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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - As if the Albert Pujols contract drama wasn't enough to keep the St. Louis Cardinals up at night, now comes word that they will be without staff ace Adam Wainwright for the entire 2011 season.
Wainwright, last year's runner up for the National League Cy Young Award, had recently experienced some joint discomfort in his pitching elbow and was sent back to St. Louis for further examination, which revealed a torn ligament.
The National League's leader in wins over the past two seasons sought a second opinion, but the recommendation was the same: Tommy John surgery and a recovery period of 12-18 months.
Losing Wainwright is of course a significant blow, but the belief is that the injury is related to an issue the pitcher was dealing with late last season. At that time, though, he was examined by St. Louis' medical staff and deemed OK.
Did the doctors just give Wainwright an eyeball looksy over last September, or did they actually examine him? Perhaps they should have been a bit more thorough with the MRI, considering this was a pitcher who dealt with ligament issues way back in 1998 and again in 2004.
The loss of Wainwright is an absolute crushing blow to a Cardinals team that was expected to compete for an NL Central crown this season along with last year's winners, the Cincinnati Reds, and the much-improved Milwaukee Brewers.
You can still make an argument for the Cardinals, as they boast a formidable top three atop their rotation in Chris Carpenter, Jamie Garcia and Jake Westbrook.
Oddly enough, all three of those hurlers have already had the ligament replacement procedure and all have bounced back fairly well. There's no reason to think that a 29-year-old Wainwright won't have a full recovery. At this point, Tommy John surgery for a pitcher goes as smoothly as a tonsillectomy.
The Cards may be deeper than most in the rotation department, but there are question marks. Carpenter and Westbrook always seem to be dealing with injury issues and Garcia is just in his second year. General manager John Mozeliak has said he will fill Wainwright's void internally, but his options are limited.
Just as I can see the Cardinals being able to weather this storm, I can just as easily see them imploding.
Given the fact that we are already a week into Spring Training, the starting pitching cupboard is pretty bare on the free agent market. However, there is one veteran out there that could get a look, and that is Kevin Millwood.
Plus you may want to cue up the Mark Buehrle to Cardinals rumors. Buehrle, of course, is from St.Louis and would likely waive his no-trade clause to come to the Cardinals, but that is not realistic at this point since the Chicago White Sox are a favorite in the AL Central.
But should the White Sox fall off the pace at some point, I'd expect to hear the Buehrle to St. Louis rumblings.
Either way, you can't underestimate the loss of Wainwright, who won 20 games last season and led all NL pitchers in innings pitched (463.1) and ERA (2.53) over the last two years.
The loss of Wainwright could also now create a trickle-down effect on the Pujols situation.
Pujols has stated that he would not accept a trade during the season. What if the Cardinals just completely fall out of the race and a team like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim come calling? Would Pujols turn down the opportunity to play for a contending team who would certainly be willing to meet his salary demands?
Or more importantly, would the Cardinals turn down a package that would likely be centered around young outfielder Mike Trout, who was recently named the top prospect in baseball, right-hander Jered Weaver and first baseman Kendry Morales?
Then again, the Cardinals may now have a lot more money in their budget now to get a Pujols deal done.
As part of the four-year, $15 million contract he signed in March of 2008, Wainwright's contract included a $9 million club option for 2012 and a $12 million club option for 2013. For the options to trigger automatically, Wainwright needed to finish in the top five in NL Cy Young voting, which he has in each of the last two seasons, but the contract also included a clause that allows the Cardinals to void the two years if he finishes 2011 on the DL with any sort of arm injury
Now, $21 million over two years isn't a lot for a starter these days, especially one who has won 39 games the last two seasons. But is it too much for a pitcher coming off a surgery like this, when you have to pony up for the best player in baseball?
The Cardinals will probably still have the most-sought after free agent on the market next winter. Only now, it might not be the guy everyone thought it would be.
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