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Healthy starters could carry Cardinals

Healthy starters could carry Cardinals

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JUPITER, Fla. -- Take a team that won 86 games and finished within four games of a postseason spot. Bolster the bullpen a bit, reshuffle the offense a little, but make no overwhelming changes.

Now pepper in 40 extra starts from elite-level starting pitchers. Suddenly, you've got something.

The Cardinals are watching several aspects of Spring Training with interest: the competition for the closer job, the attempts to convert two outfielders to the infield and the all-new left side of the bullpen. But none of those questions will have the same impact on the 2009 Cardinals that a healthy front of the starting rotation might have.

Adam Wainwright started 20 games for St. Louis in 2008, missing 2 1/2 months with a finger injury. Chris Carpenter made all of three starts as his recovery from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery was cut short due to additional arm problems. If the two of them combine for 60 or more starts in '09, good things should follow.

"You can say that just about him [Carpenter]," Wainwright said. "You just look at the years he's been on the team, we've made the playoffs. That's the difference he brings to this team -- with a good supporting staff -- and we have that."

The Cards' offense returns largely intact. Cesar Izturis has been replaced by Khalil Greene, likely an offensive upgrade. Troy Glaus will miss some portion of the beginning of the year, but Joe Mather, his presumed replacement, is no slouch offensively. St. Louis probably will work Colby Rasmus and Chris Duncan into its outfield mix, while Skip Schumaker moves from the outfield to take over for Adam Kennedy at second base.

The defense could suffer a bit in the infield, switching from Kennedy to Schumaker and early in the year from Glaus to Mather. But Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller should fortify the team's left-handed relief, and the club has optimism regarding youngsters Chris Perez and Jason Motte as closer candidates.

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That leaves the rotation, and there is significant room for improvement. Carpenter's health will remain a question at least until he takes the ball in the first week of the season, but thus far he's encountered no setbacks. Wainwright's health is less of an uncertainty, since he returned to make seven starts at the end of the season.

"If it happens again, it happens again," Wainwright said. "But I'm not thinking about it. Those seven starts at the end of the year were huge, too. It's tough to miss three months and come back and pitch."

Whereas Wainwright's injury was sudden, freak and traumatic, Carpenter's arm issues have been recurrent over many years. That's what makes them more worrisome. He had shoulder surgery at the end of 2002 and missed all of '03. A triumphant '04 return came to a screeching halt when he encountered a nerve injury in his upper arm.

He rolled through 2005 and '06, winning the 2005 National League Cy Young Award and turning in a brilliant performance in Game 3 of the '06 World Series. But elbow troubles limited Carpenter to one start in 2007 and eventually forced the surgery. Upon his return, he experienced shoulder discomfort that ultimately proved to be a similar nerve condition to the one that struck in '04. And in the offseason, he underwent surgery to move a nerve in his right elbow.

It's not that one of those conditions is likely to recur. It's that all of them keep happening.

"I don't know if there's going to ever be a time where there's not that little doubt," Carpenter said. "I couldn't answer that, because there might be. It might be that halfway through the season I'm not even concerning myself with it anymore. I already feel that it's good. I feel good every time I pick up a ball. So I'm not looking at a certain day or a certain game or a certain date that's going to make me feel any better."

Just like the injuries, it's not any one. It's the accumulation. And Carpenter is piling up one healthy throw after another. If he does it 30 or more times during the regular season, the Cardinals really have something on their hands.

"I think we're a dangerous team," Wainwright said. "I think we have the potential to be a really, really nice club. You can play great 'D,' you can play great offense, score a lot of runs, but if you ain't pitching, you ain't winning."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["spring_training" ] }
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