Right-handed starter Adam Wainwright has been a leader on the St. Louis Cardinals staff for years as he became co-ace of the pitching rotation with Chris Carpenter, but the team needs Wainwright’s leadership now more than at any other time in his career.
Wainwright, 31, is now the lone veteran in the Cardinals rotation after 35-year-old right-hander Jake Westbrook went on the disabled list May 9 with elbow inflammation.
Left-handed starter Jaime Garcia is only 26 years old, but he was in his fifth season in the big leagues and had made 90 career starts before he had surgery earlier this week that ended his 2013 season. The four other pitchers now in the Cardinals rotation have a combined 55 career starts, and 41 of those are from right-hander Lance Lynn, who is in only his second full season with the team.
Wainwright will make his 162nd career start Monday when he takes the mound in Kansas City against the Royals, and each start becomes all the more important as the Cardinals hold their breath every time rookies John Gast, Tyler Lyons or Shelby Miller make a start.
Their worries don’t come from those pitchers’ performances, they have combined for a 2.40 earned-run average, but young pitchers don’t have a track record to reassure management and fans that they’ll consistently have more good games than bad ones.
For example, Miami Marlins right-handed starter Jose Fernandez is touted as one of the best up-and-coming pitchers in Major League Baseball. Although he has a 3.31 ERA, he is 2-2 in nine starts and has failed to pitch past the fifth inning five times.
Gast, Lyons and Miller have pitched at least into the sixth inning in each of their combined 12 starts heading into play Saturday, but the chances of them maintaining that pace are slim, at best.
That means the bullpen will likely see more action in coming weeks, so Wainwright’s responsibilities could become two-fold every time he pitches. He’ll likely have to go deep into games to save the bullpen for days when the young pitchers start, and he’ll have to pitch well enough to win if the other starters hit a rough stretch and the team enters Wainwright’s start on a losing streak.
But Wainwright is capable of being a do-everything pitcher. He has a 6-3 record and 2.38 ERA in 10 starts and is returning to the type of dominant pitcher he was before he had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2011 season.
Plus, he has the experience that comes with nine years in the big leagues and has learned how to be a leader from the 38-year old Carpenter, who won the Cy Young Award in 2005.
Carpenter might join Wainwright in the rotation in late June or early July if his rehabilitation from nerve problems in his arm continues to go well, and Westbrook could return even sooner if he doesn’t suffer any more setbacks in his recovery.
Until then, Wainwright is going to have to be the starting rotation’s best pitcher, mentor and leader. Good thing he has strong shoulders.