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Keeper Question: Adam Wainwright

How different would the Cardinals’ season have been if Adam Wainwright hadn’t walked off the mound in spring training with a torn ulnar collateral ligament? Their improbable September run surely wouldn’t have been so dramatic, in fact, they may have been closer to the division-winning Brewers than they were to the Wild Card runners-up. It’s even possible to concoct a scenario where they don’t trade Colby Rasmus for bullpen and rotation help, though there’s ample evidence to suggest that Rasmus would have received his marching orders anyway.

At this point, even though losing Wainwright was a big blow, it’s impossible to say the Cards would have progressed any further than they have without him. They’re tied 1-1 with the Brewers in the NLCS, and while a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, and Kyle Lohse looks more imposing than Carpenter, Garcia, Lohse, and Edwin Jackson, St. Louis has done more with less all season.

Next season the Cards may or may not have Albert Pujols to key their offense, but they will get Wainwright back, and while that’s not quite a push, it could soften the blow of Pujols’ absence. Of course that assumes Wainwright’s recovery path looks more like Jordan Zimmermann’s or Stephen Strasburg’s than, say, Francisco Liriano’s. This leaves the Cardinals and fantasy owners in largely the same place, wondering which Wainwright will show up in 2012.

While I can’t promise you that Wainwright will take the mound for his first start as though nothing had changed, three factors make me confident that he’s worth keeping.

First, given the state of both the surgical and rehab plans, successes are now much more common than failures. While J. Carl Cook’s words — “minor surgery is surgery someone else is having” — are certainly accurate, repairing a UCL is no longer exotic and unusual in the way it once was. Teams generally have a doctor they like to use, a rehab plan they trust, and results are getting more consistent because of it. For a sense of what the surgery and standard treatment plan are, I highly recommend this piece by Sports Illustrated’s Will Carroll, who does a great job of laying out what the state of the art really is. Regimentation alone doesn’t guarantee a perfect outcome, but it does make it more likely that a player will make a full recovery.

Second, the Cardinals have a track record of getting pitchers back to form quickly after they return to the majors. Even with some consistency in the rehab plan, some teams seem to be more successful than others at getting pitchers back at or near their previous level. The Nationals, for example, have had two key pitchers go under the knife recently and neither seems too worse for the wear. They’re playing it safe with both Zimmermann and Strasburg, but both showed the stuff upon their return that made them top prospects. The Twins, on the other hand, haven’t seen the same level of success in getting pitchers back quickly. Both Joe Nathan and Liriano found success after their surgery, but both took longer than expected to reach that point.

Carpenter had his surgery in the midst of the 2007 season and while he hasn’t been the healthiest pitcher in baseball since then, his elbow is no longer a source of his problems. More recently even than Carpenter, Garcia had the procedure and is another success story. It’s easy to forget that Garcia’s strong rookie campaign in 2010 was also his first year back from his Tommy John surgery. He showed no ill effects in either that season or this one. Like the fine print at the bottom of every investment bank’s ads, past performance is not a guarantee of future results; that said, the team’s recent success in bringing starting pitchers back effectively gives me high hopes for Wainwright’s return.

Finally, Wainwright’s pitch selection had become more varied over the past three seasons. If he were a two-pitch pitcher, I’d be concerned. A pitcher who has only a fastball and one great offspeed offering runs a larger risk of struggling to find command of the slider or curve and getting shelled as hitters wait for a fastball in the zone.

I hate to keep burying Liriano, but this is what happened to his 2009 season — the team understandably wanted him to throw fewer sliders, but this lead to his fastball getting tagged to the tune of 25.4 runs below average. Wainwright throws four pitches, all of which graded as above-average offerings in 2010, which makes it less likely that he’ll find himself in a position where he can’t throw anything for a strike except the fastball.

There is one caveat I should point out before unequivocally recommending that you keep Wainwright: There are very few pitchers I am in favor of keeping, especially in mixed. Pitching is so deep right now that even if you were to lose Wainwright, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find a suitable replacement. There are considerations to be made based on more than just Wainwright’s health, but those are going to be based on how many players you can or want to keep, as well as league idiosyncrasies.

Wainwright has been worth about 6 wins in both of his last two seasons. Had he done it again in 2011, it would have made him a top-10 pitcher this season, even in a year of very good pitchers. He may not be as sure a thing as Roy Halladay or Clayton Kershaw, but everything I see points to Wainwright entering the 2012 season as an effective pitcher and a solid, top-of-the-rotation fantasy arm.