Adam Wainwright, the St. Louis Cardinals' ace and arguably their most important player, has an elbow injury GM John Mozeliak called "signficant," according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Wainwright returned to St. Louis to have his right throwing elbow examined after an injury in a bullpen session this week.
Rumors are already swirling around Wainwright and whether or not the injury will necessitate surgery. If it does, and if Wainwright misses substantial time in 2011 because of that procedure, the Cardinals can kiss their shot at the NL Central title goodbye. But that is just the beginning of the implications here.
UPDATE: Multiple sources report that Tommy John surgery is likely. No official announcement confirms that yet.
If this is a season-ending injury, the Cardinals will have caught a perverse sort of break. The worst-case scenario is that Wainwright battles through the injury and struggles, or loses five months but returns in September. In that case, the Cardinals are on the hook for $21 million in 2012 and 2013. If he does not pitch, though, and is still on the disabled list at season's end, then the Cardinals can choose whether or not to retain him on a year-to-year basis, at salaries of $9 million in 2012 and $12 million in 2013.
Wainwright's contract commitments, or the lack thereof, might help St. Louis open the checkbook wider for Albert Pujols. Sure, St. Louis would prefer to have the dominant Wainwright around, but if his injuries prove to be serious and the team must minimize risk by cutting ties with Wainwright, then the Cardinals' budget is more flexible and keeping Pujols may be more feasible.
Then again, depending on Pujols' priorities, the Cardinals might need Wainwright in the fold in order to convince Pujols that the team will be competitively viable for the life of his deal. Perhaps the 2006 World Series was enough for Pujols, but if he maintains a strong focus on winning, the Cardinals need to prove they will be a winning club beyond 2011 or 2012. Wainwright is a true ace, one of the top five pitchers in the league, and without him, winning gets a lot tougher and a lot more expensive.
The Minnesota Twins have Wainwright lite in left-hander Francisco Liriano, who keeps the ball on the ground and has a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio. Liriano also has a humming fastball and one of the three nastiest sliders in baseball.
What he doesn't seem to have is the full faith of the organization. Minnesota reportedly is passively shopping Liriano. That is plainly foolish, but as long as Twins GM Bill Smith is being stupid, Mozeliak might as well make his best offer. Liriano could really soften the blow of losing Wainwright, and would help the team more easily make the smart move and cut ties with Chris Carpenter after the season.
It seems obvious that the Cardinals will need to replace Wainwright, and we know the Phillies have wanted to trade Joe Blanton ever since signing Cliff Lee. These two teams fit nicely together. For what it's worth, Blanton's biggest flaw as a pitcher is home run vulnerability, and the Cardinals' home park would certainly tone down that problem compared to the band box in Philadelphia where Blanton has so struggled the last two years.
Since the only remaining big-name free agent is Kevin Millwood, it's only natural that the rumors will rise about Millwood and the Cardinals. In fairness, it's true that Millwood (a pitcher with good control who needs to remember how to keep the ball on the ground) would probably thrive under the tutelage of Dave Duncan. Still, Millwood is 36 and his last really good season was 2006. This is not a good idea.
It should go without saying, but until an official announcement is made, assume Wainwright is off the board for 2011. Do not draft this guy. Let someone else do it, or don't do it at all. He'll probably get thrown back in almost every keeper league now, and in those cases, he could be a last-round pick-up, I guess. But in general, Wainwright should be tossed off your draft board.
Ryan Franklin saved 27 games for the Cards last season; only four were in Wainwright wins, which generally were blowouts or complete games. So the loss of Wainwright does not kill Franklin for fantasy, although Franklin is by no means a real option there anyway.