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Wainwright Injury Doesn’t Make Brewers Favorites

2/3rds of an inning and your job is done.  What a life.photo © 2005 Dave Herholz | more info (via: Wylio)
News broke on Wednesday that Adam Wainwright appears to need Tommy John surgery, and predictably, it seems as though many have already written the Cardinals off when it comes to the NL Central race. Is St. Louis really out of it without Wainwright, though? Is this division really now Milwaukee’s or Cincinnati’s to lose?

There’s no denying that Wainwright is a special pitcher. FanGraphs had him at 6.1 WAR last season, following a 2009 season during which he posted a WAR of 5.7. Before this injury, their “Fans” projection for the 2011 season had him actually getting better, coming in at 6.4 WAR. This is a huge loss for the Cardinals. But it’s not a crippling one.

They do still have two very good pitchers still in their rotation in Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia (although it should be mentioned that both also have an extensive injury history). Jake Westbrook is a solid #3 to have around — he’s probably not going to ever be the 4-ish WAR pitcher he was for the Indians from 2004-2006 again, but he did pitch well after being traded to the Cards last season. Kyle Lohse probably shouldn’t be counted on to do anything substantial this year, but he’s another guy who’s proven to be between 2.5 and 3 WAR in the past. If he’s healthy, maybe he can get back there again.

When the Brewers traded for Zack Greinke, I took a quick look at where they stacked up compared to some of the other top rotations in the National League. It was nothing scientific — I just added up the 2010 WAR values of expected starters — but even with a healthy Wainwright, the Brewers were just 0.3 WAR behind St. Louis. Without Wainwright’s 6.1 WAR from last year, their rotation drops below 10 WAR as a whole.

Even if the Cardinals can only replace Wainwright with someone pitching at replacement level (and some of the names being brought up to fill that spot would do just that), their rotation still looks to be every bit as good as Cincinnati’s.

In short, this injury complicates St. Louis’ plans of competing in the Central, but it doesn’t completely dash them. If anything, what this injury does is makes the top of the division even tighter. Considering a lot of the projection systems out there had the Cardinals finishing two or three games better than the Brewers and Reds before the injury, it probably does improve the odds for those two clubs.

But there’s also the possibility that it brings the Cubs within striking distance of the division race, too, especially if Matt Garza sees a bump in his production by moving to the NL like Greinke and Shaun Marcum. We could realistically have a four-team race for a playoff spot, which means a full season of meaningful games — does anyone honestly think this division will be decided before the final week right now?

We should take this opportunity to remember that we can plan and project all we want, but we never really know when something big like this could happen. The Brewers had their own M*A*S*H unit to worry about on Wednesday, with Jonathan Lucroy breaking his right pinky finger, Mark Rogers being shut down with shoulder soreness, and Mat Gamel re-aggravating his old oblique injury. For all we know, Ryan Braun’s ribcage or elbow problems could flare up, Rickie Weeks could get hurt being hit by a pitch once games start, or Corey Hart could be hurt in a tragic tattoo accident. No team is immune to injuries, and the Brewers don’t have the depth of some other teams in the division. It does sound cliche, but there’s a reason why they play 162 regular season games.