COMMENTARY | There certainly are a lot of nervous St. Louis Cardinals fans these days.
Half of the Cardinals fans I hear from are afraid that the team won't re-sign ace Adam Wainwright, whose contract is set to expire at the end of the 2013 season. It seems that the other half are afraid that the Redbirds will sign Wainwright to a lucrative extension -- and then he'll spend a bunch of time on the disabled list with arm troubles like the ones that have plagued Chris Carpenter.
Count me in the first group. Wainwright's health doesn't worry me much at all. In fact, his absence during the 2011 season makes me even more secure about his future that I would have otherwise been.
People who compare Wainwright's missed 2011 to Carpenter's health woes -- or Mark Mulder's before that -- are missing one key point. And that is the fact that there are light years of difference between elbow problems like Wainwright had and the shoulder issues that limited the careers of Carpenter, Mulder, Matt Morris and countless other pitchers.
Surgeons almost routinely replace elbow ligaments these days in what is commonly referred to as "Tommy John surgery." When the work is done, most pitchers find their elbow joint is stronger than it was before the operation. Some college and high school pitchers actually wish for Tommy John surgery because they feel it will enhance their career and they want to "get it over with" so they don't have to miss time at a more critical -- or more lucrative -- part of their careers.
Usually it takes a year away from pitching and a year of building up strength -- which is exactly where Wainwright is in the process -- to come back from Tommy John. It's extremely rare for a pitcher to tear his elbow ligament a second time. So, not only should he be good to go. But Wainwright has a year less mileage on his arm now than he would if he was never hurt. He's got 1,073 career innings pitched under his belt compared to Carpenter's 2,219 innings worked.
To further compare and contrast Wainwright to his injured teammate, Carpenter has had both elbow and shoulder problems. He tore a ligament in his pitching elbow on opening day in 2007 and missed the rest of the year. He had Tommy John surgery and his elbow has never given him problems again. But Carpenter had shoulder problems early in his career that caused him to be released by the Toronto Blue Jays. The bright side is that the shoulder woes are the only reason why the Redbirds were ever able to acquire Carpenter. The bad news is that they never really went away.
It was his shoulder that started to give Carpenter trouble again in 2008, threatening to end his career way back then. He got a reprieve in 2009, '10 and '11. But the shoulder problems have resurfaced and it seems likely now that they'll force him to retire.
Cardinals teammate Jaime Garcia had Tommy John surgery on his elbow before his first full year in the majors and came back with flying colors. Again, it's shoulder problems that now put the southpaw's future in doubt.
I would argue that it is more common for a young player to have a shoulder issue crop up than it is to see a veteran with no history of shoulder issues suddenly have a major one happen out of the blue. Wainwright's shoulder seems to have shown it can stand up to the rigors of pitching. So the Cardinals couldn't have a safer bet on the health of a high-dollar pitcher than they would if they invested in retaining Wainwright.
Besides the elbow injury, the only other health setback the St. Louis ace has suffered occurred in 2008 when he hurt a ligament in his finger and it caused him to be limited to 20 starts. He's obviously completely recovered from that issue, making at least 32 starts every season he has been in the rotation besides 2008 and 2011. Last season was hardly a stinker as he worked to rebuild his arm strength. Wainwright looked stronger and more confident as the year went on and managed 14 wins and 184 strikeouts in 196 innings pitched.
No pitcher's arm is 100 percent safe from injury. It's simply not a natural motion to repeatedly subject the elbow and shoulder to the torque required to throw a baseball 95 miles an hour. But Wainwright seems as durable as they get.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.