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Saturday SOC: The Cardinals will be Fine Without Wainwright

Wainwright is out with an injury but they have good options to replace him.

World Baseball Classic Semifinals: Cuba v United States Photo by Jasen Vinlove/Miami Marlins/Getty Images

Adam Wainwright won’t make the Opening Day start for the Cardinals.

As reported on Thursday, Wainwright suffered a groin strain in a workout with the US National Team at the World Baseball Classic. The injury will keep him out of the roster for at least a few weeks.

Someone can double-check me – this is a stream-of-consciousness article so research is optional – but I think this year will be the first Opening Day since 2001 that didn’t include either Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, or Adam Wainwright on the roster.

That’s 22 consecutive seasons of greatness from three historic players.

Let the sentiment pour for a moment. It’s going to be a little – no, a lot – different not seeing those guys suit up in the Birds on the Bat following the Clydesdales and Here Comes the King.

Does anyone know what Pujols is doing on Thursday? Give him a one-day contract. Stick him out there at DH. I would give about 50/50 odds of him hitting a home run. It would be fun.

Another part of me recognizes that this team might not have its three iconic stars, but it’s not starless!

Lars Nootbaar will be in the lineup on Thursday and that guy is a bigger star than anyone. He got the Prime Minister of Japan to grind the pepper. He owns the world.

And while Nootbaar might not end up with his name alongside Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright – don’t put it past him; his upside is real – the club also has soon-to-be Hall of Fame locks in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado coming of their MV2 season.

Give it another 8 years, and we’ll be saying, “this will be the first Opening Day in 30 years without Pujols, Molina, Wainwright, and Arenado.”

And I’ll probably get to say, “well, good thing we have Jordan Walker!”

Yes, Wainwright’s absence from Opening Day action will put a slight damper on the festivities. But there are plenty of things to celebrate about that day and to look forward to this season.

The Cardinals don’t need Wainwright to make Opening Day special. And they don’t necessarily need him to make the season special, either.

Wainwright hasn’t been himself since late August of 2022. He was hit by a comebacker late last season that never forced him to the injured list but the resulting contusion did affect his stride. He spent the last month and a half of the season shortening his release and that cut into his velocity.

Wainwright is not and never has been overly dependent on the speed of his fastball. He has thrived with a dominant breaking pitch and pinpoint command.

There’s a point where spotting a curveball can only do so much. Sitting at 86-88 on his sinker instead of 88-90 simply made Wainwright that much more gettable. It’s amazing how little a few microseconds are and how much Major League hitters can make out of them.

An offseason of rest and rehab removed any concern about his stride. His knee is fine. But it didn’t eliminate concerns about his health.

Before leaving for the World Baseball Classic, Wainwright suffered back spasms that caused muscular weakness. His velocity dipped severely – into the mid-80s.

The team sent Wainwright to the WBC anyway, knowing that the injury was fine; he just needed time to rebuild strength in his back. He could only do that by starting. It was expected that Wainwright would recover his velocity little by little, start by start.

That’s what happened. In his final outing for Team USA, Wainwright briefly touched 88 mph with his fastball for the first time this offseason. His average velocity throughout the game was a few ticks higher than it was in his first spring start, though he began to lose velocity the deeper he went into his outing. He was showing the desired improvement but he wasn’t back yet.

Last season Wainwright averaged 88.7 mph on his fastball. That includes multiple outings late in the season when he was injured. The “healthy” version of Wainwright was averaging 89 or higher on his fastball for four-and-a-half months of the season. At this point in the spring, he still hasn’t thrown one pitch harder than 88.0 mph.

Had he remained healthy, we would likely have seen a few 88.5s or maybe even an 89 mph fastball from him. He likely would have seen his velocity slip from the third inning on. Almost normal. But not quite. Who knows what the results would have been? He does still have that curveball, after all.

With Wainwright’s groin barking at him, we’ll never know what he would have done on Opening Day. Instead, it’s back to the training room.

That’s bad. There’s no way to claim that an injury is a good thing for a person.

But it might not be that bad for his debut to be delayed a little. It just gives him that much more time to work his way back into healthy, competitive shape without the pressure of competition that counts.

Here’s a timeline to consider: Three to four weeks pitching at the team complex, rehabbing, strengthening, and then a few rehab starts at Memphis would bring him back to the Cardinals by mid-May at full strength. He would still be in a position to give the club 130-150 innings out of the rotation. That’s probably a good (and maybe optimistic) total for a 41-year-old.

As Wainwright said yesterday in an article by the Post Dispatch’s Lynn Worthy: “I wanted to start. I wanted to pitch a full season this year, but I’d like a full postseason more than I’d like a full April. That’s what the goal is.”

Can the Cardinals get to the postseason without a healthy Wainwright in April?

Of course, they can!

The Cardinals have a deep pitching staff filled with players who might not wow fans or impress analysts but they have guys who should be fairly reliable and effective.

First up is Jake Woodford who has not yet been announced as the rotation replacement for Wainwright, but all reports indicate the club is leaning in his direction. Woodford fell out of favor with the management team last season. He appeared set to cover the long-relief and spot start role, but instead spent much of the season working on his team-prescribed action plan in Memphis. The club wanted more from his slider. And they would take improved velocity if he could find it.

The results this spring were very encouraging. Woodford showed improved movement on his breaking pitches and his velocity had ticked up a mark or two.

That showing has elevated him over other potential rotation replacements, including Andre Pallante and Matthew Liberatore.

Woodford’s ascension was not because of the others’ fall. Both Pallante and Liberatore showed improvement this spring. Pallante’s velocity is up again this year. Liberatore showed more consistent velocity overall as well as better movement on his fastball.

Everyone did what they needed to do to put themselves in a position to earn starts should a veteran starter go out. Wainwright’s injury was the first but won’t be the last by a starter. By the end of the season, all three of the Cardinals’ reserve SPs will likely find their way into the first inning.

For now, it is Woodford’s turn. But I have a pretty high level of confidence that any one of those arms could step into Wainwright’s spot and provide something close to league-average production.

Fangraphs’ ZiPS had Wainwright set to provide a 3.96 ERA and a 4.41 ERA in 154 innings over 26 starts. That’s average-ish production and still attainable.

The computers don’t know about the improvements that Woodford has shown this spring, but they already had the old version of Woodford set for a 3.95 ERA and a 4.32 FIP in 79 innings across 8 starts and multiple relief outings.

Pallante? Even better. 3.68 ERA. 4.14 FIP across 13 starts and over 100 innings pitched.

Liberatore? A 3.83 ERA, 3.95 FIP, and 2.0 fWAR if he started 26 games.

You could make an argument that any one of those three was a better option to start than Wainwright even before these injuries!

Not only will the team be just fine during Wainwright’s absence, but if the improvement from these players holds up, he’ll have his work cut out for him to earn his spot back. Yes, Waino has the pedigree and the history of excellence and the team can make a lot of bank on his retirement tour. And there will be other injuries to starters. But Wainwright also must perform to keep the assumed spot he holds. An 86 mph fastball from a healthy Wainwright isn’t going to cut it.

Can Wainwright do what he wants to do – hold off these youngsters and prove he belongs on the postseason roster for one last deep playoff run?

The most likely outcome for Wainwright is that these little, nagging injuries keep cropping up. Back spasms. Groin strain working out. A shortened stride from a fluke accident. That just sounds like any old Thursday for my 44-year-old self. Thankfully, Wainwright does more to keep himself in shape than writing about baseball on the internet. Still, it’s hard getting old.

Wainwright will likely have stretches where he feels good, can throw freely, hit his spots, and be himself. And he’ll have stretches where the ol’ body just doesn’t quite do what he wants it to do anymore.

That should cause some more of the up and down, here and there, good for a stretch, bad for the kind of inconsistency that we’ve seen since the middle of last year.

Still, between him and the kids, the team should be able to get overall average production from the fifth spot in their rotation. As I said at the beginning, he’ll be just fine. And so will the Cardinals.

Opening week is upon us. Look for a new podcast to post Wednesday morning in my normal writing slot. The writers and I will preview the upcoming season, offer some projections, and maybe take some questions from you all.

If you have any questions for us or things you would like us to talk about, let me know in the comments section!

Have a happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos!