It didn't take long, in 2011, before it was very easy to imagine the St. Louis Cardinals without Adam Wainwright. I wasn't quite expecting that, even though it had happened before with Chris Carpenter, who seemed as relevant to the 2008 Cardinals as Cris Carpenter, and Mark Mulder before that. A pitcher's absence doesn't register as frequently as a position player's does, and after a while it doesn't register much at all.
Some time after it stopped registering, the Cardinals traded for a player to replace the christened Wainwright replacement, fell out of contention, got back into contention, and won the World Series. Which was fun.
At that point I became aware that the Cardinals were doing without Adam Wainwright primarily because it was a hedge against the Cardinals' even larger concerns—whether they'd fall into the trap of getting the World-Series-winning band back together, whether they'd manage to resign Albert Pujols. Whatever they did, they'd get Adam Wainwright back.
Today, he's back. Here's what the Cardinals did without him.
1. They traded Colby Rasmus. Okay, okay, just one more time—if Adam Wainwright's around, the Cardinals probably don't trade Colby Rasmus—at least, they don't trade him for Edwin Jackson. (If you can find a matching shortstop, feel free to pull the alternate-history trigger.)
I'm not of a mind right now to speculate about how the Cardinals would look with Colby Rasmus in the outfield—it's hard to say much for certain about his future, at this point—but one unalloyed benefit is that we wouldn't have the current Colby-Rasmus-hates-St.-Louis-and-is-entitled-or-something storyline kicking around the internet.
2. They didn't actually do all that badly, replacement-wise. Considering their immediate plan was to convert a reliever with a not-all-that-relievery strikeout rate and a low-90s fastball into a starting pitcher, things could have gone much worse. Kyle McClellan threw 105 innings with bad peripherals and a fifth-startery 4.21 ERA over 17 starts, Edwin Jackson threw 12 more for 78 league-average innings, and the Cardinals did a remarkable job of avoiding replacement-level leakage of the kind that, say, gets P.J. Walters qualified for the ERA title.
Only four starts were made outside the rotation: Tony La Russa sacrificed Miguel Batista in April when a rain delay threatened to waste—well, Kyle McClellan; Lance Lynn allowed six runs in 10 innings over two June spot starts before turning into a flamethrowing reliever; and Brandon Dickson got knocked out in the fourth inning of a start on September 1, when the Cardinals were already basically eliminated anyway.
3. Ryan Franklin didn't get cut off until Mitchell Boggs impressed Tony. This is the farthest afield I'll get—after Kyle McClellan's strong 2010, I'm convinced La Russa might have started the not-a-closer carousel spinning a little earlier if he could have begun it with his favorite set-up man.
4. The bullpen probably improved anyway. Last year the Cardinals got 105 innings with an ERA of 2.14 out of Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez—two guys they left off their roster in favor of Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista (and Bryan Augenstein, for whatever reason.) Kyle McClellan's not useless as a reliever, but he wouldn't have done that, either.
5. Without realizing it, I began to really miss Adam Wainwright's pitching.
It's not the kind of thing you think about over the course of the season, because like it or not you're going to see a different pitcher most of the time you sit down to watch a baseball game; last season, in aggregate, I was probably angrier about having to watch Edwin Jackson pitch so slowly than I was regretful about not watching Adam Wainwright pitch.
Now, though, that it's on the verge of becoming a regular thing again—now I'm ready. I don't know if you remember this, but Adam Wainwright is an outstanding pitcher. He's got a slider he throws like a fastball, a curveball he throws a lot like that moving picture a paragraph up, and a fastball that is also a pitch he throws sometimes, and he works fast and he knows how to hit and he does not skulk around the baseball field and baseball is better, generally, for having him play it.