What’s St. Louis Cardinals’ Plan if Adam Wainwright Injury is Serious?


The St. Louis Cardinals suffered a potentially devastating loss on Saturday evening, as starting pitcher Adam Wainwright was forced to leave his start against the Milwaukee Brewers in the fourth inning after suffering an injury moving out of the batter’s box. Wainwright, a four-time All-Star and four-time Cy Young finalist, exited under the assistance of manager Mike Matheny and a trainer.

Matheny disclosed after the game that Wainwright’s injury was to the back of his ankle–“a bad spot”–and many are speculating that the injury could be to Wainwright’s Achilles tendon. That would be a sure season-ender.

It would be yet another crushing blow for the 33-year-old Wainwright, who already lost a season of his career after undergoing Tommy John surgery prior to the 2011 season. He’s struggled with a multitude of injuries over the past year, dealing with elbow soreness that required surgery after the 2014 season and then suffering a core muscle injury that limited him during spring training. If it is indeed an Achilles injury, it would be a sad reminder that time is running short on the era of Wainwright being a truly dominant ace.

Beyond the unbelievably valuable leadership and consistently dominant pitching performances that Wainwright provides, he also adds extra value simply by filling a rotation spot. It would be a rather complicated decision for the Cards to decide how to replace Wainwright in that five-man group, as there’s no pitcher who appears primed to step in at the moment.

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At least in the upper minors, the Cardinals’ organizational pitching depth is nowhere close to what it was several years ago. Whereas the Cards have recently been able to rely on projected future stars like Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Marco Gonzales who were stashed within the system, no such prospect exists at this point. Gonzales, the lefty who starred as a reliever down the stretch in 2014 and pitched very well as a starter this spring, could be an option down the road but is currently sidelined with shoulder tightness at Triple-A.

Speaking of achy shoulders, lefty Jaime Garcia could also be a possible replacement for Wainwright later on if the ace misses a significant amount of time. Garcia, who is notorious for his fragile left shoulder, was placed on the DL with shoulder soreness near the end of spring training but has begun throwing simulated games at extended spring training. With that said, he’s still roughly a month from being ready to return if he sticks to the timetable the Cardinals recently provided for him, so someone else will have to fill in for the short term in the event that Wainwright’s injury necessitates a DL stint.

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A short-term fix in that role could be Carlos Villanueva, who is currently stationed in the Cardinals’ bullpen. The 31-year-old, who has made two appearances in long relief so far this season, has started at least five games in eight of his nine big-league seasons to this point. There should be little expectation of him being effective, as he’s had ERAs of over 4.00 in his past seven seasons, but he can eat up innings and bridge the gap to the bullpen if the Cards have no better alternative.

There’s also a cast of Triple-A starters who could be considered, though the options aren’t exactly alluring at this point. Lefties Tim Cooney (2-1, 3.63 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, .242 BAA), Tyler Lyons (1-1, 4.61 ERA, 1.98 WHIP, .355 BAA), and John Gast (0-2, 7.94 ERA, 2.03 WHIP, .358 BAA) and righthander Zach Petrick (o-2, 10.03 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, .340 BAA) have been in Memphis’s rotation for the entire season. Righty Boone Whiting began the season in the Redbirds’ bullpen but ascended to the rotation after Gonzales went on the DL. He made his first start of the season on Saturday night, giving up four earned runs on 10 hits and two walks with no strikeouts in five innings.

None of the numbers from any of those starters really blow you away, but Cooney’s are pretty clearly the best of the bunch thus far. The lefthander, who MLB.com ranks as the Cardinals’ 10th-best prospect, is probably pretty close to reaching his ceiling as a minor-leaguer, now having made 29 appearances at the Triple-A level. The one obstacle standing in Cooney’s way is that he is not on the club’s 40-man roster, a distinction that may give the big-league-tested Lyons the edge.

While Lyons may hold the advantage by way of his status on the 40-man roster, it wouldn’t be too much trouble for the Cardinals to designate him for assignment and give the spot to a more deserving pitcher in his place. Lyons’ numbers this year, frankly, are unacceptable for a pitcher who’s in his fourth straight Triple-A campaign. While he’s had some good moments over the past two seasons at the big-league level, his overall numbers are on the fence between below-average and terrible, so it wouldn’t be the biggest shock if the Cards decided to pull the plug on trying to make him a successful big-leaguer.

Others such as demoted long reliever Nick Greenwood, Double-A catcher Mike Ohlman, and utility infielder Greg Garcia could be candidates to get designated for assignment if the Cardinals want to promote Cooney but still have some sort of attachment to Lyons. If the Cardinals are really concerned about taking a player off the roster, they could also employ the stall tactic of placing Jaime Garcia on the 60-day DL. As he’s not expected to be ready until at least the end of May anyway, this would give the Cardinals the opportunity to postpone a 40-man decision for another month or so.

Obviously, though, the biggest issue is going to be trying to make up for the loss of impact from one of the league’s top starters. The Cardinals haven’t had to endure a season without either Wainwright or Chris Carpenter at the top of the rotation since 2003, so it will be a rude awakening if Lance Lynn is suddenly forced to anchor the rotation. Lynn appears to have developed enough consistency to be trusted as a legitimate ace, but the guys beyond him, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, aren’t quite as reliable as front-of-the-rotation pitchers. While Wacha and Martinez have gotten off to good starts thus far, Wacha’s recent injury history and Martinez’s inexperience as a starter create question marks going forward.

With that said, there’s widespread belief that Gonzales can be an impactful big-league starter in short order, so if the Cardinals can get him ramped up and ready to go quickly, he could definitely help them absorb some of the blow from the loss of Wainwright. He was less-than-stellar as a starter as a rookie (2-2, 4.56 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, .272 BAA while averaging 5.13 innings per start), but with the confidence that he’s gained through his postseason and spring success, perhaps it’s realistic to expect a different Gonzales in 2015.

If Wainwright’s injury were to be season-ending, it would almost certainly renew the Cardinals’ interest in trading for a front-line starter. Obviously Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, who has gotten off to somewhat of a slow start this season, would be the most popular target, but others definitely will begin to emerge as the season wears on.

Next: Cardinals Keep Mitch Harris, Send Dean Anna to Triple-A