Contingency Plan 2011

Upon hearing the news of Adam Wainwright’s season-ending elbow injury, Cardinals Nation let out a collective sigh so loud that it drown out all subsequent news reports on the topic.   Which might have been a good thing since many of them suggest that this injury will seal the Cardinals fate for 2011.

Not so fast…….

Timing is Everything

And this applies to Nick Punto as well.   While there is never a good time for an injury, the first week of spring training is about as good as you can hope for.   The coaches and scouts will have to execute on their contingency plans and the extra reps that some of the young players get will go a long way in determining who will fill the void on the roster.

Imagine how much more difficult this would be if Wainwright (or Punto) were injured in June or July.  When Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse went down in May 2010, help was a long way away, and it cost us a Gold Glove caliber right fielder.

In the case of Nick Punto’s injury, Tony La Russa has an excellent opportunity to observe Tyler Greene, Allen Craig and Daniel Descalso.  We know Decalso and Greene can play defense, but can they hit major league pitching ?  We now have three or four weeks to find out.  As for Craig, hitting isn’t the question.  It’s his glove.   Lots of late inning time over at the hot corner will go a long way to determining whether or not he’s right person to play backup to David Freese until Punto’s return in ……… well, whenever he returns.

Let’s not sugar coat the loss of Adam Wainwright.   It is huge.  Out of the 25 players on my projected opening day active roster, he was the player the Cardinals could least afford to lose to an injury.  This is not 1967 (Bob Gibson’s broken leg) or 1987 (John Tudor’s broken leg) because Wainwright is not coming back in 2011.  There will be no cavalry coming, no herculean feats until the big guns return.  Whatever plans goes into effect have to last the entire season – they must be realistic and durable.

Let’ s not kid ourselves – it will be impossible to replace 230 innings of 2.5 runs per game pitching.  On the other hand, there are a lot of ways to win a baseball game, and the loss of Wainwright means we will just have one less way to do it.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Tony La Russa has enough offense to run out there on a daily basis to match up to just about any team, over a long season.  That’s not where the Cardinals are most vulnerable.  In a short playoff series – absolutely, but let’s get there before worrying about post-season matchups.

Wait – there is a plan

Rest assured Cardinals fans, there is a contingency plan.  No $488M (courtesy business operates without adequate risk management and contingency planning.   When Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia were shut down in September 2010, the computers started their Monte Carlo simulations, hoping to predict what would happen in the spring.  While the details are probably a closely guarded secret, some of idea of what they look like can be derived from the moves that the team made (and didn’t make) during the off-season.

Ian Snell seemed an odd signing until yesterday.  In five full major league seasons, he’s only turned in one winning record (14-11 in 2006) and most of his metrics are turning for the worse, he also has yet to spend any time with Dave Duncan.  If there ever was a season for Duncan to work his magic, 2011 would appear to be it.

But Snell is not the contingency.   It could  should has to be one of these

Kyle McClellan (7-15,3.23 ERA,218 IP, WHIP 1.268, 7 K/9IP, 2.0 K/BB) – already on a starters program, as he was last year.  He has all 4 pitches, but his breaking ball will need to improve if he wants to be effective multiple times through the batting order.  I still like McClellan as the shutdown guy out of the bullpen.

Mitchell Boggs (7-8, 4.63 ERA, 159 IP, 1.6 WHIP, 6.3K/IP, 1.35 K/BB ratio).   It cannot be understated how well Mitchell Boggs has responded since moving to the bullpen in 2009.   All of his key pitching metrics are trending in the right direction, and he has transformed himself from a struggling starter into a lethal weapon in late innings.   To undo his 2010 progress would be foolish.   With a Wainwright-less starting rotation, we are going be calling on Mr. Boggs even more frequently.

Lance Lynn (25-15, 3.66 ERA, 339 IP, WHIP 1.317, 7.8 K/9IP, 2.35 K/BB – all minor leagues) – Lynn is an intriguing young hurler and may be the Jaime Garcia of 2011.  Lynn was impressive last spring and in the two times I saw him pitch, he was lights out.   He struggled with consistency last season, but in his final game he struck out 16 batters in just 7 innings.   If there is a surprise in Jupiter, Florida, it may well be Lance Lynn.  Mr. Lynn – please read your Cardinals history and start channeling Dick Hughes.  May your new 4 seamer be to you what the slider was to Mr. Hughes.

Adam Ottavino (31-35, 4.14 ERA, 516 IP, 1.433 WHIP, 7.9 K/9IP, 1.87 K/BB ratio – all minor leagues) – It is hard to believe that Ottavino is only 25 years old because we have been hearing his name since he was drafted in 2006.   What’s not to like about a 6ft 5in hard throwing right hander ?  For one, continued struggles above high A ball.  If we need another, arm troubles last season that  ended his season before anybody could get a real read on the young man.   He will have to pitch like a future ace to be noticed this spring.

Brandon Dickson (41-35, 3.70 ERA, 615 IP, 1.412 WHIP, 6.4 K/9IP, 2.14 K/BB ratio – all minor leagues) – Brandon Dickson has been successful at all levels in the minor leagues and may develop into a fine major league pitcher.  The few times I’ve seen him, he reminds me of Woody Williams – doesn’t throw real hard but when he keeps the ball down he is very effective.  One thing I do like about Dickson is that he keeps the ball in the ballpark.  He would be a long shot for 2011, but this is a young man to watch for a future back-of-the-rotation innings eater.   Looking at the newspapers on March 31 and finding Dickson’s name among the Cardinals starters would not be the worst thing that could happen.

PJ Walters (40-28, 3.81 ERA, 570 IP, 1.294 WHIP, 8.7 K/9IP, 2.97 K/BB ratio).   There is a lot to like about PJ Walters, both professionally as well as personally.  A year removed from his personal tragedy, perhaps this will be the year he makes the big club, and stays all season.   I remember when Danny Cox broke into the major leagues, and PJ looks a lot like him.   At age 25 (Walters will turn 26 in a few weeks), Cox went 18-9 in a rotation that pitched themselves right to Game Seven of the World Series.  Cox didn’t throw real hard either, but was able to keep the ball down.  If Walters can do that, with the control that he has shown throughout his minor league career, he might be the 5th starter in 2011.

Raul Valdes and Brian Tallett – both would have to be considered longshots.  Tallett is the new Dennys Reyes and Valdes will be the LOOGY for the Memphis Redbirds.    If we see Valdes wearing a St. Louis uniform in 2011, there are big problems.   If we see Valdes pitching to a right handed batter, we should probably be looking for an exorcist.

There will be lots of talk about finding a pitcher from outside the organization.   The name Mark Beuhrle will rise to the top of Mt. Rumormill, but the White Sox will be asking far too much for what Buehrle would bring to the Cardinals (essentially a left handed Jake Westbrook)  – a deal will not happen here.  We have no more Ryan Ludwick’s to spare.   And before anybody asks about Colby Rasmus, we are going to need all of the offense that young man is capable of generating to win the NL Central.   Adam Wainwright’s injury has just made Rasmus an untouchable, and that will make a lot of fans very happy.

Other Contingencies

Lance Berkman may be the most important off-season deal the Cardinals made.   No, not because I look forward to his defensive skills in right field.   What he can do is spell Albert Pujols at first base on get-away day and not decimate the entire lineup.   The Cardinals will give up far less offense in 2011 with Berkman playing first and Jon Jay (or Allen Craig) in right field than they did in similar situations in 2010 – not that there were all that many games where El Hombre sat it out.

Gerald Laird was a brilliant acquisition, and will prove his value many times in 2011.   While his offensive numbers aren’t exactly stellar, they are at least as good as Jason LaRue, Gary Bennett or Einar Diaz – Yadier Molina’s backups since taking over full time catching duties.  What Laird brings to the game is a cannon of an arm – maybe not quite Molina-ish, but certainly better than most (career 38% caught stealing).   Thanks to Laird’s defensive skills and age, Molina will get more time off, perhaps even spelling Albert Pujols at first base if his bat has returned to it’s 2009 form.   That will go a long way in keeping Molina fresh for a late divisional race.

The Cardinals depth at third base is still a concern, but there are enough pieces to cover the holes far more effectively this season than they did in 2010.   Will it be enough ?  I think so, but let’s talk again at the trade deadline in July.

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