February 24, 2011: Cardinals announce that Adam Wainwright will require Tommy John surgery

Before they even had a chance to play their first spring training game, the Cardinals’ road to the 2011 World Series became significantly more difficult.

On February 24, 2011, the Cardinals officially announced that Adam Wainwright would require season-ending Tommy John surgery.

“Not to be melodramatic, but you’re losing an ace,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “It’s not something you can just replace overnight. Some different people are going to have to step up.”[1]

A 6-foot-7, 230-pound right-hander from Brunswick, Georgia, Wainwright had been the Cardinals’ best starter in each of the past two seasons, leading the National League with 39 victories over that span.

He was coming off the best season of his career in 2010, going 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA and 213 strikeouts over 230 1/3 innings. That summer, Wainwright made the first all-star appearance of his career, and that fall he finished second to Roy Halladay in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

The 2010 season was just a shade better than his performance in 2009, when he led the National League with 19 wins, 34 starts, and 233 innings pitched. With a 2.63 ERA, Wainwright placed third in the Cy Young voting that year and won the Gold Glove Award.

Heading into spring training 2011, the Cardinals were looking for Wainwright to lead their starting rotation alongside the 36-year-old Chris Carpenter. With left-hander Jaime Garcia as a third starter and Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook rounding out the rotation, St. Louis expected its pitching to be a bedrock for the 2011 season.

That foundation was dealt a serious blow when Wainwright felt his elbow twinge on the 33rd pitch of a 35-pitch session. Though he didn’t immediately say anything, by the time he returned to his spring training home, he knew he was dealing with far more than early-season soreness.

“My elbow had stiffened up on me completely,” he said.[2]

Wainwright had missed his last start of the 2010 season with what was diagnosed as a forearm strain. At the time, the Cardinals’ medical team prescribed rest and rehabilitation.[3] Wainwright was placed on an offseason workout program designed to strengthen his shoulder and allow him to place less stress on his elbow.

“I eliminated the shoulder weakness, but the elbow still failed,” Wainwright said.[4]

On Wednesday, February 23, Cardinals medical supervisor Dr. George Paletta sent Wainwright’s MRI results to Dr. Lewis Yocum, an Orange County, California, orthopedist.[5] Yocum confirmed the Cardinals’ fears, and Paletta was scheduled to perform the surgery on Monday, February 28.[6]

“You’re talking about a guy who won 20 games,” Albert Pujols said. “That’s pretty hard to take.”[7]

“I don’t feel bad for us; I feel bad for Adam,” Carpenter said. “There’s no worse feeling than to be hurt. If you’re struggling or not performing well, you can always try harder by working on something. If you’re hurt, you can’t do anything.”[8]

Ahead of the procedure, Wainwright spoke to Carpenter, Kyle McClellan, and Jason Isringhausen, each of whom had previously had the surgery. Paletta performed both Carpenter and McClellan’s procedures.[9]

“I’m a little disappointed, but at the same time, I know I’m probably prolonging my career now by going ahead and doing this when I’m doing it,” Wainwright said. “There was no getting around it. Both doctors that I saw – Dr. Paletta and Dr. Yocum – gave me a 10% chance to heal without surgery, so it was something I had to do. Basically, the whole (ligament) was mangled.”[10]

To replace Wainwright’s injured ligament, doctors used a tendon from Wainwright’s left hamstring. As a result, Wainwright emerged from the surgery with both scars on the back of his right elbow and beneath his left knee.[11] Though initial estimates estimated the surgery would keep Wainwright out for 12-15 months, Wainwright immediately set a goal to be back in time for the 2012 spring training.

“I’ve been told that everything went very well,” Wainwright said. “I feel great, to be honest with you. … I had a gut feeling that it was probably the time my elbow was gone. The only thing that was such a shame about it was that I was feeling so great. I felt like I was throwing the ball really well and had a great session up until the pitch I hurt it on. It just goes to show you that it was time for it to happen.”[12]

With Wainwright rehabbing with an eye on 2012, the Cardinals began to explore their options to fill his spot in the rotation. Mozeliak was asked about possibly pursuing 36-year-old free agent Kevin Millwood, a former 18-game winner with the Braves who was coming off a 4-16 season in Baltimore with a 5.10 ERA.

“Today I would say the answer is no,” Mozeliak said. “As days start to push toward opening day, we’ll explore things. There’s nothing that jumps out to us that we feel we need to chase at this point.”[13]

“We’re not going to look outside the organization. The answer is here,” manager Tony La Russa declared.[14]

The same day that Wainwright underwent his MRI, McClellan took his first batting practice of the spring.

“That’s because it’s the first day that he’s been thought of in this camp as a potential starting pitcher,” pitching coach Dave Duncan said.[15]

A 27-year-old who was drafted out of Hazelwood West High School just outside of St. Louis, McClellan was used to competing for a starting job during spring training. In 2009, he was prepared to start the season in the rotation if Carpenter was unavailable to return. In 2010, he and Garcia competed for the fifth spot. After Garcia claimed the job, McClellan threw 75 1/3 innings out of the Cardinals’ bullpen, posting a career-low 2.27 ERA.

“Games haven’t started yet, so it’s not a big transition,” McClellan said. “It’s early and I’ve got plenty of time to adapt and go from there.”[16]

For better or worse, the Cardinals were accustomed to competing with an ace on the disabled list. In 2007, Carpenter required surgery after experiencing elbow discomfort during his opening-day start. The Cardinals won just 78 games and finished third in the National League Central.

The following season, Carpenter pitched just 15 1/3 innings, and while Lohse led the team with 15 wins and Wainwright went 11-3 in his first full season as a major-league starting pitcher, the Cardinals’ 86 wins were only good for fourth place.

“We gotta keep going,” Lohse said. “No one’s going to feel sorry for us if Adam is gone. We just have to go do our work. You just keep going on and do your thing.”[17]

“The only thing I can say is this doesn’t change my mentality,” Garcia said. “Anyone on this staff can be a No. 1 or No. 2 guy. I don’t think we have any No. 5 guys. All I have to do is go out every day and just try to keep learning and get better.”[18]

La Russa preferred to point to the 2002 season, when the Cardinals overcame a rash of early-season injuries and the June death of starting pitcher Darryl Kile to win the National League Central and advance to the NLCS.

“It’s much more unfortunate for Adam,” La Russa said. “You can’t help but be affected, but it’s much tougher on him. You make the adjustment, and one of the keys is how deep you are. If you’re not very deep, a hit like this could sink you. … We are looking at what we have, not what we’re missing. We have enough here to be believable contenders.”[19]

They certainly did, especially after making a season-altering trade that sent Colby Rasmus, Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, and P.J. Walters to Toronto for outfielder Corey Patterson and pitchers Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and Marc Rzepczynski. The acquisition of Jackson allowed the Cardinals to replace the fatiguing McClellan in the rotation, while Dotel and Rzepczynski bolstered the bullpen.

With Carpenter anchoring the starting rotation and the bullpen shouldering a heavy load, the Cardinals won their 11th world championship in a seven-game World Series against the Rangers. By the time the Cardinals reached the postseason, Wainwright was beginning to throw once again, though he wasn’t ready to compete.

Though he didn’t appear in the postseason, Wainwright did get clarity regarding his Cardinals future that October. When Wainwright signed a four-year, $15 million extension ahead of the 2008 season, it included a two-year option for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The option would pay him $9 million in 2012 and $12 million in 2013, but it only vested automatically if Wainwright was not on the disabled list with an arm injury at the end of the 2011 season.[20]

The day before David Freese cemented his place in St. Louis history in Game 6 of the World Series, the Cardinals confirmed that they had vested Wainwright’s option, guaranteeing that he would remain in St. Louis for at least two more seasons.

Wainwright admitted that it was bittersweet watching his teammates play for the world championship without him.

“Do I think I could have piggybacked with ‘Carp’ real well (during) this whole playoff thing? Absolutely. I live for that,” Wainwright said. “But these other guys have stepped up. I’d like to think we could have been better with me, but are we in a different situation right now? We’re playing in the World Series. How much better could it possibly be?”[21]


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[1] Joe Strauss, “Cards change course,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 25, 2011.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Wainwright eyes spring ’12,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 2, 2011.

[3] Joe Strauss, “Cards pessimistic,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Wainwright eyes spring ’12,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 2, 2011.

[5] Joe Strauss, “Cards pessimistic,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[6] Joe Strauss, “Cards change course,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 25, 2011.

[7] Joe Strauss, “Cards pessimistic,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[8] Joe Strauss, “Cards pessimistic,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Wainwright eyes spring ’12,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 2, 2011.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Wainwright eyes spring ’12,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 2, 2011.

[11] Derrick Goold, “Wainwright OK with deal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 17, 2011.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Wainwright eyes spring ’12,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 2, 2011.

[13] Derrick Goold, “‘Opportunity for someone,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[14] Joe Strauss, “Cards pessimistic,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[15] Derrick Goold, “‘Opportunity for someone,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[16] Derrick Goold, “‘Opportunity for someone,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[17] Bryan Burwell, “Handling adversity,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[18] Bryan Burwell, “Handling adversity,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 24, 2011.

[19] Joe Strauss, “Cards change course,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 25, 2011.

[20] Derrick Goold, “Wainwright, Carpenter form core,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 21, 2008.

[21] Derrick Goold, “Co-ace will be back with Birds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 27, 2011.

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