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How does Michael Wacha’s injury affect the Cardinals?

Has a St. Louis Cardinals team that’s played below expectations all season now taken its biggest blow?

The Cards learned on Sunday that two of their starting pitchers, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, are going to be sidelined for the near-future, and possibly further down the line. Of greater concern for this season is the injury to Wacha, a development that St. Louis GM John Mozeliak termed as “a little shocking.”

Wacha, 22, was diagnosed with a “stress reaction” in his right shoulder. More specifically, the injury is to his scapula, the back side of the shoulder. There is no fracture in Wacha’s shoulder, but the fear appears to be that one could occur had the right-hander continued to pitch with this issue.

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The injury is relatively rare among pitchers, compelling the Cardinals to exercise perhaps even more caution than they normally would with a young pitcher having a shoulder problem. However, there is one current MLB pitcher who’s experienced a similar injury in Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy. He might provide the blueprint for how the Cards proceed with Wacha from here.

Unfortunately, McCarthy’s history since initially suffering a stress fracture in his right shoulder could give St. Louis some major reasons for concern. The 30-year-old hasn’t made more than 25 starts in a season since the injury in 2007, and missed all of the 2010 season due to shoulder surgery.

However, one key difference in Wacha’s situation is that he and the Cardinals discovered the stress reaction before a fracture occurred. From all accounts, the injury will heal properly with rest. The question is how much rest is required to do so.

At the very least, Wacha will probably need a couple of weeks to recover before he’s reevaluated. But this could be an injury that takes one to two months to heal. The worst-case scenario is that Wacha would miss the rest of the season. Yet since Wacha and the Cards addressed the issue early on, that appears unlikely.

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Not to dismiss Garcia’s injury, but he’s been dealing with his own shoulder issues over the past three seasons and has subsequently become a less reliable option for the Cardinals. The left-hander had surgery to repair a torn labrum more than a year ago and encountered setbacks during spring training, leading to him missing the first seven weeks of this season. He’s made seven starts, compiling a 3-1 record and 4.12 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 43.2 innings.

Wacha has made 15 starts for St. Louis this season, his first full one in the majors after making nine starts (and 15 appearances overall) last year. He’s posted a 5-5 record and 2.79 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 90.1 innings.

At first glance, the assumption would be that pitching 149.2 innings last season was a big increase in workload for the rookie. But while Wacha threw 21 innings in the minors during 2012, he also threw 113.1 for Texas A&M earlier in the year. Going from 134.1 innings to 149.2 was hardly a drastic increase.

Where do the Cardinals go from here? Well, if there’s one team with the starting pitching depth to sustain losing two arms for a potentially significant period of time, it’s St. Louis. They’re loaded with starting pitching, though some of it is obviously unproven. Carlos Martinez took Wacha’s turn in the rotation on Sunday and will presumably keep that spot while needed. But since he’s pitched almost all of this season as a reliever, throwing starters innings will likely become a concern.

Left-hander Tyler Lyons probably gets the first shot at Garcia’s spot in the rotation, which will come up on Wednesday. In four starts (six appearances) this season with St. Louis, he’s compiled an 0-3 record and 6.12 ERA, but has 23 strikeouts in 25 innings. Zack Petrick is another possibility. In 11 starts covering 60.2 innings for Triple-A Memphis, he’s 4-3 with a 4.60 ERA.

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Looking longer term, Joe Kelly is a strong candidate to take a starting spot. But he’s recovering from a hamstring injury and will need to get work on a minor league rehab assignment. Lefty Nick Greenwood could get an opportunity. But he would probably need to be stretched out to join the rotation, as he’s mostly pitched as a reliever this season.

If the Cardinals really wanted to be daring, they could call up left-hander Marco Gonzales, who has a 3-2 record and 2.77 ERA with Double-A Springfield and has made 13 starts this season in the minors. The 22-year-old has 46 strikeouts in 38.2 innings.

Of course, a trade would also be in the equation if the Cards are still in need of a starter as the trade deadline approaches. Would St. Louis be interested in pursuing one of the top targets like Jeff Samardzija, David Price or Cliff Lee? Giving up prospects in that kind of deal doesn’t seem like Mozeliak’s style.

But maybe a Jason Hammel or Edwin Jackson from the Cubs is a better fit. That is, if the Cubs were interested in trading with their fierce rival and intra-division competitor — something they haven’t done in more than 10 years. With the Padres firing GM Josh Byrnes, perhaps the interim front office will look to trade a piece like Ian Kennedy. Other possibilities should develop as the season moves closer to July 31, if that’s a path the Cards choose to take.

UPDATE: The Cardinals announced Gonzales is getting the call-up from Double-A to start Wednesday.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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