Pujols’ shadow hangs over Wainwright’s injury

Tim Brown

Adam Wainwright(notes) packed up his pajamas and left the St. Louis Cardinals this week, following a trying and well-worn path to ligament redistribution and career pause.

He is young enough and strong enough to return one day, Tommy John surgery having become routine – for the surgeon certainly, if not necessarily the patient. Given how long Wainwright had pitched with an imperfect elbow, it’s even possible he shows up next spring better than before, though most would settle for the same ol’ Waino, 20-game winner, tough guy, clubhouse rock. It is not, however, a sure thing.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals absorb what Tony La Russa called “a huge hit,” because Wainwright’s absence not only changes the course of the 2011 season, but of the overall wellbeing of the franchise.

Already evaluating (and apparently dismissing) a business model in which they’d pay first baseman Albert Pujols(notes) something like $30 million a season amid a relatively sound roster, the Cardinals now consider both the feasibility of that contract and the task of reworking their pitching staff. That’s a lot of potential cost and variables for an organization whose payroll this winter breached the $100 million for the first time. As they routinely reminded Pujols during those negotiations, the Cardinals are not the Yankees.

And as we all were reminded during the winter, reliable pitching is so scarce the Yankees couldn’t come up with even a No. 2.

So, a single unwilling ligament has put the Cardinals in a precarious position.

The Wainwright diagnosis tells us again that athletes are fragile beings, and therefore so are the rosters they populate, and the Cardinals will ponder again if they will risk so much of tomorrow on one man, even one so sturdy as Pujols.

Even at full organizational health, core change may have been coming anyway. Rotation anchor Chris Carpenter(notes) enters the final guaranteed year of his contract. So, for that matter, does Wainwright. Pujols looks headed to free agency, and La Russa could join him. Carpenter went as far Thursday as to say he’d be OK with a midseason trade.

Just a few days ago, Bill DeWitt Jr. and his general manager, John Mozeliak, seemed satisfied to make their run this summer and sort it all out in the fall. Suddenly there’s a lot more sorting to do, some of it simply to save the season. Their initial reaction was to circle the wagons and look inward. For now, they insist they like what they see.

“Internally we don't want to have a knee-jerk response to this,” Mozeliak said. “We certainly feel we have some players in camp that can fill this role."

Ever willful, La Russa told reporters in Jupiter, Fla., “We’re not going to look outside the organization. The answer is here.”

The top of the rotation returns to Carpenter, followed by Jaime Garcia(notes), Jake Westbrook(notes) and then two from Kyle McClellan(notes), Kyle Lohse(notes), Brian Tallet(notes), Miguel Batista(notes), Ian Snell(notes), P.J. Walters(notes) and Lance Lynn(notes). That’s a lot of names, perhaps not enough game. In the rising NL Central, where the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and even the Chicago Cubs could have better rotations, pitching coach Dave Duncan has his work cut out.

If La Russa reconsiders, or if Mozeliak chooses not to risk Pujols’ walk year on such unknown quantities, free agency still holds Kevin Millwood(notes), Jeremy Bonderman(notes), Chad Durbin(notes) and – wouldn’t this be interesting – Pedro Martinez(notes). Joe Blanton(notes) might be had even though the Phillies insist he isn’t available, and he’d cost $17 million over the next two seasons, which brings us back to the question of how much the Cardinals can spend and still be in the hunt for Pujols.

Presumably, they could wait out spring training and have their pick of pitchers who couldn’t cut it in their own camps – Kenshin Kawakami(notes), for one – but logic says a discarded starter somewhere else wouldn’t be particularly attractive in St. Louis, either, in spite of Duncan’s skills.

In yet more clutter, the Cardinals’ ability to cover for Wainwright almost certainly has the attention of Pujols, who must wonder whether the club could meet his contract demands and also envelop him with quality players. The likes of Carpenter and Wainwright, both in or close to their primes, don’t come along often. Waiting around for two more like them likely isn’t Pujols’ idea of the best way to spend the second half of his career.

The Cardinals have proven to be resourceful. They develop pitchers, and sometimes other people’s pitchers. They follow the lead of La Russa. They lean on Pujols.

This will be a great test, then. By July, they could be in a position to move Carpenter (the Yankees should be desperate by then), to build toward a different future, and to ponder whether Pujols has a place in it.