[Editor's Note: This is Nick's first article with us. Welcome him aboard!]
On Saturday, the Cardinals suffered a crushing blow when their ace Adam Wainwright injured his Achilles coming out of the batter's box, likely ending his season. Wainwright, who has finished in the top three in the NL Cy Young Award four times, including each of the last two seasons, is without a doubt one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball. Since 2012, Wainwright is fourth among pitchers in fWAR (16.4) and innings pitched (692 1/3) during the regular season. Including the postseason, he has thrown more innings than any other starter over that span, with 758 1/3. Not surprisingly, any attempt to replace Adam Wainwright's level of performance will almost certainly fall short.
With that being said, I think that the Cardinals are one of the few teams capable of overcoming such a devastating loss in their rotation. Looking at Wainwright's rest of season ZiPS projection, we can get a good idea of the level of performance the Cardinals will try to replace.
While the Cardinals are unlikely to get 27 starts of this caliber from their replacement options, perhaps they could piece together Wainwright's 4 WAR total through a combination of solid performances from the pitchers that take Wainwright's spot and improvements from some of the other pitchers already in the rotation.
The Cardinals already have enviable rotation depth, with five pitchers projected to be sufficiently above replacement level, based on their preseason ZiPS projections.
While it is unlikely that each of these pitchers throws the number of innings listed here, these projections give us an idea of what to expect from these pitchers if they were to fill a spot in the Cardinals' rotation. Unfortunately, two of these five pitchers are currently on the DL. Jaime Garcia, who nearly beat Carlos Martinez for the team's final rotation spot before succumbing to shoulder soreness, is out until at least late May. Given his recent injury history, it is difficult to expect much of anything from Garcia.
Marco Gonzales, who probably would have been the first pitcher called up in the event of a starting pitcher injury, is on the Triple-A DL with shoulder tightness. The injury appears to be minor, though, as Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says the team is simply being "overly cautious" with one of their top pitching prospects. While Gonzales won't be the first pitcher to get an opportunity to take Wainwright's spot, he will probably get a chance when he comes off the DL, and if he sticks in the rotation, he could certainly match or even exceed his projected innings total of 108 1/3.
For the sake of this article, let's say that Gonzales matches his projection and gives the Cardinals 18 starts. Based on Wainwright's projection listed above, the Cardinals would still need to find nine starts from other players. To keep things simple, let's assume these ten starts come from Tyler Lyons, who may be getting called up to take Wainwright's spot in the short-term. Based on his ZiPS projections, Lyons would be expected to be worth 0.5 WAR over ten starts. Combined, Gonzales' 18 starts and Lyons' ten starts would be expected to be worth 1.8 WAR. This seems to match Dan Szymborski's projected loss of 2.1 wins as a result of the Wainwright injury. (Update: The Cardinals have actually decided to call up Tim Cooney instead of Tyler Lyons. These two pitchers have very similar projections, so the estimates provided here should still be pretty close.)
The Cardinals could further reduce this loss if one or more of their current starters stepped up and exceeded their preseason projections. The most obvious candidate to do this is Michael Wacha, whose preseason ZiPS projections are shown below.
His projection pegged him at 129 1/3 innings for the season, likely tempering expectations due to the time he missed last year with a shoulder injury. So far, Wacha has been both healthy and effective, and if he stays that way for the rest of the season, he should comfortably outperform his projection, at least in terms of total innings. While the Cardinals will certainly be cautious with Wacha and try to limit his innings, it wouldn't be unusual to see him give the team 180 innings if he stays healthy. In 2013, he pitched 180 1/3 innings (including minor leagues and postseason), so there is a precedent for this.
If we adjust Wacha's innings total up to 180, he would be expected to produce an additional 0.8 WAR for the Cardinals, assuming his effectiveness doesn't decline significantly with an increased innings load. This does not mean that Wacha has to evolve into being an ace-level pitcher in 2015. As my fellow Viva el Birdos writer Joe Schwarz recently wrote, expecting greatness from Wacha in 2015 might be a little unrealistic. The far more likely scenario is that Wacha keeps pitching like a good mid-rotation starter and exceeds his projection by staying healthy and eating innings. While having Wacha healthy for the rest of the season is far from a guarantee, the Cardinals may need a little luck in avoiding injuries if they're going to overcome the loss of Wainwright.
Overall, the result of Gonzales/Lyons filling in for Wainwright and Wacha increasing his innings projection is an additional 2.6 wins, which reduces Wainwright's injury to a 1.4 win loss. We could probably even take this a step further, depending on whether we think Carlos Martinez' stellar first three starts are indications of a breakout season.
My point is that the Cardinals are not in a super desperate situation, despite the fact that they just lost their best pitcher for the rest of the season. They may not get the 4 WAR Wainwright was projected to give them for the rest of the 2015 season, but it's not hard to imagine them recouping 2-3 WAR from the contributions of other pitchers.
Perhaps the bigger concern is the effect losing Wainwright's innings could have on the bullpen. By my calculations, the Gonzales/Lyons fill-in combination would only be projected for about 160 innings, which is 24 short of Wainwright's rest of season total. Some have already questioned whether the Cardinals' reliever usage pace is sustainable, so this may be an area to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals are still projected to win their division (though by a much smaller margin). If need be, the Cardinals could strengthen their position as division favorites by acquiring another starting pitcher at the trade deadline, but for now, there's no need for them to panic. There probably aren't too many teams that can honestly say that after losing a pitcher like Adam Wainwright.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.