Shadows cast: The 2012 season is in doubt for two of baseball’s best pitchers

It didn’t take long for injuries to start shaping the face of the 2012 Major League Baseball season. Days after feeling discomfort in his throwing elbow, Royals all-star closer Joakim Soria is still deciding what to do. There’s no question about the damage to his elbow, it’s to the point where he is starring Tommy John surgery directly in the face. It’s a surgery Soria knows all to well, as he has already undergone the procedure once in his career.

Soria has been a tremendous closer to this point in his career, posting 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.5 walks per nine innings with a 2.40 ERA and 2.90 FIP over 315.1 total innings. Last season, despite his struggles, he still managed to post about 9 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. The numbers suggested that this could very well have been a bounce-back season for Soria, if only he could regain the nastiness of his curve and change, both of which seemed to lose touch with their ferocious bite at times last season.

Now, however, it seems almost certain that such a comeback will have to wait. It’s likely that the next time Soria takes the mound, he will not just be coming back from a 4.03 ERA, but also, on top of that, a season lost to a surgery that seems almost routine these days.

On the bright side, the Royals have options to fill-in during Soria’s absence, if not take over completely despite his future return to the mound.

Greg Holland had a tremendous season in 2011, punching out almost 32 percent of the batters he faced (74) while walking only 19 in 60 innings. He posted the sixth most wins above replacement (WAR) of any qualified reliever last season and his slider was quantified as the most effective in baseball. It remains to be seen if the control he displayed in 2011 will stand – he walked just over four per nine in 250.2 minor league innings – but his strong track record of striking batters out at a high rate should aide his continued success in the big leagues.

Then there’s big Jonathan Broxton, who is making a comeback of is own after managing only 12.2 innings last season before finally shutting himself down with an elbow injury in early May. Broxton has looked somewhat like his old self this spring, reaching the mid-90s with his heater and striking out three batters while walking one in three spring innings. Broxton is the one with closing experience, but he probably needs to prove that he can not only stay healthy, but that he can harness his control once again and limit baserunners.

Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, the Royals are going to be worse off while Soria is out of action. Relievers that post around two WAR per season — which Soria had done every season since 2007, with last year being the one exception — are not easy to come by.

In St. Louis, the situation with regard to starting pitcher Chris Carpenter a bit is less certain, which is, in a way, a good thing. In Soria’s case, it’s pretty much certain that he will miss significant time, regardless of whether he opts for surgery or not. For Carpenter and the Cardinals, it’s more of a wait-and-see atmosphere.

Carpenter has been dealing with discomfort in his neck throughout the month of March, but after over a week of rest, he was still feeling pain as he attempted to resume his throwing regiment over the weekend and into Monday. Now, he sits back home in St. Louis, awaiting results on further testing in hopes of pinpointing the problem and finding a solution. No matter what the prognosis, however, it is being reported that Carp will start the 2012 season on the disabled list.

Dealing with major injuries is nothing new for Carpenter. He pitched only 73.1 innings in 2002 before having surgery to repair a torn Labrum in his throwing shoulder. Then, after three successful seasons from 2004 to 2006, he hit the operating table once more, this time for Tommy John surgery. When he returned from his rehab in 2008, he encountered yet another injury, a shoulder ailment, though one that was labeled a strain and did not require surgery. Since his comeback in 2009, Carp has been a tremendous pitcher, posting 14.3 WAR while picthing at least 190 innings (over 230 the past two seasons) in those three seasons.

This injury, however, puts Carpenter in unknown territory. How long will he be out? We don’t rightly know yet, but his replacement, Lance Lynn, has his work cut out for him. Lynn pitched fairly well out of the bullpen and in two spot starts for St. Louis last season — 3.12 ERA, 2.88 FIP in 34.2 innings – but his minor league numbers (2.4 K/BB, 3.69 ERA) are only mildly intriguing.

The Cardinals managed to win a World Series title without Cy Young runner-up Adam Wainwright last season, but it’s a lot to ask of a team to battle through 162 games once again without a co-ace.

The injuries to both Soria and Carpenter are yet to play out, but no matter what the outcome, one thing is for sure: Baseball is better with both players on the mound.