Workhorses pay price in following spring

The official diagnosis of Championship Hangover is rarely made in spring training. But here we are, two weeks before Opening Day, and the St. Louis Cardinals are exhibiting one telltale symptom: Their ace isn’t pitching.

To be clear, this isn’t about a team’s desire to win another title. It is, instead, the physical toll of playing a hyper-pressurized month of baseball while their brethren relax. And when you consider the Cardinals had to execute with postseason precision in September just to win the wild card, the latest Chris Carpenter news becomes somewhat less shocking.

Carpenter led the National League with 237 1/3 innings during the regular season. He added another 36 in the postseason, the last of them on short rest in Game 7. But his name has not appeared in any of the Cardinals’ box scores this spring — and won’t anytime soon. Carpenter left the Cardinals’ spring camp this week to see a specialist about discomfort that may be related to a bulging disc in his neck. He has suffered from nerve issues in the past, and this may be a recurrence.

We can’t draw a solid line from Carpenter’s heavy workload last year to the setback this spring. But it certainly appears that the innings have battered his 36-year-old body.

Last October’s lagging effect isn’t limited to older starting pitchers — and it already may have affected the losing team. Texas Rangers right-hander Neftali Feliz, who blew a one-strike-away save opportunity in Game 6 of the World Series, left a Tuesday start early because of shoulder stiffness.

While Carpenter’s injury appears the more serious of the two, the uncertain status of both pitchers highlights (a) how fortunate the Cardinals and Rangers were in 2011 and (b) how challenging it will be for them to maintain durable pitching staffs through the season ahead. (For what it’s worth, sources say neither team is pursuing free agent Roy Oswalt now; he wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day, anyway.)

The Cardinals benefited from a reliable starting five last year — even if co-ace Adam Wainwright was lost for the season after undergoing elbow surgery in spring training. Four pitchers — Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse — made at least 30 starts, and two veterans (Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson) effectively shared the other spot.

The Rangers, meanwhile, had five pitchers account for 157 of the 162 starts last year: C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando. The median major league team used nine starting pitchers last season, according to STATS LLC; Texas needed only seven.

Whatever the reason — good conditioning, good preparation, good coaching, good management, good luck, or some combination thereof — it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen every year.

The Chicago White Sox, for example, won the 2005 World Series largely on the strength of their pitching staff. Manager Ozzie Guillen needed just six starters to navigate the regular season. Each member of the postseason rotation — Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras — earned a complete-game victory during the American League Championship Series.

So what happened the next year?

“There was a bill to pay,” White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper remembered Wednesday, and he was right. All four returning rotation members saw their ERAs increase. Buehrle’s skyrocketed, from 3.12 during the championship season to 4.99 in 2006.

And no, the White Sox didn’t repeat.

One year after that, they lost 90 games.

“It wasn’t necessarily that obvious the next year, but it certainly was over the next two,” Cooper continued. “I would have to say Freddy and Buehrle probably took the biggest hits. Not that they were bad the next year, but I thought their stuff from then on took a gradual turn. It wasn’t quite as strong.

“Freddy had some physical stuff after that. Buehrle, too. Their fastballs went down a little bit.”

If Carpenter proves to be an isolated case for this year’s Cardinals — or if he’s not that badly injured after all — then they should be able to stay afloat in the winnable National League Central.

But the inverse would be frightening: What if Carpenter is merely the first St. Louis starter to exhibit signs of fatigue? What if this is the prelude to a season of pitching crises for rookie manager Mike Matheny (not Tony La Russa) and rookie pitching coach Derek Lilliquist (not Dave Duncan)?

For now, at least, the Rangers appear to have more pitching depth than the Cardinals. And it’s young depth: Among those in the projected rotation, only Lewis is older than 26.

The Rangers still expect Feliz to be available for the start of the regular season. But if his shoulder issues linger, Ogando (currently slated for bullpen duty) can move back into the rotation. Scott Feldman looms as another option to start.

Then again, the ’10-’11 Rangers played the most postseason games in history over a two-year span without winning a World Series. That’s stress of a different kind — and one more thing they must overcome on the long, perilous journey back to October.