The news that Chris Carpenter is “out indefinitely” is an ominous development for the St. Louis Cardinals, but should the reigning champs hit the panic button? With their rotation's strength -- even without Carpenter -- they don’t have to.
This is not to say losing Carpenter is something the Cardinals can shrug off easily. If the weakness in his shoulder is akin to what shut him down early in 2004 and helped him miss almost all of 2008, there’s cause for concern. But because of a strong farm system, they’re not without quality options.
The nicest way to think about the Cardinals’ predicament is that with Carpenter out, they’re essentially putting one ace on the shelf as their other ace is coming back from his own injury. Adam Wainwright’s back in action from Tommy John surgery and looking good as he gets in gear for the regular season. Wainwright spun five shutout innings against the Marlins on Friday afternoon -- striking out five. The lone walk he surrendered suggests the command troubles that so often afflict pitchers coming back from the procedure might be less of a problem for him.
Of course, spring stats don’t really mean all that much beyond the warm fuzzies they generate. The numbers that Wainwright will really have to replace are the 230-plus innings, 34 starts, and 21 quality starts Carpenter gave the Cardinals last season. That’s not the biggest challenge for Wainwright if he’s all the way back to full health and dealing the way he used to: He did manage 25 quality starts in 33 turns in 2010, after all.
The question is not whether Wainwright is good enough to replicate Carpenter's 2011 season, but what other question marks does the team have?
First, can Kyle Lohse keep doing what he did? Last year’s 3.39 ERA and 14 wins were a considerable improvement from the injury-marred 2009-2010 seasons. Projection systems like ZiPS (from Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider) and PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus are both forecasting baseline projections with an ERA a full run higher. The good news? Well, he’s healthy, his 2011 FIP of 3.64 suggests he wasn’t that much outside of his possible range, and the Cardinals might boast stronger interior defense this year than last.
That brings us to Jake Westbrook, who’s coming off a fairly poor season by his standards. Here again, FIP suggests he was ill-served by ball-in-play outcomes. His 2011 ERQ was 4.66, his FIP 4.22. Give him the benefit of Rafael Furcal at shortstop and Daniel Descalso or Tyler Greene at second, and his ground-ball repertoire might lead to more outs in Lance Berkman's glove at first base.
But most importantly, there’s Lance Lynn, the still-promising prospect taking Carpenter's spot in the rotation. Lynn isn’t just some kid being thrown into the deep end -- according to Baseball America he was the organization’s sixth-best prospect before 2011, and his blend of a consistent low-90s fastball, hard sinker and power curve is the stuff good big-league starters are made of. Projections for Lynn suggest ERAs in the 3.80-4.10 range, and if that’s your last man, you’ve got a pretty good rotation.
It’s also worth remembering that last year’s Cardinals didn’t get everything right at first, even as they struggled to replace Wainwright. They indulged a long, and ultimately unsuccessful, experiment with Kyle McClellan in the rotation before trading for Edwin Jackson for the stretch run. It might be reductionist to say Lynn + an eventually healthy Carpenter is better than McClellan + Jackson, but it also has the advantage of being probably true.
Finally, there’s always the option of bringing up top prospect Shelby Miller who had a tremendous half season at Double-A last year. Miller already figures into the Cardinals long-term plans beyond 2012 -- after Lohse's and perhaps Westbrook's (the club has an option) contracts end.
While the Cardinals initially have to deal with the unfulfilled promise of having Wainwright and Carpenter in the rotation at the same time, they have the talent to succeed in the meantime. This is bad news for the champs, but it’s not the worst news. As they proved last year, they’ve survived this kind of setback as well as the failure of a Plan B. It won’t make things any easier, but there’s no reason to count them out.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.