The loss of Adam Wainwright is a bad thing for the Cardinals. Not exactly a hot take there, I know, but I feel like it’s important to point that out as a matter of absolute clarity. Adam Wainwright is, undeniably, the most trustworthy pitcher on the roster. The fact that the Cardinals have won the World Series during the last two seasons in which Wainwright was not a significant contributor to the team’s starting rotation (during his 2011 Tommy John recovery season and during his 2006 rookie season coming out of the bullpen) is a statistical anomaly—not a sign that the new market inefficiency for baseball teams is for their Cy Young-caliber aces to go down with season-ending injuries. In summation, that it appears Adam Wainwright will not pitch again for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 is a bad thing for the outlook of their season.
It is not a fatal blow. The 2015 Cardinals are going to be fine.
At least in my experiences, and this is admittedly anecdotal, casual fans tend to place emphasis on the importance of individual players more than those who care about things such as Wins Above Replacement. This was a fundamental point of Moneyball: those who saw the film adaptation likely remember the scene in a parking garage in which Jonah Hill’s character Peter Brand notes that while the Boston Red Sox saw Johnny Damon as a star who’s worth $7.5 million a year, the sabermetrically inclined Brand sees him as a good player who is worth a certain amount of win value to the Oakland Athletics, but not the $7.5 million per year that the Red Sox offered.
But people who are well versed in WAR tend to misevaluate players in a different way. I’m not absolving myself of blame here—I’ve done it too. I will look at Fangraphs, see that ZiPS has him worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement, and declare that Adam Wainwright is worth four wins. I will decide that if the Cardinals were going to win 92 games with Adam Wainwright, which is probably enough to win the NL Central, they are now going to win 88 games, which possibly throws them into a Wild Card dogfight.
But that’s not how baseball actually works. Baseball teams don’t actually have an endless supply of nameless, faceless guys waiting in reserve whose pitching aligns precisely with the conceptual replacement level. Some teams don’t have any of these guys. Some teams, such as the Cardinals, do have these guys, but even they are buried beneath a handful of pitchers who are considerably above that level.
The Cardinals had a litany of options in place in case Michael Wacha’s injury became a significant problem. Even Carlos Martinez, who has (in a far too small of a sample size to make any sincere judgments) pitched out of his mind in 2015, was among them—until Jaime Garcia’s injury, Martinez appeared to be the odd man out of the rotation. Of course, the Cardinals no longer have the option of Martinez as a fallback, but the options they do have (Jaime Garcia and Marco Gonzales once they return from injury, Tyler Lyons as a stopgap, Tim Cooney or even Alex Reyes as one of the hot pitching prospects that I won’t pretend to know anything about but who greatly excite those who do know about that sort of thing) are not off the scrap heap.
They probably aren’t Adam Wainwright but they are sufficient. In order to make up for the loss of Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals will also need their other four starters coming out of Spring Training to exceed expectations. Will they? Perhaps, though probably not to the extreme degree to which they have exceeded expectations to this point. Thanks to wildly unsustainable LOB% rates, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez each have enormous ERA/FIP differentials. The most condescending kind of sabermetrically inclined fan is the one who points out that their ERAs of 1.33 and 1.35, respectively, are not sustainable (YOU DON’T SAY), and while this shouldn’t come as a huge shock, Wacha is showing impressive command while yielding ground balls while Martinez has a rather high 18.8% HR/FB rate. They aren’t 1.3-something ERA pitchers, but I know it wouldn’t shock me in the least bit if their true pitching talent earns them an ERA lower than the 3.72 and 3.93 ERAs suggested by their fielding-independent pitching stats.
Not to mention that Lance Lynn has a sub-2 ERA and FIP. Is Lance Lynn an ace? No, probably not. But would it shock you if Lynn ended up being, say, the 19th best starter in baseball this year? Because that’s what Madison Bumgarner was last year, by fWAR. The top starter for the 2013 Red Sox, Jon Lester, ranked 31st. A true ace is a great thing to have, but a World Series can be won without one if several pitchers can pitch just outside of that level. And the 2015 World Series can still be won by the St. Louis Cardinals if just a few players can match a few reasonable expectations.