Cards Rotation: "Clement" Written in Pencil

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Matt Clement will likely not be ready to start the 2008 season. "Who is going to replace him?" is a more important question than "Who is surprised?"

Saturday's news from St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan on the status of pitcher Matt Clement's attempt to return from labrum and rotator cuff surgery done almost 18 months ago and join the Cards' 2008 rotation is not good.

"In all honesty, I will be surprised if he is ready for opening day," Duncan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The issue seems to be in the lack of strength in Clement's shoulder, not a physical setback. So the 33-year-old right-hander will shift to building that strength via long tossing as opposed to throwing from a mound and starting major league spring training games.

No firm dates were offered, but mid-March was hinted as the most optimistic return. The likelihood of Clement being asked to start his season on a rehab assignment whenever ready was also mentioned as a possibility. Not stated was any idea if or when he could return to his pre-injury form.

If emails received and message board traffic offer reasonable indications of the reactions from the Cardinal Nation, emotions seem to range from resignation to outrage.

Understanding the severity of the original injury and the long path taken by Clement to date should have helped keep expectations in check from the day he was signed.

The original surgery was in September, 2006 when extensive damage was found. According to reports at the time, surgeon Dr. James Andrews discovered tears in both the labrum and rotator cuff in Clement's shoulder and three separate procedures had to be performed in what had been expected coming in to be a relatively simple exploratory arthroscopic procedure.

Clement began to toss in March, 2007, play catch in April, throw off a mound in June and progressed to throwing several simulated games last September, yet did not appear in game action last season before heading to the instructional league. The Red Sox apparently did not make a serious attempt to secure Clement's return in 2008.

In our January article when Clement was signed, I closed with this: "Past history indicates players returning from this ailment often lack flexibility, velocity and control. Depending on the severity of the tear, some have returned to past effectiveness, but many more have not."

Yet some, especially those who seem to have an axe to grind with team management, are feeling misled. In their defense, there have been a number of past examples where overly-optimistic return dates for injured Cardinals have been presented and accepted, then missed.

Let's take a look at recent comments made by Cardinals officials to determine if that conclusion can be drawn in the case of Clement.

January 3, signing day: Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak: "Based on our findings from his rehabilitation last season and his recent physical, we feel that he can be a solid addition to our starting rotation and should have no limitations upon reporting to spring training."

January 4, (Post-Dispatch): The Cardinals expect him to be available opening day, according to Mozeliak. Mozeliak said Clement "checked out 100 percent healthy," after being examined by head physician Dr. George Paletta.

"It's hard to gauge what it will look like at first," Mozeliak said. "I think he has high expectations, as do we. Obviously, there is some risk because of the surgery that he required. But we feel it was worth the risk."

"When you look at Pineiro and Clement with a more seasoned Wainwright and Looper, it's coming together as a solid, legitimate rotation. Potentially adding Carpenter after the All-Star break gives it even a better look," Mozeliak told the paper.

Yep, though the word "risk" was used several times, the Cardinals seem to have again set themselves up for criticism by their unmet projections.

Remember that Clement began throwing a baseball post-surgery almost 12 months ago and moved back onto the mound last June. Why hasn't he been able to build strength in the shoulder by now, and more importantly, why is this news today?

Did the Cardinals not test the strength in Clement's shoulder initially, did it somehow digress since last month or did they simply fool themselves as to his readiness to compete? Are any of these possibilities palatable?

Yet to me the problem isn't as much what was said previously. At this point, the focus should primarily be on what can be done next. Current course and speed seems to have some combination of the trio of Anthony Reyes, Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson filling out the last two rotation spots. The three head into 2008 with a total of 67 major league starts among them.

While youthful prospects such as Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia, Mike Parisi and Blake Hawksworth are in camp, they lack the seasoning and consistent past success that would seem to be needed to restore the "legitimacy" to a Cardinals 2008 rotation that seems to be anything but. Unless both Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter effectively return from surgeries of their own, the Cardinals rotation should continue to be called "Adam Wainwright and the Question Marks".

Braden Looper logged time on the disabled list last season with a shoulder problem as his innings-pitched total grew from 73.1 in 2006 to 175 in 2007. Joel Pineiro and Wellemeyer were each discarded by their previous clubs during last season. Reyes and Thompson were inconsistent enough in 2007 to each spend time back in Triple-A despite the Cardinals' desperate need for quality starters and quality starts from them.

If the Cardinals are serious about wanting to compete without Mulder and Carpenter in 2008, the addition of another veteran starter over the winter would have seemed to have been a prudent strategy for a contending club. The new reinforcement of their shaky gamble on Clement only makes it more evident the Cardinals should have been more aggressive buyers, either via trade of free agency.

The problem is that if there were few top free-agent starters available before, there are virtually none remaining now. The list of still unemployed is headlined by former Cardinals bargain-bin acquisition Jeff Weaver, Kyle Lohse and Josh Fogg, none of whom may be markedly better than were recent scrap-heap flameout acquisitions like Kip Wells, Mike Maroth and Sidney Ponson.

The Cardinals remained on the sidelines this off-season as several other clubs in need of arms executed trades for the likes of former Cardinal Danny Haren, Johan Santana and Erik Bedard. The Cards seemed to lack the piece-parts to be able to compete for such a blockbuster, at least without mortgaging their prospect pipeline for the near future. That doesn't mean they couldn't have unearthed the next Jeff Suppan, a dependable innings-eater, for less than a king's ransom, however.

Now, here in the second half of February, it may be too late for 2008. The Cardinals seem to have little choice but to dance with the ones they "brung" to the party. The question is how long their once-legitimate rotation will be able to keep the lights burning.

Barring rainouts, the Cardinals will need to send their fourth and fifth starters out to the mound ten times during the month of April alone. Even before the Clement news, manager Tony La Russa acknowledged that as constructed, the 2008 Cardinals have less room for error than before. Now that thin margin has decreased even further.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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