The St. Louis Cardinals received
good… bad…news regarding the status of Chris Carpenter today. The staff ace is experiencing nerve irritation affecting his neck and throwing arm that has shut him down indefinitely, though as of now he will be treated with rest and strengthening exercises and surgery is not being discussed.
It could be worse. The worst-case scenario would be losing Carpenter for the entire season and having the continuance of his career be in jeopardy. That is not the case; however the Cards still have no timetable for his return and have to proceed as though they have no idea when he’s coming back.
While the situation is not ideal, it places the Cardinals in a familiar position: dealing with losing their best pitcher before the season even gets underway. In one sense, it is kind of amusingly ironic. In another, it toes the line of cruel and unusual punishment for the Cards and their fans. The team is the defending World Series champion, but could they possibly have a smooth start to that title defense? Of course not.
This has been coming for a while, and recently I lamented the possibility of the Cardinals going back to Kyle McClellan as an interim starter while Carpenter recovers. Thankfully, that option is off the table. Instead, Lance Lynn has been given the green light to assume the fifth spot in the rotation. I have mixed feelings about this move. On the one hand, Lynn only relieved for a short time in 2011 and has been a starter the rest of the time. “Converting back” to the starter mentality and routine should not be near as taxing on him as it was on McClellan through the first half of last year. Consequently, if Carpenter is able to come back sometime mid-summer, Lynn may be able to seamlessly transition back to the bullpen and not drastically surpass his recent innings totals. But for as well as Lynn looked as a reliever with the Cards in 2011, he had mixed results in his two starts at the major league level and was not able to complete six innings either outing. Yes, that is a really small sample size. But it just goes to show that Lynn is still an unproven rookie, and with that comes a whole new set of questions. What if he struggles initially, or even perpetually? What if Carpenter returns and Lynn can’t transition back to the bullpen effectively?
And what if the bullpen suffers without Lynn? Perhaps the Cards can get back the production from McClellan they got in 2010 when he was, by many measures, the best reliever on the team. That would certainly help. But the beginning of 2011 was a prime example of what can happen to a team when their bullpen falters, and the run at the end of the year began in large part because of dominant bullpen work from Lynn, Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, and the late additions of Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. Dotel is gone, of course, so McClellan presumably replaces him. Who replaces Lynn?
Still, it is really hard to think the sky is falling today after we saw what happened last year in the absence of Adam Wainwright. It is relatively safe to assume that, no matter what, the Cardinals will make whatever moves are necessary to keep this team in contention for the entire season. It just would have been really sweet to see a healthy Wainwright and a healthy Carpenter at the top of the rotation for the entire season. And who knows; maybe Carpenter comes back at 100% in a few months and takes some of the heat off of Wainwright so he doesn’t get overexposed being just one year removed from Tommy John surgery.
But that is just wishful thinking. The reality is, the Cards are in a tough spot for the start of the 2012 season. Let’s hope this team is as good at battling adversity as the 2011 team was.