I'm a baseball nerd. So in the wake of the news about Adam Wainwright, duty compels me to guard against overemphasizing the importance of one player, however excellent. Do you remember all the hand-ringing that attended the Twins' loss of Joe Nathan last spring?
Still, if Wainwright's out the Cardinals are in real trouble.
It's really not so difficult to replace a closer, even a closer like Joe Nathan. The Twins turned to Jon Rauch and later Matt Capps, and Minnesota finished with the fourth-lowest relief ERA in the American League. Oh, and the Twins won 94 games.
Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals are different. Great starting pitchers are roughly twice as valuable as great relief pitchers, and they're probably a lot more than twice as hard to replace.
Wainwright's been spectacular in each of the last two seasons, roughly six Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Granted, the definition of "replacement" doesn't set the bar real high. But Kevin Millwood has already been mentioned as a candidate to replace Wainwright in the rotation. Millwood was about one WAR last season. Jeremy Bonderman, about the same. You might get the same from Doug Davis.
In terms of free agents, that's about it. If the Cardinals have to use someone like that, they come out of the gate five or six wins down. And there's no great help coming from the farm system, either.
All is not lost. The Cardinals won 85 games last season, but with the run differential of a 90-win team. If Wainwright's lost, they're knocked back down to 85.
On paper. They don't play the games on paper, and getting from 85 to 90 simply requires marginal improvements somewhere among the other 24 spots on the roster over the course of six long months.
This hurts. It hurts real bad. But it's not necessarily a season-killer.