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Healthy Waino restores order in Cards' rotation @philgrogers

JUPITER, Fla. -- So you think the St. Louis Cardinals are vulnerable this year?

Really? Did you notice who they've already named as their Opening Day starter?

JUPITER, Fla. -- So you think the St. Louis Cardinals are vulnerable this year?

Really? Did you notice who they've already named as their Opening Day starter?

That would be old No. 50, Adam Wainwright.

Wainwright is the biggest security blanket the Cardinals have had in the 40 years since Bob Gibson retired. This guy is so good he can have a major impact even in a season when he blows out his Achilles tendon in April, like he did last year.

"How many games did we win the division by?'' Wainwright asked.

Two, over the Pirates.

"I started four games and we won three of them,'' Wainwright said on Thursday, his helmet still on his head after a round of batting practice. "We don't win without me.''

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Wainwright was smiling when he said it, and then pointed out he was joking. As if an explanation was needed.

Wainwright is too good of a teammate, too strong of a leader, to steal the credit that belongs elsewhere. But he isn't kidding when he says the Cards' pitching is in at least as good shape in 2016 as it was during the team's 100-win season a year ago.

Wainwright knows there are some people who disagree, who believe the Cardinals have lost their way with John Lackey and Jason Heyward joining the Cubs and Lance Lynn undergoing Tommy John surgery.

This viewpoint overlooks Wainwright being healthy -- and feeling as strong as he has in at least three years -- and the dependable Mike Leake having signed a five-year contract, essentially replacing Lackey, after the Cards were unsuccessful in landing David Price.

"I certainly don't think we're worse,'' Wainwright said. "I think you have to acknowledge that Lance and John Lackey are both great quality big league pitchers. I don't think there's anybody [who] would argue that. But the argument I make is -- so are myself and Mike Leake. When you look at our rotation, I don't think you should think there's going to be too much of a downturn.''

Wainwright actually believes the Cardinals' rotation will be better this season, thanks to the continued development of Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, who have made only 95 combined starts.

"You look at another year when Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez get into the game, get more comfortable as pitchers,'' Wainwright said. "They should grow, and if I'm not mistaken, they were All-Stars last year. I think their stuff is going to continue to grow. Their wisdom for pitching is going to continue to grow. From that regard, we're already better.''

Video: Wainwright, Grichuk, Matheny look ahead to 2016

Mike Matheny seconds the motion that the Cards' rotation can improve despite losing Lackey and Lynn, who were the staff leaders with 33 and 31 starts, respectively.

"I'm very excited about our staff,'' said Matheny, the fifth-year manager. "Leake's a great addition, trying to get somebody to come in and fill up some of that workload that Lance had. Lackey had a great year for us, no question. But we're talking about getting our ace back. That's a pretty good trade. Then try to build on what Carlos and Michael are able to do. That's the making of a good staff, and Jaime [Garcia] is always a wild card.''

More than anything else, pitching and defense -- run prevention, if you prefer -- was the key for the Cardinals winning the National League Central for the third year in a row and reaching the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. The rotation and a strong bullpen, anchored by Trevor Rosenthal, hung up a 2.94 ERA, the lowest in the Major Leagues by any staff since the 1988 Mets.

How much lower would that have been had Wainwright not torn his left Achilles breaking out of the batter's box in late April?

Who knows? All that matters now is that there's a noticeable spring in Wainwright's step as he goes through the drills that make up the tedium of the first few weeks of Spring Training. He's still a few days away from his first start, but he loves the way the ball feels coming out of his hand, as well as how he feels in the morning after throwing a bullpen.

"It's hard to admit that some time off helped me, because you want to be out there competing, you want to be out there helping your team,'' Wainwright said. "But I have to look at the positives. [With] the time away, my arm hasn't felt as fresh as it does now at any time since 2013. That was the last time my arm has felt anywhere close to this."

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Remaining in character, Wainwright pushed himself to get back from a seemingly season-ending injury in time to pitch out of the bullpen in the Cards' NL Division Series loss to the Cubs. But the 102 total pitches he has thrown since April 25 allowed him a lot of time to recover from throwing 733 1/3 innings from 2012-14, including 276 2/3 innings in '13.

Wainwright had minor surgery after the Cardinals' trip to the NL Championship Series in 2014, trimming frayed cartilage from his elbow. He had pitched in pain much of that season and now admits that some discomfort remained last spring.

The unwanted rest last season is paying dividends now.

"Because I had some lingering stuff [behind my elbow] since 2014, I hadn't been able to long toss,'' said Wainwright, who has a 2.98 ERA over 1,569 2/3 career regular-season innings. "I hadn't been able to throw more than about 90 feet in more than a year. In that time off, I was able to let my arm heal, rest and save some bullets. I was also able to get in that good throwing pattern again -- back it up, stretch it out. Get some good vibes going back in there, get some arm strength back. That had started to waver a bit.''

Matheny hopes there will be some "residual benefits'' from the extra rest, but to this point he hasn't seen anything except what he'd hoped he would see.

"He looks just like himself right now,'' Matheny said. "He looks like he's in the right place.''

That's great news for the Cardinals.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright