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It seems Chris Carpenter's return is the key for the Cardinals

I really think the Cardinals' season is going to boil down to what happens with big ol' number 29.

Chris Carpenter has been speaking optimistic words the last couple of days about his recovery -- although after the spring training speculation that he might only miss a couple of starts blew up in Cardinals Nation's collective face, he was understandably reserved about pegging his comeback to a certain date.

With the loss of Jaime Garcia for at least a month -- but more likely longer -- the Birds are in a tough spot in their rotation. They're employing a rotation that consists of a former Cy Young candidate in Adam Wainwright who is coming back from Tommy John surgery and likely to be limited to 150-160 innings this season, a pretty decent number three in Kyle Lohse, impressive but inexperienced first year major league starter Lance Lynn, the maddeningly sub par Jake Westbrook and a guy who has one MLB start in the books: Joe Kelly.

While they miss Lance Berkman, John Jay, Matt Carpenter and Skip Schumaker... Nothing would help this team more from top to bottom than a big game pitcher who is capable of carrying a team like Carp.

If the Birds replace the weak link in the rotation it's going to cause the offense to feel less pressure and the bullpen to be less taxed. The relievers also would likely add the replaced starter to their ranks. So that could help, too. I have wondered here before if Wainwright could return to his closer role from 2006 when he reaches his innings ceiling. Or maybe if Jaime Garcia's arm doesn't require surgery, he could be eased back into the mix as a bullpen lefty.

The Cardinals might be able to add to the relief corps by getting a decent bullpenner in trade. But they're not going to get an ace quality pitcher -- at least not without selling the farm. So either Carpenter comes back and steadies this listing ship. Or he doesn't and it seems like the Redbirds will come up short in the pitching department for the second half.

Carpenter's shoulder is reportedly getting up to full strength. So, hopefully, he'll start trying to get his body into pitching shape in the next week or two and then he'll be able to head to the minor leagues to get some innings in.

Meanwhile, Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter are reportedly nearing a return, possibly as soon as this weekend when the Cardinals begin interleague play.

I'd sure feel a lot better about the St. Louis offense should Adron Chambers (.214) and Shane Robinson (.284) with Jay (.343 BA) as the starting centerfielder and Carpener (.288 with 20 RBI) as the first man off the bench.