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The load just got heavier for the Cardinals’ rotation

Given the timing of Alex Reyes’s injury, the big question is what now. 

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

In what’s becoming a regrettable tradition, the Cardinals are going to enter the 2017 season without the services of one of their projected starting pitchers. You probably didn’t miss it but in the event you did, news circulated early this morning that Alex Reyes’s throwing session would be skipped today as a result of discomfort in his elbow. As Derrick Goold reported, Reyes has had a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament since 2013 and today’s MRI revealed enough to likely shelve him for the season. According to reports, Reyes is seeking a second opinion. Craig Edwards had a more detailed write-up on the news earlier today.

Assuming the worst for the upcoming season, a fair thing to do given the history of these types of injuries, this is first and foremost devastating news for Reyes, a 22-year old top prospect who showed flashes of brilliance in 2016. This is bad news for anyone who was looking forward to a longer and more complete look at said brilliance in 2017, that includes most all of us. And this is bad news for the Cardinals. Their starting rotation is now stretched to the limit for quality arms, and their opportunity to pivot to Plan B is more difficult than had all this taken place in December (not to mention Reyes losing crucial healing time for 2018).

So what now? Reyes was projected by FanGraphs and Steamer to throw nearly 100 innings while PECOTA saw him near 120. The Cardinals will likely need to make up that ground without having to hand the ball to a Quadruple-A pitcher every fifth day in the event that they want to compete for the postseason in 2017. That won’t be an easy thing to do but it’s not impossible either.

In 2016, as a result of injuries and pitchers being prematurely driven from too many games, the Cardinals didn’t have a starter log 200 innings for the first time since 1999 when Darren Oliver led the staff in innings pitched. Only three pitchers (Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake) cleared 175. Wainwright led the staff (198.2) in 2016 and has averaged a heavy 220 innings in full seasons going back to 2009. Martinez threw a career high 195 innings and didn’t appear to slow down. In fact, he threw 37 innings the final month of 2016 with a sub-3.00 ERA.

Due to a bout of shingles, Leake only threw 176.2 innings, his lowest since 2011, but is otherwise known as an innings eater and averaged almost 200 innings between 2013 and 2015. Lance Lynn is effectively replacing oft-injured Jaime Garcia and averaged around 190 innings between 2012 and 2015. An uninterrupted season from these four pitchers should go a long way toward making up for the innings left on the table with Reyes’s injury.

And then there’s Michael Wacha, the now-presumed fifth starter. Wacha, who lost his arbitration hearing today - the first for the Cardinals since 1999 (it’s rare to get two Darren Oliver shout-outs in the same post), has had recurring injury issues since 2014 and was often ineffective or unavailable last season. A significant contribution will likely now be needed from him as well.

Of course, there are other options. Luke Weaver didn’t overwhelm in his eight starts last season, but in some circles the 23-year old is still considered the Cardinals’ second best prospect. The Cardinals could see what’s left outside the organization by way of trade or free agency. With Trevor Rosenthal, the team can be a bit more innovative with the bullpen. Or maybe John Gant will miraculously turn into the centerpiece to winning the Jaime Garcia trade.

But replicating Reyes’s innings in 2017 doesn’t replicate his potential. And if you’re keeping track, the Cardinals are now relying heavily on a 35-year old who showed signs of decline last season, a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, and one who was possibly earmarked for the bullpen due to health and effectiveness. Everyone should be hesitant to expect a repeat slugging performance from the offense, but there are good reasons to believe that the Cardinals offense will be strong with Dexter Fowler at the top, and from that standpoint a lights-out rotation is hardly mandatory. With the Reyes injury though, the margin of error for the starting five certainly got smaller.