ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals' offseason plans are now likely to include a more focused pursuit of pitching after the organization announced on Tuesday that right-hander Lance Lynn will miss the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
The procedure took place on Tuesday, one day after the Cardinals' starting-pitching depth took a hit with Major League Baseball's announcement that top pitching prospect Alex Reyes has been suspended 50 games for a second positive test for marijuana.
But while the Cardinals had hoped Reyes would be ready to contribute next season, the club was counting on Lynn to carry another hefty innings load for the rotation. He has made at least 31 starts each of the past four seasons and did not end the 2015 season with any public acknowledgement of a compromised elbow.
General manager John Mozeliak, who detailed the team's list of injuries and player surgeries two days after the Cards were eliminated from the postseason, did not disclose any concerns about Lynn's health at that time. As it turns out, Lynn alerted the club to elbow discomfort more recently, saying he had pitched with it through much of the season.
The Cardinals sent him to Dr. David Altcheck, who confirmed the ligament tear. George Paletta, the Cards' former medical director, then performed the surgery.
"It's unfortunate, because he's been a key member of our rotation," Mozeliak told MLB Network's Sam Ryan from the General Managers Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "I guess it's in a way good timing, so we have time to address it. This [week of meetings] is usually the kickoff to the offseason, so now it allows us to do our due diligence. Obviously, the next few days, I'm going to spend as much time as I can meeting with agents, understanding what the market looks like."
Perhaps there was one red flag along the way, as Lynn exited a June 7 start in Los Angeles early due to what he described as right forearm tightness. He skipped his next two starts before returning on June 25 with six shutout innings.
Lynn's only other injury issue during the season was related to an ankle sprain he sustained in late August, and there were some in the organization who thought Lynn's late-season fade was in part due to weakness with that ankle. He pitched past the fifth in just two of his final six starts and was a non-factor in the postseason. Lynn's removal from the playoff rotation seemed to be a decision made largely for matchup reasons.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals anticipated Lynn helping anchor a 2016 rotation also projected to feature Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez. The team also has a qualifying offer out to John Lackey, who has until Friday to decide whether to accept it. If he does not, the Cards will almost certainly begin to explore other starting-pitching options in the free-agent and trade markets, as each of those other four projected starters also returns with health question marks.
Wainwright will be back in a starting-pitching role after missing most of the 2015 season due to an Achilles injury. Garcia's career has been dotted with arm troubles, and Martinez had to be shut down in September due to a shoulder strain. Wacha's results waned late in his first season back from a stress reaction injury to his shoulder. Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney, part of the organization's starting depth, also missed time due to injury.
Lynn entered the offseason seemingly with the fewest health-related questions of them all. He had thrown at least 175 innings in each of the past four seasons while taking on a workhorse role. The Cardinals now have to find those innings elsewhere.
"When you lose a pitcher like Lance Lynn, it's not just an easy internal replacement where you can fill that gap," Mozeliak said. "We do feel we have some depth at Triple-A that historically we have been able to work from within and fill from within. But I don't think we're at a point where we can just ignore the free-agent market. So we'll try to take advantage of these next few weeks and see what we can do.
"Obviously, there are some big-name pitchers out there. When you look at what's out there and what could potentially be a fit for us. That part is exciting. But we still have to get deals done."
Lynn will earn $7.5 million while not pitching in 2016 as part of the three-year extension he signed in January. Assuming he has a normal 12- to 15-month recovery period, he should return for the final year of that deal. Lynn is set to become a free agent after the '17 season.