BATTER UP! GET 6 MONTHS FOR $19.99
St. Louis Cardinals announce signing of starting pitcher Mike Leake

St. Louis Cardinals senior vice president and general manager John Mozeliak (left) and newly signed starting pitcher Mike Leake (right) take questions from the media signed during a press conference at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. Photo By David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Gritty John Lackey jumped to the archrival Chicago Cubs via free agency after leading the Cardinals rotation in 2015.

Reliable Lance Lynn had Tommy John surgery after winning 60 games during the last four seasons.

The loss of two top-end hurlers would haunt most teams. But Cardinals manager Mike Matheny believes his starting pitching is not just all right, it’s Wainwright.

“Whenever you have a healthy Adam Wainwright, that’s a difference-maker right off the top,” Matheny said at the Winter Warm-Up.

“Hopefully you think that replacing Lackey with me is OK,” Wainwright said. “I like to think that’s a decent trade. But you also add Mike Leake in the situation. So we lose Lackey and Lance Lynn, two great innings-eating pitchers that are just quality big-league pitchers, but in my mind you added two pretty good ones as well.”

Wainwright is back in his No. 1 role after spending most of last season rehabilitating his Achilles tendon tear. His return, plus the addition of Leake in free agency, positions the Cardinals to win the National League arms race.

Baseball success starts on the mound and no team can match this squad’s top-end quality, near-term depth and long-term promise.

“I think it’s (number) ones and twos,” Leake said. “I think we have the chance to be the best rotation. It’s a bunch of young guys with Wainwright. I think we can be as good as we work to be.”

Wainwright won 92 games during a five-year span before getting hurt last season. Leake, a former eighth overall draft pick, won 64 games in his first six big-league seasons.

Together with Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38 earned-run average last season), Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.01 ERA) and Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43) they present a most formidable fivesome.

“You hate to lose a Lance, just such a horse, a guy who I believe still has maybe some of his best pitching ahead of him,” Matheny said. “We believe Mike is going to be a guy that comes in here, just like what we said about Lance ... we’re going to see some strong production from him. I like everything he brings to the table.

“And then obviously with Michael and Carlos taking a step further in their career, anybody would put them right there in the middle of their rotation at any point.”

Wainwright is feeling fresh after pitching just 33 1/3 regular-season and playoff innings. His swift recovery allowed him to finish last season as a reliever, then train normally this winter.

“You hate to say that missing time helped you because you just want to be out there helping your team,” Wainwright said. “But honestly, my arm greatly benefited from that year, last year, having some time to rest, it did.”

Garcia also is feeling strong after actually getting through a season without suffering another injury. “I’m good to go, man,” he said. “I’m prepared myself to be better than what the Cardinals expect me to be.”

After suffering an unusual stress reaction shoulder injury in 2014, Wacha returned to full strength last season and made 30 starts, gaining quite an education in the process.

“You learn a lot during a season in your first full season for sure, about the ups and downs,” he said. “Obviously you’re going to go through streaks where you are pitching well and where you’re not pitching well. It’s about how you can get through that and compete through that.”

Martinez stayed in Jupiter, Fla., over the winter, preparing for his second full season as a starting pitcher. The team hopes his supervised training regimen will help him avoid the shoulder fatigue that shelved him late last season and forced him to miss the playoffs.

“It’s getting better,” Martinez said. “I think I have like 90 percent of my arm. I will be better in spring training. I’ll be ready for the season.”

Depth also should be a strength this season. Tyler Lyons should make the club as a lefty relief specialist or as a multi-inning middle reliever and fill-in starter.

That would leave fellow lefties Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales at the top of the Memphis rotation in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League — unless one of them makes the Cardinals as a third bullpen lefty.

Cooney was impressive last season at Memphis and in his first six big-league starts. Had he not suffered a season-ending bout of appendicitis, he would have returned to the majors in September.

“I definitely proved, at least to myself, that I know that I can pitch at the big-league level and I can have success here,” Cooney said. “There is not really that doubt, ‘Can I do it?’”

Gonzales offered significant late-season help two seasons back, but he spent much of last season dealing with a shoulder impingement. A winter of rest and rehabilitation has him back to full strength.

“I learned a lot of lessons last year,” Gonzales said. “I learned a lot about my body, the way my shoulder works and the work I need to put in to move forward and be healthy.”

Beyond Cooney and Gonzales, the Cardinals have potential ace Alex Reyes in development. But for his ill-timed 50-game drug suspension, Reyes would have come to spring training with an opportunity to turn heads. Instead, he will have to wait until late May to resume his climb.

“I feel like my change-up has been the separation, my change-up has been the pitch that helped me throughout this last year,” Reyes said. “My curveball has been pretty good. Just being able to command it is what we’ve been working on. I’m excited for next season.”

Once again the Cardinals should be able to find strength in numbers. All of these pitchers could have a positive impact.

“We know we have a good staff,” said Martinez, who chatted up reporters at the Winter Warm-Up without the aide of an interpreter. “We have a good team right now. We are the Cardinals. I’m a believer in all my teammates. We can get into the championship.”

Keep up with the latest Cardinals coverage from our award-winning team of reporters and columnists.