Adam Wainwright Key to St. Louis Cardinals in Post-Albert Pujols Era

Steven ConklinCorrespondent IIFebruary 13, 2012

CHICAGO - SEPTEMBER 24: Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches his way to his 20th win of the season against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 24, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 7-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

How often does a team win the World Series and then get to say it finally gets its ace back the following year?

Not often. But I'm willing to bet the St. Louis Cardinals are ecstatic for the opportunity. 

Adam Wainwright is arguably the team's biggest question mark heading into spring training. The dreaded Tommy John surgery is no joking matter, and while Wainwright has progressed quickly, there is no denying that Cardinal nation is nervous about his return. 

With the likes of Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia returning to St. Louis for another campaign, there would normally be some breathing room for Wainwright as he tries to regain his dominant form. 

But that's out the window. 

The loss of Albert Pujols could potentially leave the offense anemic in St. Louis, and if that is the case the Cardinals will need the 30-year-old hurler to come back and pick up where he left off: making opposing lineups miserable and keeping as many runs off of the board as possible. 

In 2011, St. Louis finished the season fifth in runs scored (762). How hard will they fall without the future hall-of-famer Pujols? Less offense means a bigger burden on the Cardinals' pitching staff and no one will have a larger impact on the staff than Wainwright.

This makes Wainwright the key in the new Cardinals era, an era without the faces of their organization. 

Here's good news for St. Louis: its track record of getting pitchers back from Tommy John surgery is a great one. 

Carpenter underwent the surgery in 2007. Since, Carpenter has a record of 44-23 and has remained one of the National League's finest pitchers. 

The emerging Garcia has also needed elbow work. In 2008, Garcia had the surgery while in the minors. It is no secret Garcia has come into the majors as one of the league's best-kept secrets after having the surgery.

Wainwright's surgery was performed by George Paletta, the same physician who credited with successful surgeries on both Garcia and Carpenter. 

If that doesn't bring a sense of relief to Cardinals fans, what would?

The St. Louis Cardinals should be the pick to win the division if Wainwright comes back in full form and pitches well. With weakened lineups in the Central division, the Cardinals pitching staff shouldn't have much trouble, including No. 50.

I truly believe the Cardinals' season will go one of two ways.

Wainwright comes back and pitches like he did before his elbow surgery. The Cardinals then have one of the most dynamic rotations in the league, led by him, Carpenter and Garcia. St. Louis would probably have the best chance at winning the Central, something the team hasn't done since 2009. 

Of course, there is the possibility Wainwright for some reason has more elbow trouble or performs poorly. Carpenter must carry the burden of being the team's ace, which he did not handle incredibly well in 2011, going just 11-9 and posting his highest ERA since 2004.  

Wainwright is the key for Cardinal success in 2012. If the Cardinals want any chance at defending their World Series title, they better hope he comes back as the Wainwright of the past. 

Steven Conklin is a contributing writer for the Bleacher Report and a student at the University of Central Missouri. He joined B/R in October 2011 and is currently a B/R intern. 
Any comments, questions or suggestions are more than welcome.