With many new faces to St. Louis Cardinals baseball heading into the 2012 season, it’s rather easy to forget about the return of one of the top pitchers in the game, Adam Wainwright. Now that Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa have moved on, Waino automatically becomes the cornerstone of this proud franchise. That’s not to say that this wasn’t the case before, but now things are different. When you think Cards baseball, you will (or at least should) think Adam Wainwright. He is now the best player on this roster if you ask me. The Cardinals were able to capture the 11th World Series in franchise history despite the loss of their ace Adam Wainwright in spring training due to Tommy John Surgery, but don’t think for a second that this club won’t be thrilled to have him back next year. So with all of the uncertainty and all of the mixed expectations for the defending champs, what exactly can we expect from Adam Wainwright in 2012?
Wainwright, who underwent the infamous reconstructive elbow surgery back in February, is right on schedule with the typical 12-15 month recovery period. He has experienced no setbacks since the procedure and should be ready to go for opening day assuming that everything goes according to plan from here on out. Waino is currently one month into his offseason throwing program, which will have him throwing off a mound within a few weeks.
"Being ahead was the plan all along, and while I don’t think this has been the perfect rehab it has been pretty stinking close. They want me to test it. That ligament is stronger than the day I was born. It’s double tight. I think at some point you just have to let go of the reins and just pitch."
These days, Tommy John Surgery is hardly a rarity for Major League pitchers. In fact, it’s almost become routine for those with speed-based deliveries that place high levels of stress on the ulnar collateral ligament. The list of pitchers who have had the surgery is up over 50, and the chances of a complete recovery for athletes is right around 90%. Regardless of whether or not you choose to be fascinated by the medical advancements that make this whole process possible, it’s probably safe to assume that Wainwright will still be an effective big league starter when he returns. Will he resemble the perennial Cy Young candidate that we have come to know and love? That remains to be seen. But it’s highly likely that Adam will remain a formidable top-of-the-rotation starter at worst.
It can sometimes be tough to pinpoint the effect that Tommy John Surgery has on a pitcher when there are other factors at play. Guys naturally start to slow down as they age, so if the surgery occurs right in the middle of their career, it’s tough to judge how effective it was. While the procedure is effective in giving players the chance to pitch again, the results once they return to the mound have been mixed. At 30 years old, Waino is indeed in his prime. He has posted back-to-back exceptional seasons, but it could be asking a lot of him to continue that trend.
Let’s get to the numbers.
2009: 233 IP, 8.19 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, 5.7 WAR
2010: 230.1 IP, 8.32 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, 6.1 WAR
FanGraphs 2012 Projection: 209 IP, 7.49 K/9, 2.28 BB/9, 4.6 WAR
If there is a drop off in production for Waino, I would look for it to be in the statistical categories listed above. He is likely to pitch significantly less innings than he did in ’09 and ’10 simply because the Cards will manage his workload in an attempt to ease him back into form. If this guy is going to continue to be the team’s ace for the foreseeable future, it wouldn’t make sense to rush things. Not to mention, the Cards proved last season that their pitching staff is capable of holding their own with or without Wainwright. Spring training and simulated games can only mimic the experience of pitching in a live game to a certain extent, so don’t be surprised if it takes Adam some time to get into the flow of things. After all, he’ll be throwing with a reconstructed elbow.
Command could potentially be an issue as well, which would lead to a decrease in strikeouts per nine innings and an increase in walks per nine innings. This could be as much of a mental problem as it would be a physical one. Wainwright has said all the right things so far, but don’t think that he won’t have to repaired elbow in the back of his mind every time he takes the mound. It really takes a lot to be able to forget about the injury and avoid worrying about it every time you step out onto the mound.
For me, the takeaway from all of this is that it may take some time for Waino to be the Waino of old. As is the case with all major injuries in sports, patience is the key. I don’t doubt for a second that Adam will return to form and be the ace of the Cardinals’ staff for at least the next two years, but he may go through some struggles initially. Those struggles will most likely be temporary, but it is impossible to know for sure. As a fan, I think a 16 win season with 175 strikeouts, a 3.20 ERA, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 5.0 WAR is a reasonable expectation. Anything more should be considered a bonus. Let’s hope we’re all in for a pleasant surprise from Adam Wainwright in 2012.