St. Louis Cardinals: Lance Lynn Faces Tall Tasks in Return from Tommy John Surgery

Feb 17, 2017; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn (31) throws during spring training drills at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 17, 2017; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn (31) throws during spring training drills at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals have had five pitchers miss time to Tommy John surgery over the past decade, but one of these hurlers is likely to crack the 2017 starting rotation.

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn, who underwent Tommy John surgery in November 2015, has been a pleasant surprise early into Spring Training. In three spring starts, Lynn has compiled a 2.00 ERA and four strikeouts over nine innings, while reaching up to 95 mph with his primary pitch, the four-seam fastball.

But times have changed since Lynn was last part of the Cardinals’ rotation. Veterans John Lackey and Jaime Garcia have found new homes. Top pitching prospect Alex Reyes has also been shelved with Tommy John surgery. And the torch for the team’s ace has gradually switched from Adam Wainwright to Carlos Martinez.

These sudden transitions make Lynn’s role even larger for Cardinals this upcoming season, one where he is expected to re-join Martinez, Wainwright, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha in the rotation. Given Lynn’s track record of consistency and results from recent Tommy John returns, the Cardinals should temper expectations for the 29 year-old similar to other seasons.

Prior to surgery, Lynn proved vital for helping St. Louis reach the postseason in each of his first five campaigns. Since making his Major League debut in 2011, Lynn has logged the most innings of any Cardinals pitcher other than Adam Wainwright and has only spent time on the disabled list last season.

Additionally, the former first-round draft pick finished with 160 strikeouts and a sub-4.00 earned run average between 2012 and 2015. Not to mention, he is one of only two Cardinals pitchers in 21st century with four straight seasons of at least 10 wins; Wainwright and  Matt Morris are the other two.

One indicator of Lynn’s success for the upcoming season will be pitch efficiency. His first-pitch strike percentage finished at a career-low 56.5 percent in 2015, and he led 2015 National League qualifiers in pitches-per-inning with 17.4. Both are facets of Lynn’s game that could notably use improvement to limit additional pitching stress in his first year back following surgery.

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These were similar concerns when Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright returned from their most recent procedures.

Carpenter faced more than 900 batters on average in his first three full seasons back from his second surgery, throwing more pitches than anyone but Justin Verlander in 2011. Wainwright noticed slight regression in his curveball velocity upon return in 2012, leading up to walk totals that have increased in three of his last four full seasons.

Regardless how similar Lynn’s return may prove to this duo, he may need time to redevelop strengths in his split situations. A 27-18  record against division opponents and a 2.82 career ERA at Busch Stadium could be hard to replicate until Lynn gets frequent exposure in such opportunities once again.

While Lynn’s recovery may have lasted slightly longer than recommended 12-14 months, Lynn’s return presents a high-risk, high-reward case. A dozen wins, 160 strikeouts and an ERA below 3.50 seem realistic for 2017, but these benchmarks are far from a guarantee.

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Lance Lynn could potentially become a free agent after this season, so his initial returns following a season-long break from action could determine if he fits into St. Louis’s plans deeper into the future.