Not all prospects acquired via trade pan out; in fact, most don’t. Especially when the threshold for a prospect is justifying missing out on 2004 J.D. Drew, a 162 wRC+ hitter whose eight-win season was unfairly overshadowed by his former team’s “MV3” (Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen) performing at the peak of their powers, Adrian Beltre having his best season in a contract year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Barry Bonds being Barry Bonds, it can be nearly impossible for such a loss to feel trivial in retrospect.
Adam Wainwright, however, managed to live up to all expectations. And now, with Wainwright being moved to the 60-day Disabled List, it appears increasingly likely that his 14-year St. Louis Cardinals career is coming to a close.
Wainwright’s career may not be over, even if his time with the Cardinals comes to a close; the Cardinals have an above-average amount of rotation depth in their high minor leagues, and a team with less depth may be more willing to take a chance on an Adam Wainwright rebound. Yes, he would likely have to take a massive paycut from his $19.5 million salary, but Wainwright’s potential worth to an MLB team is more than zero. But it appears that his time as a dominant pitcher is over, and that his legacy in Major League Baseball has more or less been written.
At 38.1 career Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, Wainwright ranks 15th in St. Louis Cardinals franchise history. He is sandwiched between Johnny Mize and Jim Edmonds, two Cardinals Hall of Famers, on the list. Wainwright outranks all of the 2018 Cardinals Hall of Fame fan ballot finalists by career WAR, including inductees Ray Lankford (barely) and Vince Coleman (considerably). Given his longevity and general popularity (not to mention his recency), Wainwright is a shoo-in for the Cardinals Hall three years after his retirement from Major League Baseball. As a millennial who spends his free time writing about baseball on the internet, I don’t have life savings, but if I did, I would bet it on this happening.
Despite his Cardinals Hall bona fides, Wainwright is an extreme longshot for the big Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. No starting pitcher with fewer than Wainwright’s 34.2 pitching WAR is enshrined in Cooperstown (though Rube Marquard, at 34.4 WAR, being eclipsed by Wainwright this season is not unreasonable, and former Cardinal Jesse Haines stands at a relatively modest 35.6 WAR). Eyeballing Wainwright’s company on the all-time WAR leaderboard leads me to Larry Dierker, a fine pitcher primarily for the Houston Astros (and briefly with the Cardinals) who was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot, receiving zero votes. Wainwright might fare a little better, but probably not much better. He might receive a vote. He won’t receive enough.
But looking at career WAR to evaluate modern pitchers is a bit misleading. There’s a reason the top 24 in single-season WAR photograph is a hodgepodge of black and white photos plus Dwight Gooden–aside from Babe Ruth, the list is dominated by pitchers from a long-bygone era. Even Gooden, by far the most modern player in the top 24 (Ruth is second-most modern), pitched 276 2/3 innings in his legendary 1985 season. No pitcher has come within 25 innings of that total in the 2010s. As a direct result, pitchers do not have as many opportunities for truly dominant seasons.
In the 21st century, Adam Wainwright ranks 31st in Wins Above Replacement among pitchers. Since he entered the rotation at the start of the 2007 season, Wainwright, despite missing all of 2011 and most of 2015 during that stretch, ranks 15th. This is a solid ranking, putting him above the likes of Gio Gonzalez, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and James Shields. That said, it takes a very Cardinals-leaning perspective to view this as the marks of an all-time great rather than as a very solid pitcher who will be remembered more as a Mike Cuellar than as a Jim Palmer in the long term.
Wainwright’s Cardinals legacy is more than his WAR total. First of all is that, with the obvious exception of Bob Gibson, the Cardinals don’t necessarily have a long list of all-timers on the mound (Steve Carlton doesn’t count). Wainwright ranks fourth in WAR among pitchers in franchise history, 3.5 behind Dizzy Dean and 1.8 behind Harry Brecheen. Dean was dominant; Brecheen had longevity; Wainwright had a little bit of both, never winning a Cy Young Award (or, like Dean, an MVP award), but being a mainstay at or near the top of the Cardinals rotation for a decade–as unbelievable as it may sound, Dizzy Dean made his final start with the Cardinals at age 27.
Adam Wainwright had at least 198 innings pitched (that classic benchmark, 198 innings!) on seven occasions, tying him for second-most such seasons in franchise history. Unsurprisingly, Bob Gibson is #1 (with 12 seasons with 198+ innings pitched), and two of the other three pitchers with seven pre-date the Great Depression–the aforementioned Jesse Haines and Bill Doak. The other pitcher with seven is perhaps the most obvious Cardinals comp to Adam Wainwright–Bob Forsch.
Bob Forsch was a beloved Cardinals starting pitcher, spending fifteen seasons with the Cardinals. He won 163 games in St. Louis, and his career spanned the mediocre 1970s through three pennants in the 1980s. Less than a week before Forsch’s premature death in 2011, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. Even when the game has been pushed back due to rain, this is not a spot given out haphazardly. Bob Forsch was a big deal.
He also wasn’t half the pitcher Adam Wainwright was.
Longevity may not be alluring when it comes to Hall of Fame voting, as the Sandy Koufax types who are otherwordly great for short spurts but aren’t necessarily great compilers tend to be favored, but it does build a local legacy. Bob Forsch means more to St. Louis than his WAR rank not because fans overrated him (well, not entirely because of that, at least), but because he was around for a generation. Fans who weren’t yet in kindergarten when Forsch debuted were in college by the time he was traded to the Houston Astros. Wainwright is that for the Forsch generation’s children.
Adam Wainwright, of course, is not completely done. But it’s worth pointing out that even if he is, he is an important player in Cardinals history. Those outside St. Louis don’t have to feel the same way for Cardinals fans to treasure Adam Wainwright.