The Cardinals were dealt a combination of rolling punches on Sunday when the team sent 40% of its starting rotation to the disabled list on one afternoon, yet for a sole reason. Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia will both begin stints out of action on Monday due to shoulder complications, and the team faces an uncertain run of time with a depleted edition of its lone source of dependable contribution this year.
General Manager John Mozeliak shared the news with the public after Sunday’s 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, which sealed a 7-3 homestand. The final game was started by Carlos Martinez in the place of Wacha, who was scheduled to start but bumped due to what was initially labeled as a move to conserve innings on the young right-hander, who has pitched 90.1 innings on the season thus far and was on pace for 194 over his first full campaign before being placed on the DL. Wacha stated that the injury had been bothering him over his past 4-5 starts, but took a turn for the worst headed into what was to be his upcoming outing on Sunday.
The idea that Wacha has even been allowed to work through what has apparently been a lingering (and intensifying) plague—labeled as a stress reaction—is odd considering how much the long-term value of Wacha has been heralded. There is the line between working through an injury and holding back from worsening it is a thin one, but would have seemingly been jumped ahead completely to avoid such a dubious outcome. Yet, here it is and now the team is faced with a rather frightening proposition of managing its immediate fortunes with an uncertain future from one of its most valuable properties in Wacha. While a stress reactions are manageable, they are bothersome and potentially regularly reoccurring events, and with this being Wacha’s first encounter with the injury, it would not be surprising for him to be sidelined for a longer than expected timeline while the options around rehabbing the cause and damages are evaluated.
While the effects of the injury manifested itself over time, it evenly became what Wacha himself labeled as ‘unbearable’, and the decision to shut him down became obvious.
Yet also became only a half of the immediate problem facing the club, as Garcia also showed a downward turn. Recently returned from a shoulder injury that curbed him for 366 calendar days, Garcia had been solid since returning in early May, running a 3-1 record and striking out 39 in just over 43 innings in seven starts. The primary concern of further injury to Garcia is obviously further damage to the shoulder, which had already experienced one setback this spring which delayed the start of his year. Garcia himself has been less forthcoming about nature of his injury, but the fear of another long-term loss is not out of the question for the oft-injured lefty.
The complete severity of the issues for either starter was not made in entirely by Mozeliak when making the announcement, but was framed under the context of Wacha’s being lesser than that of of Garcia’s (a ‘yellow’ light over ‘red’ light scenario, per the GM). Yet in either case, the team will be without both for an indefinite run of time and are faced with the frightening proposition of potential long-term loss of one of its most valuable properties in Wacha. Garcia has battled his balky shoulder for multiple years now, and while it is an unfortunate situation, the general theme of the year concerning him as been one of a strong contribution from him being a bonus for the year.
However, that perspective was set both before he effectively returned and before the Cardinal roster had been stunned by both the repeated loss of starting pitching options and its season-long offensive outage. Pitching is the only binding factor holding the team in the midst of the race, and more specifically, it’s starting pitching impact. Cardinal starters currently lead the National League in rotation ERA (3.05), lowest batting average against (.228) and shutouts (14). This has offset an offense that has yielded only a .249 team average and sits at 13 out of 15 NL clubs in runs scored.
Superb starting pitching is a must for the sustained survival of the club, and the first order of business is finding suitable bookmarks—or potentially replacements—for the fallen duo. The obvious answer is that Martinez will stay a part of the rotation long-term and in the slot of Wacha most likely. In two starts, Martinez has been effective, yet developing as he reacquaints himself to the durability and demands of the role. However, it is the role that was becoming increasingly clear that he would need to have the opportunity to undertake and despite it coming under unfortunate auspices, it is here.
Yet after Martinez, finding both an immediate and long-term answer for Garcia’s role is a bit more complicated. His next turn in the rotation looms on Wednesday in Colorado, and there is no absolute clear option to take his place. Of options currently clear on the 40-man roster, Joe Kelly is going out for the beginning of his minor league rehab stint this week, and is likely weeks away from being an option. Likewise, Tyler Lyons is recently returned from the DL and is at Memphis, where he has made a pair of rehab starts with no negative reaction in the injured shoulder that sidelined him since May 12th. He would be the logical, yet perhaps premature, call up to take Garcia’s place.
Any other move would necessitate a change to the 40-man roster and dropping a current member of it to make room. The likely outcome is that Martinez will continue to work into starters shape via a limited workload (his pitch limit increased by 10 tosses in Sunday’s start), while Lyons takes Garcia’s place until Kelly is ready if all pans out well in his return.
Regardless of the outcome, the Cardinals find themselves in a precarious place looking ahead, where the best case scenario is being leaned on far too heavily for a team that is trying to keep its head above water in a divisional race. With the trade deadline just five weeks away, perhaps the buyers sign will have no choice but to go into the Cardinal yard if it is to see the season change into the fall this summer. And the long-debated need for another veteran arm finally gets too loud to ignore. At any rate, time is of the essence, as internal options and fortunes are thinning out rapidly.