Note: As of the writing of this post, Mike Matheny has not acknowledged the decline of Adam Wainwright, hence the question. A potential trip to the Disabled List is rumored, though not confirmed. If he spoke on this at some point before when this post is written and when it is posted, um, hey, look over there!
Mike Matheny and Adam Wainwright never played on the St. Louis Cardinals at the same time–Matheny departed via free agency after the 2004 season while Wainwright would not make his debut with the big league team until rosters expanded in September 2005.
But the two, while never teammates, represent something of a transition in modern Cardinals history. Matheny debuted as a Cardinal in 2000, the team’s first playoff season in four years–the Cardinals have not had a gap so long since. The season after Matheny left, Adam Wainwright debuted, and the season after that, in the first season for the Cardinals at the current Busch Stadium, Wainwright became a full-time member of the big-league club (oh, and got a spiffy ring for his efforts–you may remember it).
The next season, Wainwright went from the bullpen to the starting rotation and became one of the game’s more reliable starters. Depending on personal taste and where you fall regarding statistical gray areas, Wainwright is somewhere between the second and fifth best starting pitcher in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Wainwright accumulated more Wins Above Replacement under former manager Tony LaRussa than he has under Mike Matheny (this also works as the delineation between Wainwright before and after Tommy John surgery), and yet it is under Matheny that I largely associate Wainwright. Yes, he closed out a World Series under LaRussa, and yes, he finished in the top three of Cy Young voting twice, but while Wainwright was good, he was never the ace of the Cardinals until Chris Carpenter retired. Even when Wainwright was more effective, Carpenter was more beloved.
Less than two months after it was announced that Chris Carpenter would likely miss all of 2013 (this injury was the final straw for Carpenter, who officially retired following the end of his contract), the Cardinals signed Wainwright, entering the final year of his contract, to a five-year extension for $97.5 million. The Carpenter injury and Wainwright extension were probably mostly unrelated, but from a perception standpoint, the torch had been passed. Wainwright responded by, for the first and fourth times of his career, being named a Cy Young Award finalist. Players who sign extensions are generally at or slightly past their peak, and thus the end of the contract is less team-friendly than the beginning, but for the beginning parts, the Cardinals were surely delighted that, in the first season of the $19.5 million per season extension that Wainwright had signed, he was worth $37.1 million, per FanGraphs.
Entering Sunday, Wainwright had been worth $79.7 million over the course of the contract. If Wainwright’s first, and possibly last, start since returning from the Disabled List and subsequently a minor league rehab assignment, was any indication, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Adam Wainwright, from a strictly mechanical, FanGraphs WAR-based standpoint, will be worth the contract.
What happened isn’t really a mystery–Wainwright signed the contract at 31 to last until he was 38. He missed nearly a season, in 2015, after a seemingly fluke Achilles injury which occurred while he was batting happened. When he was clearly diminished in 2016, many speculated he might have been rusty. More likely, he was just old.
I have no inside knowledge on the matter, but it seems very unlikely that Adam Wainwright is pitching for the Cardinals next season. Extensions have not been seriously discussed by either side, and with Wainwright struggling, the Cardinals may be inclined to let their greatest pitcher since Bob Gibson pursue other opportunities, if said opportunities exist at all.
But for now, Adam Wainwright is a St. Louis Cardinal. He is a St. Louis Cardinal who, over the last three seasons, has a 4.76 ERA. He is a player now defined by control issues and often unimpressive velocity more than the sterling command he demonstrated throughout the early parts of his career. While his ERA stands at an even four runs per nine, his 5.59 FIP and 5.60 xFIP cast serious questions about his ability to contribute to the Cardinals this season.
What it comes down to is pretty simple–where does Wainwright rank among Cardinals pitchers? I’m not sure, but at this point I’d rather have Carlos Martinez, and Luke Weaver, and Miles Mikolas, and Michael Wacha, and Jack Flaherty. And I could make an argument for others, but these are five pitchers, none of whom are currently suffering long-term injuries (Carlos Martinez can come off the Disabled List in less than a week and all indications are that he probably will pretty soon after he can), theoretically enough to staff a starting rotation without Adam Wainwright in it.
Yesterday was Wainwright’s first start after returning from the Disabled List, and it appears that he is going right back to the DL. Wainwright looked shaky in Spring and began the season on the DL; he walked four batters in two of his first three starts and found himself on the DL again; after walking six batters yesterday, Wainwright finds himself on the DL again. There is plenty of circumstancial evidence to suggest the Cardinals keep tabling having to make a decision on Adam Wainwright. Do they want to cut him? Do they want to give him another whirl in the bullpen? It is not a pleasant decision, but it is one that ultimately could make a difference if Wainwright’s sporadic trial appearances are the margin which keeps the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
There is some recent precedent which could be alarming for the Cardinals. Most notably, there was Jhonny Peralta, an even more extreme version of the “team gets a bargain early in free agency, team pays for it in the later stages” contract–Peralta was a down-ballot MVP vote recipient in 2014 and on June 9, 2017, he was designated for assignment. On June 2 and June 3, Peralta started at third base. Peralta repeatedly received extra chances to redeem himself until the point where Peralta was taken away from him.
Adam Wainwright bouncing back and forth to and from the DL is both undignified and poor strategy. If this DL trip is a token move to safe face rather than being forced to designate one of the great players in franchise history for assignment, I can’t say I’m all that bothered by it–the cost is the same to the team, and perhaps by making things easier for Wainwright personally and professionally, the Cardinals can exhibit some player-friendly tendencies to others. This is admittedly a very small consolation prize compared to a universe in which Adam Wainwright is old Adam Wainwright (not to be confused with Old Adam Wainwright), but in the unpleasant, awkward situation that is the handling of 2018 Adam Wainwright, it might be the path of least resistance for all parties involved.