Before even an exhibition pitch had been thrown in mock anger this spring, a division race was altered. In a warmup session on Feb. 21, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow; on Thursday the team confirmed that he will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. Wainwright should be back in 2012, but that's small consolation for a Cardinals team that has now been at the center of the two biggest stories of the spring, neither of them positive: their failure to agree on a contract extension with Albert Pujols and the loss of one of the NL's best starters.
There's no soft-selling this. Wainwright, with top three NL Cy Young Award finishes in the past two seasons, isn't someone who can be replaced through a farm system, free agency or trade. His absence effectively makes a three-team NL Central race into a two-team one: St. Louis is now an outsider in what should be a Brewers-Reds battle. The difference between the projected performance of Wainwright—who averaged more than 230 innings and just 72 runs allowed per year in 2009 and '10—and the projected performance of a replacement-level pitcher is close to 70 runs. That equates to about a five-win drop, enough to push the Cardinals into a fight with the Cubs for third place.
Who would that replacement be? Speculation centers on free-agent righthander Kevin Millwood, Phillies righty Joe Blanton and St. Louis reliever Kyle McClellan. Millwood, 36, has had ERAs above 5.00 in three of the past four seasons in the AL and would be a placeholder for Wainwright's innings, not his run prevention. Blanton, 30, has two years and $17 million left on a contract that now seems excessive for the fifth Beatle in the game's rock-star rotation. Like Millwood, he brings the certitude of 32 starts rather than any special performance during them. For now the Cardinals seem focused on having McClellan, 26, a starter in the minors until 2007, fill the void.
Few teams could readily replace a pitcher of Wainwright's talents even if given a full winter and unlimited resources. To lose one on the brink of the season is a devastating blow, the latest bad news in a Cardinals camp that has felt covered by dark clouds. Already the team has dealt with the death of minority owner Drew Baur, the retirement of outfielder Jim Edmonds and the Pujols contract circus. The slugging first baseman is almost certain to become a free agent after the World Series. The loss of Wainwright makes it unlikely that what might be Pujols's last season in St. Louis will include a trip to the Fall Classic.
Who is the new favorite in the NL Central? The Brewers took the headlines in the off-season by upgrading their rotation, adding former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Concerns about their defense and offensive depth persist, however. The defending Central champion Reds, with a core of young talent, the division's most pitching depth and prospects to deal, stand to gain the most from Wainwright's injury.
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