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Carpenter Hooked by Bulging Disc

Chris Carpenter has been shut down with a bulging disc in his neck. He’s likely to open up the season on the disabled list, and the Cardinals may have to turn to Lance Lynn for help in the starting rotation. This continues a disturbing trend in his surgery-speckled career, but using past players that have suffered this rarer injury as a guidepost can be problematic.

Over the past two years, Carpenter has been healthier than he’s ever been. The 472.1 innings he logged in 2010 and 2011 — not counting the postseason — is about ten innings more than he managed in 2005 and 2006. What happened in 2007? Tommy John surgery. The third-most productive two-year stretch had him put up 391 innings between 2000 and 2001. 2002 then brought SLAP surgery on his labrum, and follow-up surgical scar tissue removal.

Of course the “n” on this is tiny. He has just five instances of managing more than 375 innings over two consecutive seasons in his career, and major surgery or injury followed three of them. But we aren’t trying to predict how all players perform after 375 innings, we’re just observing how this one specific player has held up to larger work loads. The answer seems plain.

We shouldn’t forget how injury riddled his career has been. Here are the major issues he’s had:

* Right shoulder inflammation
* Right shoulder labrum tear (surgery)
* Right shoulder scar tissue (surgery)
* Right upper arm nerve injury
* Right elbow bone spurs (surgery)
* Right elbow ligament tear (surgery)
* Right shoulder Teres Major strain
* Right elbow ulnar nerve injury (surgery)
* Right shoulder nerve injury
* Left oblique strain
* Bulging disc in the neck

What does his latest particular injury tell us? It’s hard to tell.

Since it’s often described as a ‘general neck injury,’ we don’t have a ton of pitchers that have complained of this issue in particular. Alfredo Aceves did in 2010, and seems to have made a strong recovery since. Jimmy Haynes and Rick Reed also suffered from a bulging disc in 2003, with Kazuhito Tadano the year after.

That Haynes and Reed showed up on this list should not be comforting to Cards fans. Both saw their careers end the year they encountered the injury. Haynes was 32 but was not of the same class of pitcher. Reed, more serviceable than star, was 37 years old. Chris Carpenter is 37 years old next week.

The hitters that show up on the list don’t provide any more hope, either. Mike Sweeney and David Bell also saw the injury very late in their careers and came back as reduced players. Anderson Hernandez, Jay Gibbons and Chris Snyder are still playing, but aren’t the stars that Carpenter is.

The sample sizes involved here are tiny. We can only say that Carpenter has rarely seen work loads like he has seen the last couple of years, and that he hasn’t traditionally reacted well. We can also only say that a couple veteran pitchers have dealt with bulging discs specifically, and that they haven’t traditionally reacted well.

But Chris Carpenter specifically? Just look at that list of injuries again. He’s overcome plenty so far, don’t count him out just yet.

Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman for the injury information in this article.