The elbow injury suffered by Adam Wainwright early in spring training was a devastating blow to the Cardinals, who had received 39 victories over the last two seasons from the right-hander.
But, at least it happened early enough that they had time to go to Plan B.
That was to make a starter out of right-handed reliever Kyle McClellan, who never has started a regular-season game but had been a starter in camp for a considerable portion of time in the previous two spring trainings.
McClellan, who has four pitches, showed that he could work five or more innings, so he will round out a rotation that still seems formidable with right-hander Chris Carpenter, recovered from a left hamstring strain, at the top.
Even without Carpenter, the Cardinals still should contend because they have Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, probably the best 1-2 offensive punch in the league; they have a deep bullpen, especially from the right side; their rotation is solid; they have a Gold Glove catcher, Yadier Molina, who controls the running game; and they have one of the game's top managers, Tony La Russa, who is starting his 16th season with the team.
Sure, there are red flags. New right fielder Lance Berkman experienced left (throwing) elbow issues and had a left calf strain early in camp, and his ability to play every day, and hit productively, remains a question.
Third baseman David Freese, who had surgery on both ankles last year, hit with power once he started playing exhibition games, and he seemed to be moving well in the field.
But, under the pressure of the regular-season microscope, Freese's durability will be something to watch, too.
Allen Craig, who would be at least part of a right field platoon with Jon Jay should Berkman not be the answer, showed the ability to play the outfield on an adequate basis, besides the fact he could fill in at first base if Pujols needs a rest.
Left-hander Jaime Garcia, one of the top rookies in the league last year, didn't pitch well early in camp even though he, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan all said Garcia was making "significant" improvements.
Looking for a breakout player? How about Colby Rasmus, who, starting in the second half of last season, has displayed a better ability to hit left-handed pitching and more patience at bat. If he bats second in front of Pujols, that latter quality could become golden.
--RHP Chris Carpenter didn't pitch for two weeks after he suffered a strained left hamstring in his first spring start, but he was pleased with his next outing on March 16 and said there was no doubt he would be prepared for the Opening Day start on March 31 against San Diego. "I'm right where I need to be; I'll be ready to go," Carpenter said.
--Switch-hitting OF Lance Berkman, saying he wanted to protect his previously sore left elbow, batted left-handed three times against left-handed pitching as he served as the designated hitter in a game against Detroit. Berkman said he had tried this approach only once before in his career, when he went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts against Cleveland LHP CC Sabathia a number of years ago. Would he consider this again? "I've thought about it off and on when I was struggling right-handed," said Berkman, who is a much better hitter left-handed, at this stage of his career. "There have been three or four different times in my career, but I haven't really ever seriously considered it." Berkman, however, did feel good in his return to right field. After playing seven innings on March 17, he said, "I feel like I can roll out of bed on Christmas morning and play an adequate right field." Berkman has not been a regular in the outfield since 2004. But he said, "I've been out there. I've played right field in a World Series (2005)."
--The most impressive rookie in camp easily has been left-handed-hitting 3B Matt Carpenter, who has played only two pro seasons after coming out of TCU, but was the Cardinals' minor league player of the year last season when he hit better than .300 combined at Class A Palm Beach and Class AA Springfield. After he got two hits in a game against Florida ace RHP Josh Johnson on March 17 to raise his average to .385, general manager John Mozeliak said, "In terms of the competition to fill that 24th or 25th (roster) spot, he's definitely put himself in that running. Carp continues to open eyes."
--When veteran INF Ramon Vazquez was sent back to minor league camp, that left three players -- Matt Carpenter, Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso -- to battle for two reserve infield spots. Injured Nick Punto is expected to reclaim one of those spots when he returns from hernia surgery sometime in May. Greene has the edge for one spot because he plays shortstop, and Carpenter and Descalso don't.
BY THE NUMBERS: 32 -- Number of years Dave Duncan has been a major league pitching coach.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "A series of three at-bats is hardly a serious pursuit." -- Switch-hitting RF Lance Berkman, on hitting left-handed against left-handed pitching in a spring training game to protect his left elbow.
Spring training got off to a rough start when 20-game winner Adam Wainwright suffered a ligament injury to his elbow, requiring surgery before he had thrown a pitch in an exhibition game. That injury stripped the Cardinals of their major advantage over their National League Central competitors, that they had two No. 1 starters, with Chris Carpenter being the other.
1. RHP Chris Carpenter
2. RHP Jake Westbrook
3. LHP Jaime Garcia
4. RHP Kyle Lohse
5. RHP Kyle McClellan
McClellan was a valuable member of the bullpen last year and the Cardinals will have to fill in for him there somehow. The key to the rotation might be Lohse, who is healthy now after battling forearm problems for the last two seasons. Garcia struggled early in spring training and the Cardinals will need him to be good as the only left-handed presence in the rotation.
RHP Ryan Franklin (closer)
RHP Mitchell Boggs
RHP Jason Motte
LHP Trever Miller
LHP Brian Tallet
RHP Fernando Salas
RHP Miguel Batista
The veteran Franklin doesn't throw
as hard as most closers, but still is effective. For more velocity, the club can
turn to Motte and Boggs in the seventh and eighth innings. Miller, whose control
was off last year, will have to be better from the left side and Tallet will
have to be better than the pitcher who gave up 20 home runs when he was starting
1. SS Ryan Theriot
2. CF Colby Rasmus
3. 1B Albert Pujols
4. LF Matt Holliday
5. RF Lance Berkman
6. 3B David Freese
7. C Yadier Molina
8. 2B Skip Schumaker
So far, manager Tony La Russa hasn't seen fit to hit the pitcher eighth, and he said that if the offense doesn't struggle, he won't do that this season. Theriot, the new shortstop, and Schumaker both led off last year, but Schumaker was very productive this spring hitting down in the lineup. At the start of the season, switch-hitting Lance Berkman will bat fifth behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, but Colby Rasmus could drop from second if Berkman falters.
C Gerald Laird
INF Tyler Greene
INF Matt Carpenter or INF Daniel Descalso
OF Jon Jay
INF Allen Craig
Jay and Craig divided time in
right field last year after Ryan Ludwick was traded to
--RHP Chris Carpenter (strained left hamstring) was shut down after getting hurt March 1. He returned to the rotation March 16, and he was expected to be ready for Opening Day.
--RF Lance Berkman (sore left elbow) was playing through the ailment in mid-March.
--RHP Mitchell Boggs (strained lower back) was shut down in early March, but he was expected to be at full speed by the start of the season.
--RHP Adam Wainwright (Tommy John surgery in February 2011) will miss the entire 2011 season.
--INF Nick Punto (hernia surgery in February 2011) is likely to be out until at least late April.