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How will the St. Louis Cardinals go about replacing Adam Wainwright?

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St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made an appearance on KMOX Sunday morning to address the injury to Adam Wainwright's Achilles tendon. Mozeliak did not strike an optimistic note. While noting that nothing will be final until they receive results on Monday from medical testing, the organization expects Wainwright's injury to force the ace to miss the rest of the 2015 season. Mozeliak will address the media on Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium. In all likelihood, Mozeliak will confirm what he indicated Sunday morning: Wainwright will spend the rest of the season on the disabled list.

How will the Cardinals replace Wainwright?

Wainwright is that rare combination of workhorse innings-eater and elite run-suppressor. His numbers since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2012 reflect the unique skill set that makes him a perennial Cy Young candidate. Wainwright's 692 1/3 innings pitched ranks fifth in MLB from opening day 2012 through play on Sunday. The righty's 2.99 ERA places him eighth in the majors over that same time period. By Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Waino has been the third-best starter. As his fourth-highest 16.4 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) reflects, Wainwright is virtually un-replaceable. Nonetheless the Cardinals must fill a five-man rotation. They must replace him.

The immediate reaction is understandably to devise trades in one's head. Cole Hamels, a pitcher who is on the market, immediately comes to mind. While not quite as good as Wainwright, Hamels is elite—the type of top-of-the-rotation arm with postseason experience that a team in the Cardinals' position (geared to Win Now with an aging core) needs with its ace sidelined for the remainder of the year. But we all know that Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr. reportedly wants a king's ransom for Hamels, that there are quite a few free-agent-to-be starters around the majors, and the non-waiver trade deadline market is ill-defined in late April. Consequently, the best tack is likely to wait and see how the trade market develops in the weeks and months ahead, so that the Cards can see what adding a proven starter will cost in prospects. Such an approach will also St. Louis to give their internal options an audition.

The Cardinals have multiple internal options

  • Marco Gonzales
  • Tyler Lyons
  • Carlos Villanueva
  • Zach Petrick
  • Tim Cooney

Some are on the St. Louis 40-man roster (Gonzales, Lyons, and Villanueva); some aren't (Petrick and Cooney). At present, the Cards have 40 players on their 40-man roster. Remember that players who are on the 7-day minor-league or 15-day major-league DL take up a 40-man roster spot. However, players on the 60-day DL do not. At present, Wainwright is on the 15-day DL, which means he is still on the 40-man roster. If the Cardinals receive the bad news the organization is anticipating today, they can place Wainwright on the 60-day DL, which would free up a spot on the 40-man roster and allow them to add a player like Petrick or Cooney. That being said, the path of least roster resistance would be simply giving the ball to Villanueva, Lyons, or Gonzales on Thursday, the next time Wainwright's rotation turn comes around.

One fly in the ointment of this play is Gonzales's shoulder health. The Cardinals placed him on the 7-day minor-league DL just last week due to shoulder tightness, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While Gonzales might theoretically have been able to be activated in time to take Thursday's start, MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch tweeted that the Cardinals don't anticipate the runner-up in this spring's fifth-starter derby to be physically ready to join the rotation this week. That leaves Villanueva or Lyons as current 40-man roster members. Langosch included Lyons and Cooney as a possibility in her tweet. Mozeliak listed Petrick in his KMOX appearance. What can we expect from these individual hurlers should the Cardinals call on them?

Every winter, Dan Szymborski puts out ZiPS projections. And each year ZiPS projects minor-league players for a full season of MLB play. Folks typically at-mention Szymborski on Twitter or send him emails saying ZiPS is flawed because it projects so-and-so for way too much playing time. Szymborski probably received such feedback from a St. Louis fan or two this winter with respect to Gonzales, Lyons, Petrick, Cooney, and Boone Whiting. This week we're seeing the insight we can gain from the ZiPS projections for such players. While the Cardinals won't need any of these players for the whole year (after all, it's April 27), their individual ZiPS projections for 2015 give us an idea of how each might perform as Wainwright's replacement. I included Jaime Garcia in the following chart just for an idea of what one might expect from the lefty if one still holds out hope that he might return to pitch in the majors this season.

February 2015 ZiPS Projections

Player

G

GS

IP

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

zWAR

M. Gonzales

22

18

108.1

7.73

2.99

3.74

3.84

1.5

T. Lyons

26

22

132.1

7.01

2.45

3.94

3.92

1.4

T. Cooney

25

25

149.1

6.33

2.35

4.10

4.14

1.4

J. Garcia

13

13

77.2

7.18

2.20

4.06

3.85

0.7

Z. Petrick

29

19

118

6.64

2.90

4.04

4.01

1.1

B. Whiting

22

20

101.1

7.37

3.55

4.09

4.23

0.9

2015 ZiPS Rest of Season Projection: Adam Wainwright

Player

G

GS

IP

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

WAR

A. Wainwright

27

27

184

7.66

1.80

2.92

2.80

4.0

That's a loss of two or three wins, give or take. Eyeballing it jibes with what ZiPS produced over the weekend. Szymborski ran ZiPS after Wainwright's injury and tweeted out the results:

Thus, even after Wainwright's injury, ZiPS projects the Cardinals to win the Central this year. Put otherwise, without a trade, the Cardinals are the frontrunner from April 26 onward to win their division—though there's a lesser margin of error.

Might the calculation change? Of course. The current rest-of-season numbers presuppose that no other players are lost to injury for extended periods of time and does not include any future trade acquisitions. Nonetheless, it indicates that the Cardinals might be best served by moving forward in the near term with their internal replacements while continuing to survey the trade market and playoff picture—then making a move as need dictates and if the price is right.