At a time when optimism abounds elsewhere in the game, this has not been a fun month for the Cardinals -- or their fans. The unresolved Pujols contract situation has hung like a dark cloud over the collective head of this club, and the rain is really falling now that Tommy John surgery has come calling for Wainwright.
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We'll begin by stating the obvious: Wainwright is irreplaceable -- especially at this juncture. There are no potential 20-game winners among the smoldering remains of the free-agent market, and there is no rising stud ready to come to the rescue from the farm system. Their top arm in that regard, Shelby Miller, is 20 years old and ticketed for Class A ball.
Perhaps the Cards make a play for Jeremy Bonderman or Kevin Millwood, but, well, those guys are still available for a reason. Maybe Kyle McClellan, who was beaten out for the fifth-starter's job by Jaime Garcia last year, fills in at the back end of the rotation. Maybe Brian Tallet converts back to rotation work. Maybe former first-round pick Lance Lynn breaks into the bigs after an uneven 2010 in Triple-A. Maybe non-roster invitee Ian Snell opens some eyes.
"We're not going to look outside the organization," manager Tony La Russa told reporters. "The answer is here."
"Answer" might not be the best word to use, because there are no definitive answers when you lose your No. 1 starter at any point of the season, let alone this tone-setting stage. All that's left in the wake of Thursday's news is a fresh heap of questions about the future direction of a proud franchise.
The first question, naturally, is: What does this mean for Pujols? Because, as we enter Albert's walk year, his future will be the focal point of every development. Every time he homers to help the Cards win, people will wonder if he's enhanced his free-agent value and, therefore, his chances of leaving. Every time the Cards lose, people will wonder if he'll look to leave for greener pastures. Every injury, every setback, every time the clubhouse cooler isn't stocked with his favorite beverage ... basically every time birds aren't chirping, the sun isn't shining and the Cards aren't quite clicking, people will wonder if Pujols will bolt.
In past columns, we've already addressed the simple math involved with a team playing in a market the size of St. Louis trying to keep a player as prestigious as Pujols. It's math that doesn't add up to a pretty picture for Pujols' long-term Cardinals legacy. If your payroll is hovering around the $120 million mark and you're paying one player upwards of $30 million a season, you're not leaving yourself a tremendous amount of wiggle room to maintain a competitive club. That's why a deal has not yet been consummated.
So now we're taking Wainwright, who finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting last year, out of the picture. A guy who, if you believe in the WAR calculation, was, according to baseball-reference.com, worth 5.7 wins above what a replacement player (and McClellan is a good example of one) would have brought to the table last year. Statistician Nate Silver, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, once calculated that each regular season win is worth about $650,000, in terms of gate receipts, concessions and merchandise sales. According to Fangraphs.com, the value of wins separating playoff participants from also-rans (and that's what losing Wainwright could mean for the Cards, especially in an improved NL Central) is even greater -- about $2.5 million.
This is a long-winded way of saying that each win forfeited -- thanks to the loss of Wainwright -- has the potential to provide tremendous impact to the financial bottom line, and, therefore, tremendous impact on how much revenue the Cards have available to fork over to Pujols.
Even if we're paying little mind to the financial matters, just consider what another season out of contention would mean for Pujols' psyche. Since winning it all in 2006, the Cards have made just one postseason appearance, in 2009, when they went three-and-out against the Dodgers. Another season out of championship contention wouldn't exactly assist the St. Louis sales pitch.
If the Cards, who are also without utilityman Nick Punto for eight to 12 weeks, flop in the first half, then expect even more rampant speculation about Pujols' future than you've already endured. Pujols has made it clear he has no plans to waive his 10-and-5 rights to veto any trade. But if the Cards are out of it by the All-Star break and a contending team capable of extending Albert at the right price comes calling, there's little reason to believe he wouldn't at least entertain the option.
When it comes to contending, the Cards are fortunate to have Chris Carpenter on hand to step into the ace slot. But his injury history, combined with the fact that he's soon to be 36 and coming off the highest innings workload (235) of his career, is cause for concern. Same with 33-year-old Jake Westbrook, who had Tommy John surgery in 2008.
As if Pujols' money matters weren't issue enough, the Cards will also have to decide, at season's end, what to do with their $15 million option on Carpenter for 2012. La Russa is also a question mark beyond this year. He and the Cards are bound only by a mutual option for '12.
So this Cards team has the potential to look drastically different one year from now if 2011 doesn't go according to plan. And the plans took a major, major hit with Thursday's diagnosis. For the sake of a fervent fan base that has been battered with bad news the last couple of weeks, you hope La Russa's right, and the answers do arrive.