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03/22/12 3:29 PM ET

Cardinals have to tread water with Carp out

Club will miss the presence of ace right-hander, team leader

JUPITER, Fla. -- Chris Carpenter's impact on the St. Louis Cardinals' 2011 World Series run is rather simply stated.

"We," says right-hander Jake Westbrook, "just kind of jumped on his back."

And when you put it that way, perhaps it's little wonder that Carpenter is now dealing with a bulging cervical disc, enduring a spring setback that forced a return to St. Louis to see a nerve specialist this week.

The Cardinals, as of this writing, still don't have a timetable to relay with regard to Carpenter, beyond the obvious fact that he won't be ready for Opening Day. On Thursday, there were more tests, more discussions to be had with regard to Carp's condition.

But it's safe and suffice enough to say this isn't good, for Carpenter and for the Cards at large. It's also, unfortunately, not terribly surprising, either. There are concerns in the aftermath of any deep postseason run about the workload endured by the pitchers in place, and especially so when the pitcher in question is a month away from turning 37 and has as lengthy an injury history as Carpenter does.

You have to feel for a sporting warrior like Carpenter, who has willed his body and his team to excellence countless times over the years, with the empty Advil bottles to show for it. He had shoulder surgery that caused him to miss most of 2002 and all of '03. He had a nerve problem in his right arm that shut him down early in '04. He had elbow and nerve issues that limited him to just four starts between '07 and '08, and the nerve problems sprouted again in 2010.

It's been a traumatic trend, but Carpenter and the Cards' training staff have continually put in the time and effort to get him in position to compete. And the last two years, he's taken the ball every time he's been asked, and then some. He logged 508 1/3 innings between 2010 and '11 -- a gargantuan tally by today's standards -- and he almost single-handedly kept the Cards' season alive with his epic performance in Game 5 of last year's Division Series against Roy Halladay and the Phillies.

"He willed us into the playoffs," Matt Holliday says. "His toughness, I think, gives us toughness as a team. We feed off his toughness and competitiveness. That brings a lot of the swagger to our team."

A Cardinals club sans Carp is not sans swagger, but he undoubtedly affects the percentages in their bid to repeat.

The immediate solution is to leave Lance Lynn stretched out as a starter and to hope the svelte frame and strong stuff Jake Westbrook has shown this spring helps shore up the rotation's back end, while the return of Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery obviously fleshes out the front. Eventually, but not immediately, Shelby Miller, one of baseball's top prospects, could be ready to contribute this year, but with only 86 Double-A innings under his belt, that time is not now.

If Carpenter's timetable continues to drag, the Cards would be remiss not to explore other options from the outside, but it's always a crowded and costly market and especially so when clubs do their in-spring evaluations and, in many cases, get desperate.

The knee-jerk reaction is to assert that a call must be placed to Roy Oswalt, who will be hoisting a "this gun's for hire" sign midseason. In terms of a "been there, done that" veteran who can help lead a staff, there's no comparable pitcher to Oswalt on the open market or the trade market.

But with Oswalt, you're accepting and assuming quite a bit of injury risk, as well, given his recent history. And even if he signed tomorrow, it would be weeks before he's extended and ready to contribute to a Major League club.

By now, we know the two biggest names on the trade market belong to the Nats' John Lannan and the Phillies' Joe Blanton. We can probably add Freddy Garcia to the list, now that Andy Pettitte's back in the Bronx. Beyond that, the impact starting market does not appear to be fleshed out.

And neither, of course, is Carpenter's timetable. A more substantive update on his condition should come by week's end.

What is clear, though, is that the Cards, in addition to losing a Hall of Fame player in Albert Pujols and a Hall of Fame manager in Tony La Russa, are now footing the bill for their October glory. Red flags would have been flying around Carpenter even if he had made it through spring camp healthy, because, at some point, all that wear and tear on a body and arm that age take a toll.

"We'll just try to tread water until we get him back," Holliday says.

The Cards, of course, were able to tread water just fine without Wainwright last season, but it's naïve to blindly assume the Carpenter situation is comparable. For one, every season has its own storyline. And while Wainwright's return is uplifting and he has looked like his old self in camp, there could be limits to his impact, in addition to his innings, after a year away.

And so the Carpenter situation is watched closely. This club jumped on Carp's back last year, and now he's hurting.

With the World Series rings on order, it seems a price worth paying. But it's a price all the same.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.