This spring’s most anticipated Cardinals story increasingly looks like it might bleed into the regular season — and perhaps beyond. The Cards continue to send out signals that they want to see Adam Wainwright excel within the regular season before negotiating a contract extension that would remove the club’s ace from November’s free agent class.

The Cardinals have noted Wainwright’s Tommy John surgery in the winter of 2011 as part of their consideration. Including three postseason starts, Wainwright worked 213 2/3 innings last year. He crafted a 2.76 earned-run average in July, then a 2.75 ERA while winning five of six starts in August.

A pitcher typically requires at least 18 months following elbow ligament replacement surgery to regain velocity, and Wainwright certainly did not throw with the same force in 2012 as he did in 2010, when he finished as runner-up to Roy Halladay in NL Cy Young Award balloting.

Wainwright gained the Cards’ final win last postseason, in Game 4 of the National League championship series, but was borderline defenseless, surrendering six earned runs and three home runs in a 2 2/3-inning outing in Game 5 of a division series against Washington.

If the Cardinals truly consider Wainwright a post-surgery risk, one wonders why the heavy workload in 2012.

It’s not a reach to believe that time spent evaluating Wainwright during the regular season would also be used to assess younger pitchers Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, all of whom project as fixtures in a future rotation.

Contract term appears to be the tallest hurdle separating the sides. Wainwright is believed to be seeking a minimum five-year guarantee while the club has shown reluctance to guarantee more than four. A two-year, $21 million club option stretched Wainwright’s current deal to six years. It’s highly debatable whether he would allow the team similar leverage in his next deal.