JUPITER, Fla. • Since 2003 the Cardinals have never reached the postseason without a significant contribution from Chris Carpenter. They have missed only once with him available. Coupled with Carpenter’s monstrous innings load last season, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner’s obvious connection to success and failure has prompted the club to strongly consider modifying his program for this spring.
Carpenter, manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist on Saturday confirmed ongoing discussions about Carpenter skipping one or even two exhibition starts as he readies for a projected Opening Day start against the Miami Marlins.
"It’s something we’ve been discussing for awhile," Matheny said before a morning meeting with his coaching staff. "Chris has been involved in the process and whatever decision is made will certainly include his input. It’s accurate to say things will take final shape as we move along."
Matheny described three options: Carpenter could skip two starts, one start or none. However, a modification appears highly likely since the notion of modifying Carpenter’s spring program began before Dave Duncan stepped down as pitching coach last month.
"It’s a conversation that we’ve been having for awhile and I think Carp’ understands that we’re trying to put him in the best position possible not only for Opening Day, but the entire season," Matheny said.
Carpenter, who turns 37 in April, threw 273 innings and made 40 starts during the team’s 90-win regular season and October rush to a World Series championship. The pitcher remembers well the payback he encountered after shouldering heavy innings from 2004-06. The aftermath included elbow ligament transplant in 2007 and a nerve disorder that greeted his return in 2008. Carpenter briefly contemplated a career-threatening surgery to correct the nerve condition before deciding upon a successful path of rest and rehabilitation.
"It’s not unfair to bring that up," allowed Carpenter, who also endured two shoulder surgeries prior to making his first start for the Cardinals in 2004. "It happened. It happened in Toronto and it happened here."
The Cardinals and Carpenter insist any modification this spring represent a proactive move, not a response to an injury.
Carpenter experienced back stiffness after making a two-day drive last week from St. Louis to Roger Dean Stadium but said that Sunday’s scheduled bullpen session is not in question.
"Mike and Lilly both said they thought it was a good idea. I said I’ll do whatever they need me to do. They’re still going to see how it goes," Carpenter explained. "I think (missing) one or two starts in spring isn’t going to do a whole lot. I’m going to be prepared to go. I know what my body’s telling me to do. I’m going to push it to a level that makes sure I’m ready to pitch Opening Day. My goal is not necessarily to concern myself with being 100 percent on February 20, or whatever."
Said Lilliquist: "It’s all going to be based on how he feels. He’s experienced enough that he knows to be prepared for the season. We’ll adjust it and tailor it as we see fit."
Carpenter returned to the rotation in 2009 to lead the National League in ERA and to finish second in Cy Young Award balloting. He worked a league-most 35 starts in 2010 and last season amassed 273 innings in 39 starts covering the regular season and postseason. The Cardinals’ presumptive Opening Day starter also signed a two-year, $21 million extension last September.
As the Cardinals reached the postseason with a 23-9 rush, Carpenter repeatedly found himself in high-leverage situations. He started the regular-season finale against the Houston Astros in which the Cardinals overtook the Atlanta Braves for the NL wild card.
Carpenter lasted at least seven innings in eight of his final 10 regular-season starts before dealing with elbow stiffness during last October’s Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. Still, he returned to throw a complete-game, 1-0 shutout opposite Phillies ace Roy Halladay in an epic Game 5. Carpenter made three more postseason starts — including World Series Game 7 against the Texas Rangers on short rest. The Cardinals won five of Carpenter’s six postseason starts; they won six of their other 12 games.
Carpenter could end up throwing fewer exhibition innings than Adam Wainwright, who is less than a year removed form an elbow ligament transplant that ended his 2011 season before it began. Wainwright has impressed in early sessions against hitters and is expected to work a full routine alongside Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, according to Lilliquist.
Carpenter’s schedule likely means fewer spring innings but the same amount of preparation. Carpenter could replace game action with appearances in live sessions against teammates.
"We would replace starts with live BP’s... something like that," Carpenter said. "I spoke with Lilly the other day and spoke with Mike (on Thursday) to understand their feelings and let them know my feelings. Again, I’m not concerned about a 30-pitch start in spring training if they feel it’s going to benefit me in September."
Any complication with Carpenter’s health stirs unwelcome seismic activity within the organization. Carpenter threw 696 innings in 2004-06 then was lost for the ’07 season after experiencing pain in his right elbow Opening Day. The Cardinals finished with a losing record for the only time last decade. An inability to retain a starting role following his return in July 2008 factored heavily in the Cardinals’ failed pursuit of the Chicago Cubs.
Carpenter has thrown 508 innings the last two seasons, including a league-most 237 1/3 innings last regular season. Concerns about the rotation’s depth have already led general manager John Mozeliak to test the market for free agent Roy Oswalt, who remains available.