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Bernie: How resilient are Redbirds?
Chris Carpenter has been shut down for an indefinite period because of a nerve
irritation affecting his right shoulder. This in turn has irritated the nerves of those
faithful to the Birds on the Bat.
The sky isn't falling; that creeping outline of darkness is just Carpenter's
considerable shadow hanging over the 2012 season. History tells us that when the
big man is hurting, the Cardinals' rotation feels the pain.
Carpenter was essentially knocked out of the 2007 and 2008 seasons with
elbow/nerve injuries, and the Cardinals finished out of the money both seasons.
When the Cardinals have received at least 28 starts from Carpenter in a season,
they've made the playoffs in five of the six years.
Since 2004, the Cardinals have a .639 winning percentage in games started by
Carpenter; the winning percentage is .540 in games started by anyone else. Sure,
baseball is a team sport. But this particular team has attained demonstrably better
results on Carpenter's working days.
The anxiety over Carpenter's status is justified.
In the best-case scenario, Carpenter puts in a couple of months of rest and therapy
and reappears in late May or early June. The worst-case scenario isn't pleasant.
Carpenter is 37 on April 27, and another surgery could mean the end of his career.
Optimism comes easy in the springtime, but at some point you have to stop
smelling the azaleas and ponder the question: How many personnel losses can the
Cardinals endure and still remain elite?
The World Series champions had about 17 seconds to savor their stunning October
conquest before manager Tony La Russa retired.
During Don Tony's 16 seasons, the Cardinals were fourth in the majors in regularseason wins, and second in postseason victories.
Pitching coach Dave Duncan, the best in the industry, unofficially retired to
dedicate his time and energy to his wife's medical needs.
The free-agent departure of Albert Pujols all but made the ground tremble at Busch
Even with the abrupt exits of Pujols, La Russa and Duncan, the 2012 Cardinals
figured to be in good shape. With the addition of Carlos Beltran the offense has
ample voltage, and Adam Wainwright has returned. A rotation led by Carpenter
and Wainwright would form a solid firewall in the NL Central.
Now the Cardinals will have to do without Carpenter, at least for a little while —
or maybe a long while. How many teams could thrive while moving forward
without previous franchise touchstones Pujols, La Russa, Duncan and Carpenter?
It's a lot to ask, even from a veteran St. Louis nucleus that doesn't retreat when met
with resistance, adversity or the chaos of 162 games.
No matter how good the new manager and pitching coach, no matter how Beltran
hits, no matter how many games Wainwright wins, no team would be as robust
after removing Pujols, La Russa, Duncan and Carpenter. It's a shock to the system.
Now before you smack me upside the head with your 40-ouncer filled with red
Kool-Aid, understand I'm not predicting gloom and doom — or even second place.
There's a lot to like about the 2012 Cardinals. The lineup, the power arms in the
bullpen, several good starting pitchers, and residency in the NL Central.
Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist did fine during his stint as PC late last
season when Duncan took a leave of absence to deal with his wife's medical crisis.
It's simply too soon to know how rookie manager Mike Matheny will handle real
baseball games and the real-time helter-skelter of clubhouse problems, the pressure
of losing streaks, and flying media shrapnel.
Everybody seems to be hurting in the NL Central.
The Cincinnati Reds just took a major hit in losing new closer Ryan Madson, who
blew out his pitching elbow and will miss the 2012 season. Milwaukee lost Prince
Fielder to free agency, and starting pitcher Shaun Marcum is experiencing
shoulder stiffness in camp.
If Carpenter returns to make 20 or more starts, the rotation should hold up. Lance
Lynn inherits Carpenter's spot for now, and the young starter has a plus arm and
the confidence of knowing he can get it done in the majors.
The Cardinals will enter 2012 with a rotation of Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Kyle
Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Lynn. Rookie Shelby Miller, the No. 1 prospect, could
be in line for a promotion if needed.
You can never have enough starting pitching, and Roy Oswalt would look swell in
a Cardinals' uniform right now. But at least the Cardinals have fairly attractive inhouse options; that wasn't always the case when Carpenter's been missing.
In 2007, the Cardinals used Kip Wells (5.70 ERA) for 26 starts, Anthony Reyes
(6.04 ERA) for 20 starts, and converted reliever Braden Looper (4.94 ERA) for 32
starts. They turned to Brad Thompson, Todd Wellemeyer, Mike Maroth and Randy
Keisler for a combined 38 starts.
It wasn't as gruesome in 2008 because Lohse went 15-6 with a 3.71 ERA after
signing late in spring training. The '08 Cardinals had to rely on starts and innings
from Looper and Wellemeyer, two Duncan projects. And they were pretty solid.
Carpenter is the Cardinals' X factor in 2012. The defending champs aren't the same
with him stuck in the repair shop; it's just a question of how long it will take to fix
We all learned an important lesson late last summer about the foolishness of
prematurely counting a team out. The 2011 Cardinals made a late-season
comeback of historical proportions.
Then again, that team had Pujols, Carpenter, La Russa and Duncan.