Cards’ dominoes fall with Wainwright

The Cardinals are built on two strengths — their starting pitching and the Albert Pujols/Matt Holliday combination in the middle of their batting order.

The loss of right-hander Adam Wainwright for an extended period would greatly compromise the team’s 2011 chances and raise new questions about Pujols’ future with the club.

Wainwright returned to St. Louis on Wednesday morning to undergo an examination on his right elbow. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told reporters he believes the injury is “significant” and that the early word is “not encouraging.”

All signs point to Wainwright requiring Tommy John surgery, which would force him to miss the next 12-18 months. The Cardinals likely would try to sign one of the remaining free-agent starters, perhaps right-handers Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman. But no one they could add would adequately replace Wainwright, who finished second in the National League Cy Young voting last season and third the year before.

The potential domino effect is troubling, too.

• The absence of Wainwright would increase the Cardinals’ reliance on Chris Carpenter, who turns 36 on April 27 and is coming off a 235-inning season, his heaviest workload since 2005.

• Another of the team’s top starters, lefty Jaime Garcia, 24, pitched 163-1/3 innings in the majors last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2008 season and working only 37-2/3 innings in the minors in ’09.

• The rotation depth beyond right-handers Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse was a question even before Wainwright was hurt; the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect, righty Shelby Miller, 20, is expected to start the season at high Class A.

And as if that’s not enough, the team is thinning in other areas, as well: Utility infielder Nick Punto, signed to back up oft-injured third baseman David Frese, will miss 8-12 weeks with a sports hernia.

Manager Tony La Russa excels in such trying circumstances, drawing the most out of his clubs. None of the other NL Central contenders figures to run away with the division. But without Wainwright, it’s at least plausible the Cardinals might fall out of contention by July.

Pujols, entering the final year of his contract, has indicated he would not waive his no-trade rights, sources say. His position, however, likely was predicated on the assumption the Cardinals would be in the race. If they fell out — and a potential trade partner was willing to give Pujols the contract extension he desired — why wouldn’t he approve a trade?

Perhaps a more realistic question is whether the loss of Wainwright would make Pujols more pessimistic about the Cardinals’ chances of winning in the near future — and not simply because Wainwright would miss at least the start of ’12.

The Cardinals hold a $15 million option on Carpenter for ’12; they can trade him, exercise the option, extend his contract or lose him to free agency. Wainwright’s two-year, $21 million option for ’12 and ’13, meanwhile, will become guaranteed only if he does not finish the season on the team’s disabled list. Thus, Tommy John surgery also would create uncertainty about his long-term future with the club.

The Cardinals’ farm system, ranked 24th in the majors by Baseball America, is not strong enough to reinforce the major league club, a fact of which Pujols is surely aware.

The team could lose more than a pitcher if Wainwright is out for the season. His injury might be another step toward losing Pujols, too.