JUPITER, Fla. -- Every year it seems, the Cardinals lose a star, a legend or an icon -- sometimes for the year, and sometimes for good.
So if any team can absorb the sudden loss of perennial October hero Chris Carpenter, it is St. Louis. Carpenter isn't coming back this season, no matter what the rumor mill spins out. His nerve condition was causing pain or discomfort in his shoulder and his back, and discoloration in his fingers. Retirement seems more realistic than return.
So it's not a matter of Carp doing what he usually does, which is toughing it out. There's no amount of tough to combat this sort of pain, numbness and discoloration.
"We just want him to be happy. We don't want him to walk around with a numb arm the rest of his life," said Adam Wainwright, who will be counted on to be the ace in the absence of both Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, the real 2012 ace who's still job seeking though perhaps not on the Cardinals' immediate radar.
Wainwright's comments epitomize the Cardinals way in recent years. Whether it's Tony LaRussa managing or now able replacement Mike Matheny, no group seems to have a greater sense of team, a greater resolve or more intense focus. They come together, time and again.
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Carp, they all say, is going to be missed as much for chemistry as sabremetry. Around here, cohesion counts.
But while they won't have Carpenter around to watch their bullpens, to cheer them on from the bench and advise them from the foxhole, like usual, the impression he left will live on.
"He left his mark," Matt Holliday said. "Now it's our job to continue to carry it on."
Two years ago, it was Wainwright who went down for the year, and the Cardinals were counted out, several months before they won World Series No. 11. Last year, it was a trio of legends who left -- Albert Pujols, La Russa and Dave Duncan. Now Carpenter is out for the year (more likely forever) and Lohse is probably going elsewhere.
Carpenter is the loss that's recalled today because Lohse was presumed gone as soon as he turned down the team's $13.3 million qualifying offer. Carpenter was assumed back, especially after his first several Busch stadium workouts with young fireballer Trevor Rosenthal went without a hitch. Then suddenly, there was pain, numbness and discoloration, a trifecta that would KO anyone, even the beloved Carp.
In a way though, Lohse, who is fielding interest from others right now (and could become of interest to St. Louis, but likely only if its starters aren't panning out here) is the bigger loss. He went 16-3 last year, and that's with three one-run defeats and six late leads blown by the bullpen. He was more the man than even the vaunted Carpenter in 2012. "Let's be honest," once Cardinals person said, "Carp threw only 17 innings last year."
Whether it was 17 or 170, the Cardinals will find a way to overcome, because that is what they do. Which brings us to the big question: How do they do it? And more, to the point, can they do it again?
The easy answer is: Why not?
Seeing as how they endured the loss of Wainwright for a season to the win the 2011 World Series, the retirements/defection of La Russa, Duncan and Pujols plus the loss of Carpenter (for all but 17 innings plus postseason) to make it within one game of the World Series in 2012, who's to say they can't make it without Carpenter and Lohse (plus Lance Berkman, the '11 hero who recovered and is with his home-state Rangers)?
Here are six reasons the Cardinals are playoff contenders yet again:
- Their lineup is AL-caliber once again. Allen Craig, Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and David Freese form one of the deepest batting orders in the game. Plus, the little guys can hit, too. Veteran shortstop Rafael Furcal, assuming he's back to health (he says he is), improving Jon Jay and second-base hopefuls Daniel Descalso and Matt Carpenter (especially Carpenter) are all threats , too. "One through eight, we offer tough outs," Holliday said.
- Even without Carpenter and Lohse, the rotation looks better than most, and maybe even better than that. Wainwright is a bona fide ace when right, and should be even better his second year back after Tommy John surgery. Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia provide viable alternatives for the middle of the rotation, though with Garcia comes the obvious question of the health of his shoulder after he was shut down last October, along with some ultra-fastidiousness that can worry the bosses, too.
- Between Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller, they have not one or even two but three top pitching prospects who could more than adequately replace Carpenter, at least in terms of numbers. "We're going to miss Carp. But I think all three can do it," Molina said. All three are upper-90s throwers, and Rosenthal hits 100 with ease. "The nation got to see what they could do. Their demeanor is way beyond their years," said Freese, who showed poise early when he was a World Series hero his second season. All three bring reason to believe their time is now. Kelly impressed in 16 starts for the Cards last year, Rosenthal wowed them out of the 'pen and Miller, with a superb repertoire, is maybe one of the top two or three pitching prospects in the game. This trio is the envy of just about every other team. "Good young pitchers in this game, it's like gold," Holliday said.
- Molina is one of the best players in the game. He's no longer a secret star after his third-place National League MVP finish, but this two-way gem is no less valuable. The worth of the best defensive catcher in the game who also is a .315 hitter (with .874 OPS) is close to incalculable. "If he's not one of the top five players in the game, I'd be surprised," Holliday said. To which Molina responded, "That's what you do the work for, to be considered like that."
- Their depth is perhaps better than ever. If Furcal can't make it, Pete Kozma, who helped get the Cardinals into the NLCS last season and "opened eyes" in the words of GM John Mozeliak, plus Ronny Cedeno provide two more options. Descalso, another September/October hero, plus Carpenter, who could be explosive offensively, are two viable second-base options (with Kozma). Ty Wigginton is a nice bat off the bench while Kolten Wong, Ryan Jackson and power hitting Matt Adams provide further infield depth. They did lose a bit of veteran leadership with Berkman and Skip Schumaker gone to the Rangers and Dodgers.
- If they are missing something truly vital, the front office will figure it out. Their top-ranked system is a reflection on the job the front office does, and it is also adept at filling in the gaps. Mozeliak, who just received a well-deserved extension, added to the depth by acquiring the type of help one doesn't normally get from the farm, namely a veteran bench hitter (Wigginton), a lefthanded reliever (Randy Choate, who held lefty hitters to a .405 OPS last season) and the versatile Cedeno. In mid-2011, the initially much-criticized trade of Colby Rasmus for relievers was a key to the championship. "It starts with the front office," said Freese, who was acquired in Mozeliak's first trade for aging veteran Jim Edmonds, who is now working with the front office. "The Cardinals' front office is top notch. Our organization speaks for itself."
With the Cardinals, their play is the thing, not their words.
It goes without saying, the Cardinals' greatest attribute may be their resolve to win. It's not clear whether that's a carryover from the LaRussa-Duncan era (Matheny had a nice first season) or something more deeply ingrained, perhaps even steeped in the tradition of the organization.
Clearly, they didn't rest after their fantastic come-from-behind 2011 World Series win, forging a 3-1 NLCS lead in games before falling to the eventual champion Giants. Most of them seemed to spend the winter not luxuriating in another success story but rather thinking about what might have been. Freese ultimately concluded the Giants simply deserved the ring. Speaking of the trio of gems spun by Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain, Freese said, "I haven't seen three games pitched like that in a row, especially in a high-pressure situation."
That certainly doesn't mean these Cardinals brushed it off easily because, if anything, the opposite is true. They take defeats personally. Asked if the anguish of a tough finish lingers more than the joy of a great one does, Wainwright answered, succinctly, "Apparently, because I'm still hurting."
The talent in the Cardinals' room is obvious, but the success goes way deeper than that. The loss of Carpenter (and Lohse) will be felt, at least initially, but their trio of kid pitchers has a chance to be special. If it is, don't be shocked if they win a 12th World Series title. Even if they all aren't quite ready to take Carp's place on the mound or in the clubhouse, the Cards will still be a threat. You know they will.