March Madness is rapidly approaching, Tiger Woods apparently still can’t remember that he’s the best golfer in the world, the NBA’s Melo-drama and subsequent trade frenzy has swallowed up SportsCenter opening segments all week, and the NFL lockout discussions just won’t go away. Despite all of that, however, the St. Louis Cardinals have found themselves as front page news over the last two weeks…and it’s for all the wrong reasons. A little over a week ago the sports world was abuzz with news that Albert Pujols, widely regarded as the best player in the game (hard to dispute), was demanding a contract that bordered the $300 million dollar mark, and refused to sign an extension, which will undoubtedly hang heavily over the team and fans all season. Not a good way to start off the 2011 season in which the Cardinals are trying to regain the Central Division crown.
That quest was delivered a devastating blow this week when news hit that Adam Wainwright would be out for the year and would require Tommy John surgery to fix his elbow. No amount of Florida sunshine will cure those blues for Cardinals fans, but they’re an optimistic fan base, not devoted solely to one player. They’re about the team, the organization, the logo. LaRussa will pull them through, right? Not likely. This team looks to be in big, big trouble. Not just this year, mind you, but for the once bright future that suddenly looks quite turbulent.
Let’s start with the immediate, though. The immediate impact, of course, is that the Cardinals just got much worse overall. Losing a pitcher the caliber of Wainwright alters your entire staff, and every Cardinal pitcher will suffer for it. Yes, the Cardinals still have Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse are quality starters, but Wainwright is coming off a 2010 season in which he went 20-11, with a 2.42 ERA and finished second in NL Cy Young voting. He’s one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, period. There is no replacing him. Wainwright’s absence, coupled with the loss of Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg for the 2011 season as well, is another blow for baseball fans (and fantasy players) who are now deprived of watching two of the games most talented young pitchers.
However, Wainwright’s injury creates a lot more intrigue in the Central Division race. While the Reds are the reigning division champions, the Cardinals always contend for the title, making it to the postseason seven times in the last decade with two trips to the World Series in that span (winning in 2006). Without Wainwright, they will struggle to keep pace with the heavily talented Brewers and Reds teams, a revamped Cubs squad, and will feel some pressure from the young and eager Astros, too. Even the Pirates should be better this year, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, they’re still the Pirates. Point is, for a division that is supposed to be one of baseball’s weakest, there’s a lot of talent, which will make returning to the playoffs a formidable task for St. Louis without one of the best pitchers in the game.
Now, for the future implications. Wainwright’s injury really couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the Pujols negotiations going (seemingly) as poorly as they are, the last thing the Cardinals need is a seed of doubt in the sluggers mind that they won’t consistently be contenders. While Tommy John surgery isn’t the baseball death that it used to be (just look at what fellow Cardinal Chris Carpenter has done post-Tommy John), it still is a long recovery, and the majority of pitchers that undergo the procedure are never the same again. With Wainwright out at least a year, and recent reports, quoting Carpenter, saying that he’d welcome a trade this season if the Cardinals fall out of contention, the Cardinals could potentially lose two of their best three players in one year. And how is Pujols going to react to that? It’s safe to say not very well. In fact, some baseball analysts are predicting that if the Cardinals find themselves falling behind in the divisional race by midseason, they might just try to trade Pujols and not risk losing him for nothing to free agency.
This is all hearsay, of course. What ifs and possibilities. The facts are this: Wainwright will return, he’s only twenty-nine and has a lot of baseball ahead of him (probably). The Cardinals are a model franchise and almost always put out a quality product, so Pujols may stay. He may even persuade Carpenter to end his career in Cardinal red, and all may be right in St. Louis. Much ado about nothing, right?
Then again…maybe not. The way things are going, though, the Cardinals are just looking to get through their first Spring Training game with enough guys to fill out a lineup card. And to keep Wainwright occupied with something other than that St. Louis barbecue while he watches 162 games from the dugout in 2011.