaps never more so than in Game 5 of the 2011 division series, a 110-pitch I-want-it-more scrape against the Philadelphia Phillies.
That sort of season, followed by that kind of October, can stay with a guy for a while. It could be that this is Wainwright’s turn then. Four and five seasons ago, Wainwright was growing into a starting pitcher when Carpenter required most of those two seasons to recover from two elbow procedures, the second being Tommy John surgery.
They pitched effectively in the rotation together in 2009 and 2010. Then Wainwright’s elbow ligament frayed and severed, which cost him a year.
It seems evident that without Pujols the Cardinals, who led the National League in runs last season, will need to be better in other places to return to the postseason. And while Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are fine, Wainwright and Carpenter are – or can be – very special.
The early evaluations of Wainwright have been good. Matheny has marveled at “how fluid his is,” or just as Wainwright left off at the end of 2010, when he won 20 games.
“The ball is popping,” Matheny said, “without extra effort.”
A former catcher, Matheny said the last thing to come would be durability. Another former catcher – New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi – said it more likely would be command.
Regardless, no one is expecting 33 starts and 200 innings just yet, but neither are they discounting it, Wainwright among them.
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“I don’t get into the innings thing,” he said. “I’ll wait to see how this plays out. What I have no doubt about is my ability and my desire. I believe I’m a complete pitcher when I’m on the mound, whether I am or not.”
Wainwright is scheduled to pitch Tuesday against the New York Mets, his second spring start. The starts will get more meaningful as he goes, as his elbow inches up on 100 pitches, and as his co-ace rises or falls.
Like we said, interesting.
As Wainwright said, “I don’t think you can ever say a team’s destiny lies with one guy’s arm. Now, it certainly helps.”
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