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Max Scherzer, David Price, Cole Hamels, and the St. Louis Cardinals innings gap

The Cardinals already face an innings-pitched gap in 2015. What happens if one of the workhorses they're counting on goes down?

What if Adam Wainwright's elbow health prevents him from throwing 200 innings in 2015?
What if Adam Wainwright's elbow health prevents him from throwing 200 innings in 2015?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Entering a second consecutive season, the St. Louis Cardinals face an innings-pitched gap in their starting rotation, one that is both conceptual and real. This is likely the driving force behind the Cardinals' reported interest in innings-eating starters Max Scherzer, David Price, and Cole Hamels. It also doesn't hurt that all three pitchers have ace-caliber stuff and are elite run preventers to boot.

Last offseason, you'll recall that the Cardinals' weakest link was shortstop. Many thought they would trade from their stockpile of young starting pitching to acquire a shortstop. But general manager John Mozeliak surveyed the shortstop trade market, found the asking prices too steep for his liking, and opted instead to sign veteran free agent Jhonny Peralta. The ripple effects of this decision are still being felt.

It's difficult to imagine the Cardinals winning the Central in 2014 without Peralta, who put together one of the best all-around seasons in all of baseball. (It's hard to believe Peralta didn't place higher than 14th in the M.V.P. voting until one reminds oneself of the pool of people who votes for the award.) But the Cardinals' copious amounts of young pitching wasn't enough to overcome the injury bug. Joe Kelly, who started the season as the club's fifth starter, made just three starts before landing on the disabled list with a torn hamstring that caused him to miss 78 games or about 17 starts. The injury bug next bit lefty Jaime Garcia and 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha. Garcia's season ended on June after 43 2/3 innings thrown; Wacha's interrupted by by a 68-game DL stint.

The wounded rotation required reinforcements at the non-waiver trade deadline. Mozeliak added veteran workhorse John Lackey in exchange for Kelly (and Allen Craig) as well as sinkerballer Justin Masterson, who was actually on the DL at the time of the trade and was activated to make his Cardinals debut. The Masterson trade was a failed bet, while Lackey provided fewer innings than hoped thanks to a case of the dead arm.

As Craig analyzed earlier this winter, the 2014 Cardinals could serve as Exhibit A in proving the illusion of the five-man starting rotation. The Cards had 12 pitchers make a start last year. Four made 30 or more as Cardinals: Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, and Shelby Miller. (Lackey, of course, made the majority of his starts for Boston, but nonetheless shouldered a sizable load overall.) In November, Mozeliak traded Miller, who started 31 games and tallied 183 innings in 2014, to the Braves and Wainwright, who totaled 227 IP over 31 starts last year, underwent surgery to shave cartilage off a battle-wary elbow that caused him to miss a start in June and caused him problems throughout the season and playoffs.

If the Cardinals rotaiton as currently projected stays healthy, they project to be quite good. But that's a big if. Injuries will happen. Making the likelihood of an injury-free 2015 for the rotation all the less likely are Wainwright and Wacha. Wainwright has a history of throwing elbow issues and has been leaned on heavily by Matheny during the manager's first three seasons. Wacha has a rare shoulder condition only ever before documented in fellow starter Brandon McCarthy, who only reached the 200-IP threshold for the first time last year in his nine years as a big-leaguer.

There's a strong case to be made that the Cardinals' rotation right now is a bigger question mark than it was entering 2014. The following graphic is a look backward and forward at the six potential starters' innings totals. I chose seven because of the announced fifth-starter competition between Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales. I've also included McCarthy as a comparison point for Wacha. The 2015 IP number is an average of the pitchers' respective ZiPS and Steamer projections, both of which are publicly available at Fangraphs. The IP totals for years past were calculated adding together regular season IP totals from the NCAA (from Baseball Cube), minors, and majors (via Fangraphs).

Remember that the Steamer and ZiPS projections are both the mean projection for each player, so an average of the two is no different. Past injuries pull a pitcher's projected IP total down. That's why a pitcher who has missed time due to injury is typically projected to throw an IP total that is in between his prior career high IP, his prior career low IP, and the league-average IP total. For example, Wainwright is forecast to total 188 IP in 2015 despite throwing 227 or more in each of the two most recent seasons. That's why I included past seasons' IP totals for individual pitchers—they give us an idea of the worst-case scenario the Cards face. The risk of injury is baked into a projection, but not necessarily representative of how an injury will impact a pitcher's innings total in reality. Sure, Wacha could toss 137 innings before hitting the DL, but there's also the distinct possibility that he could throw 100 or so, like he did in 2014, before his shoulder acts up again. Even worse, there's the possibility that an injury could strike sooner than that, a la Garcia last year. For Wainwright in 2011, the innings total was zero due to UCL replacement surgery.

Looking at the five pitchers currently most likely to break camp in the St. Louis starting rotation, we get a less than heartening IP total. Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey, Wacha, and Martinez project to give the Cards 845 innings in 2015. Here's how many innings Cardinals starters have tossed in each of the three years Matheny has managed the team (with their ranking among the NL in parentheses):

  • 2012, 989 1/3 (4th)
  • 2013, 984 1/3 (3rd)
  • 2014, 969 1/3 (10th)

The Cardinals' current starting five project to be well below even their 10th-place 2014 finish. They're 124 1/3 innings short, to be exact. That's essentially a sixth starter's worth of innings.

To be sure it's easy to put on our rose-colored glasses and pick away at the projected IP totals. If healthy Wainwright, will probably throw over 220 innings, even with Mozeliak conceding that the Cards need to be proactive about getting their $19.5 million ace rest in 2015 and beyond. There's at least 30 innings. If healthy, Lynn seems a good bet to surpass 193 innings. There's ten more innings or so. Lackey's projection feels about right, though it's easy to see him coming closer to 200 IP than 180. Add 15 to the total. That shrinks the innings gap to about 70.

But, even viewing 2015 in the hue of rose, Wacha and Martinez are crapshoots. Wacha's projected 137 IP seems like a great over/under number. It's hard to imagine Martinez totaling more than 150—which is fine for a No. 5 starter, but worrisome if Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey, or Wacha hit the DL. That could realistically give back the 55 IP we added by nudging upward the projections for Wainwright, Lynn, and Lackey.

Now let's put on our glasses that are colored in the black of doom. What if one or more of the Cardinals' workhorses hit the DL? St. Louis will have to turn to Gonzales, Tyler Lyons, or Tim Cooney. Those aren't bad options at all; they're probably above-replacement-level replacements. But they aren't above-average let alone elite arms. Replacing 100 innings of Waino with 100 innings of Gonzales probably prevents the Cardinals from winning the division. Never mind if they have to fill a fair amount of the innings they were counting on from Wainwright and Wacha with a replacement. In other words, the Cards are one Wainwright injury a way from dropping out of the division race and two injuries away from probably falling out of the postseason picture altogether. All rotations have risk, but few are as reliant on a pitcher who underwent elbow surgery in the offseason (his second procedure on the joint in three years) and another with a shoulder condition so rare that he is one of two major-leaguers to be so diagnosed.

That's why it makes sense that the Cardinals are exploring trades for Price and Hamels while also remaining engaged in the Scherzer sweepstakes. As the Jason Heyward trade made clear, the Cardinals are geared to win now. Losing Wainwright and Wacha (or Lynn or Lackey) for a significant chunk of time would be difficult to overcome, but considerably easier with another ace-caliber innings-eater already on the staff. It's understandable that Mozeliak still wants to add not just to the rotation's quantity of innings, but quality.