ST. LOUIS -- It's the kind of rotation you can dream of. It's also the kind of rotation that a nervous person might worry a little bit about.
When the Cardinals report to Spring Training, they'll do so with their starting five settled. Five starters know they have jobs. All five of those starters can pitch at a high level and help a team to the postseason. And nearly every one of those five starters comes with some sort of question mark attached.
Chris Carpenter is a former National League Cy Young Award winner who will be 37 in April and pitched a career-high 273 1/3 innings between the regular season and the playoffs in 2011. Adam Wainwright is a two-time Cy Young Award contender who is recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.
The organization thought highly enough of Jaime Garcia to commit to a new four-year contract last summer, but Garcia saw his ERA skyrocket in the second half of 2011. Kyle Lohse led the staff in wins and ERA, but lost the two previous seasons to injury and injury-related ineffectiveness. And Jake Westbrook, a former All-Star, is coming off the least effective full season of his career.
At their best, they can be world-beaters. If they're less than their best, it could be a challenging season.
They'll have to fare without their long-time sensei, Dave Duncan. The Cardinals' pitching coach stepped aside to help his wife, Jeanine, recover from brain surgery. He's handing over the reins to Derek Lilliquist, who was the bullpen coach in 2011. Dyar Miller takes over Lilliquist's old job.
Going without Duncan won't be easy. There's plenty of confidence, but it's still an unknown how things will go without him.
"He has instilled so many things in a lot of us that I'm not sure we'll ever forget," Carpenter said. "We know what we're doing. We know what his philosophies are. We know what we have to do to be successful. That said, Lilli has been around Dunc forever, too. Lilli knows what's going on, also. Lilli knows what Dunc's philosophies are and how to go about things."
Among the pitchers, there's no greater variable than Wainwright. Over four years as a starter, he established himself as one of the game's best. Then his elbow gave out on him last spring. Twelve months after the surgery, he'll start throwing in Grapefruit League games.
If he's the same pitcher that opposing hitters got sick of seeing, he's an ace. If he's not right, it's a concern. The truth will likely be somewhere in between in 2012. Wainwright likely won't suddenly return to '10 form without some fits and starts.
"We'll have to wait and see," Wainwright said. "I'm going to feel fresh and ready to go, and they're probably going to pull the reins on me a little bit at the beginning. If I'm throwing low-impact innings, then you can go a lot longer than if you're out there grinding."
Carpenter is less of an unknown, but nonetheless another variable. At his best, he's a great pitcher, a workhorse and a massive presence in the clubhouse. Of the six seasons he's made at least 28 starts for the Cardinals, St. Louis has made the postseason five times. But he's never pitched as much as he did in 2011. Despite the heavy load, he's excited about what's ahead of him.
"Everything feels good," Carpenter said. "You can't control what happens. I've worked my butt off and I'm going to continue to work my butt off. Everything feels good. I'm excited to go into this season."
Behind them are more Rorschach tests. Garcia was brilliant in the first half of 2011, building a case for an All-Star bid, but he faded in the second half. Questions remain about his ability to remain at peak effectiveness for a full season.
"There's always room to get better," Garcia said. "I'm just really excited to have two full years behind me. Physically, this is the best I have felt. This offseason, I have been working really hard. Having the playoff experience, having the full seasons, knowing what to expect and feeling great physically, I'm just real excited."
The forgotten man in the rotation, it seems, is Lohse. Frustrated for two years as he battled a rare forearm injury, he returned with a bang in 2011. Lohse has been effective whenever he's been healthy with the Cardinals.
Yet the Cards heard offers for Lohse during the Winter Meetings. Nothing came to fruition, and Lohse would have to approve any trade, but the uncertainty reflects a perception in some quarters in St. Louis that doesn't really mesh with how well Lohse has pitched.
And his fellow veteran Westbrook is coming off a year in which he stayed healthy but not much else went right. Westbrook's ERA and baserunner ratio were his highest since 2002. He managed to top 180 innings, and secured the win in relief in Game 6 of the World Series, but on a personal level, it wasn't the best year for the former All-Star.
Still, just about every team has questions at the back of its rotation. If the biggest problem for the Cardinals' starting five in 2012 is Westbrook pitching 180 innings at a less-than-expected level, it will be a very good year.
The Cardinals haven't ruled out additions. They've reportedly been in contact with the representatives for Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt, but neither looks very likely at this time. Lohse and Westbrook both have total no-trade protection, and neither is in any hurry to leave St. Louis. So while a super-cheap deal on one of the free-agent veterans can't be ruled out, it's also not likely.
If, once the year starts, there are needs in the rotation, the likely candidates to step in are relievers Lance Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle McClellan, and perhaps Triple-A right-hander Brandon Dickson. Later in the year, top prospect Shelby Miller could be an option, but he likely won't figure in at the start of the year.
Miller's ETA, rather, is likely 2013, after Lohse and Westbrook are no longer under contract. That could also be the year Lynn returns to starting. A year or two after that, another top prospect may be on the way in the person of Carlos Martinez.
The future is bright, and the present should be, as well. But nothing is a given, especially when it comes to pitching.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less