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St. Louis Cardinals spring preview -- Starting pitchers

The Cardinals weren't expected to contend last season, despite the presence of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman in the batting order, because the rotation was believed not to be able to withstand the loss of Adam Wainwright to injury.

But the Birds' rotation proved to be the strength of the team -- And it should be even better in 2012 now that the co-ace in back on the bump.

Adam Wainwright -- While the Cardinals lost a superstar at the plate in Albert Pujols, they're adding one on the mound as Cy Young Award Contender Adam Wainwright makes a return from surgery to replace a torn ligament in his pitching elbow. Wainwright has maintained that his recovery has suffered no setbacks -- in fact, he even lobbied to be put on the post season roster in 2011 -- so he should be ready to go from the bell. While there is always concern about a pitcher who is recovering from surgery, Tommy John operations have become so routine that there should be a great deal of confidence that Wainwright will be effective in 2012. My biggest concerns are that he is that Wainwright is able to regain mechanical consistency after a year off and that fatigue could become a problem because his body won't be used to the rigors of pitching a long season. But the Redbirds have effectively added an ace pitcher to the mix that was good enough to win the World Series in 2011.

Chris Carpenter -- I'm much more worried about Carpenter's ability to hold up than I am about Wainwright's. After pitching in only 21 1/3 innings in 2007 and 2008 thanks to major arm problems, the Redbirds ace hurled 235 innings in 2010 and 237 1/3 during the 2011 regular season before adding another 36 frames during last year's playoffs and World Series. Don't forget that Carpenter was rumored to be questionable for his last Fall Classic start because of elbow soreness. He's a warrior and you're going to get all he's got. But Carp will turn 37 at the end of April and I wonder how many more times the Cardinals can climb on his back for a ride. Talk early last season about Carpenter breaking down proved to be premature despite a 1-7 start through mid June with a 4.47 ERA. He was victimized by poor defense and a lack of run scoring when he was on the hill. On several occasions Carpenter was left in games too long because of the team's crummy bullpen for the first half of the campaign. This year he must be used in a way that takes his age and high miles into consideration.

Kyle Lohse -- I said last year when Wainwright got hurt that Lohse was the guy the birds would count on to fill some pretty big shoes. And after a disappointing first two years of the four-year contract he signed with St. Louis after the 2008 season, he finally paid off. He was 14-8 with a 3.39 ERA. Lohse is in the walk year of his deal so, hopefully, he's going to be very motivated to pitch at least as well. If Carpenter and Wainwright pitch like they are capable and Wainwright repeats his 2011 showing, the Cardinals will have the best 1-2-3 in the National League besides Philadelphia.

Jaime Garcia -- While Lohse is in the walk year of his deal, Garcia has contract security for the first time in his career. I hope that doesn't make him too comfortable and tentative on the mound. After he signed the new contract last season, the wheels seemed to fall off what was shaping up to be a pretty good year. Fortunately Garcia seemed to rebound in September. He was 3-0 for the month with key wins against the Reds, Braves and Mets to his credit. Garcia needs to pitch with more confidence and establish himself in the rotation because, while he has the luxury of toiling as a fourth starter in 2012, in 2013 and beyond the Redbirds will need him to take a bigger role as Lohse and Jake Westbrook are likely to exit and Carpenter will enter the last year of his current contract at age 38.

Jake Westbrook -- Here's the wild card. Westbrook pitched very well for the Cardinals after coming to St. Louis in a three-way swap that sent Ryan Ludwick to the Padres. That earned him a two-year deal with the Birds. But in the first season of the contract, Westbrook was a major disappointment. In 183 1/3 innings, he was pounded for 208 hits and he walked 73 for an average of 1.53 runners on base per inning. Yikes. His ERA was an ugly 4.66 at the end of the season. It was even worse most of the year, hanging out over 5.00 before his July 26 start -- a 3-1 win over the Astros. Westbrook was supposed to be an "innings eater" but in 17 of his 33 starts the veteran righty managed to log less than six innings pitched. He's making way too much money to be a fifth starter and, frankly, he didn't seem very motivated in 2011. Hopefully 2011 was a bad year and Westbrook will pitch in 2012 like he wants a job in 2013.

Shelby Miller -- The top prospect in the St. Louis system has Cardinals fans in a lather. But the team would prefer that Miller stays in the minors in 2012. Last season he combined for a 9-3 record and a 2.77 ERA between Advanced Class A Palm Beach and Class AA Springfield. He struck out 170 in 139 1/3 innings while walking 53. But he needs to pitch to more advanced hitters at Class AAA Memphis before making the jump to the big leagues. After all, he just turned 21 in November. Of course, you can never say never to prospects, and it's possible that Miller might make his debut with the Cardinals sometime in the upcoming season if the team needs an injury replacement. But the more likely short-term fill-ins are Lance Lynn, Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs and Brandon Dickson