The idea that a baseball player is entitled to anything beyond the salary which he has been promised from a baseball team has never been a notion that made much sense to me. And I say this as somebody who is generally fiercely pro-labor: when Adam Wainwright signed his current five-year, $97.5 million contract which expires following this season and will likely mark the end of his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals, the obligations were entirely surface level–the Cardinals were obliged to pay Adam Wainwright $97.5 milllion and Adam Wainwright was obliged to play for the Cardinals for five seasons. And while injuries have derailed Wainwright during the last half-decade, he’s made every reasonable effort to pitch and to pitch effectively.
From the beginning of the contract, and is more abundantly clear now as Wainwright has visibly declined, the cost of Adam Wainwright is a sunk one. His services cost $19.5 million in his Cy Young-cailber 2014 campaign and they cost $19.5 million in this seemingly lost final chapter. If Adam Wainwright languishes in Cardinals purgatory and never throws another pitch for the Cardinals, or if he finds himself in the bullpen, or if he turns into Max Scherzer for the remainder of 2018 and forces the Cardinals to seriously consider extending a qualifying offer to him, his pay is the same. The Cardinals are under no obligation to let Adam Wainwright start the very meaningful games coming up this September, as they plan to do next Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. They need not be swayed by sentiment but rather the cold, practical value of 2018 Adam Wainwright.
Adam Wainwright’s four MLB starts in 2018 aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement for giving him more starts, though it’s worth noting that at no point was he removed from the rotation aside from trips to the Disabled List. His 4.00 ERA was acceptable, if not illustrious, but his lack of control led to a disastrous 7.0 walks per nine innings and a 5.60 fielding-independent pitching. In his best of the four starts, he still allowed four walks in five innings. In his last start, Wainwright only made it as far as the third inning, walking six batters while recording just seven outs. He had never pitched this poorly over a full season, but he has been in undeniable decline leading up to this season–in 2017, Wainwright had a 5.11 ERA and while his FIP suggests he got unlucky, a 4.29 mark isn’t exactly something to brag about.
But his minor league rehabilitation stints in preparation for potentially rejoining the St. Louis Cardinals during the final month of his contract suggest that Adam Wainwright may have turned a corner. In six outings, with seventeen total innings, Wainwright allowed zero runs, walking four and striking out twenty-three batters. The quality of competition, of course, is not quite what the St. Louis Cardinals will be facing in September (and hopefully October), but his peripherals were in line with his results. This isn’t 2002 Andy Benes, who got extraordinarily lucky in 17 starts to post an ERA nearly two full runs lower than his FIP. Even if one were to regress his strikeout totals and assume that MLB players will have a more patient eye, this appears to be something closer to vintage Adam Wainwright than the lesser version we’ve seen over the last few seasons.
Expecting Peak Wainwright is probably a bit overly optimistic, but a competent late-career second wind isn’t an impossibility. To steal a cue from Craig Edwards, at the time writing for Viva El Birdos, CC Sabathia’s turn from Cy Young-caliber ace to shell of his former self to competent back-end of the rotation piece is one example of recent precedent that older pitchers can still perform.
Truthfully, while I consider his minor league outings a good sign, I’m not convinced that Wainwright is “back”, per se, but in order to justify a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, he doesn’t really have to be. This is one of those “you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other guy” situations–Adam Wainwright doesn’t have to be better than Miles Mikolas nor Jack Flaherty, but rather be better than, say, Luke Weaver, who has a 4.59 ERA and 4.21 FIP this season. Or Daniel Poncedeleon, the unacclaimed prospect with an xFIP of nearly five.
There is a chance that Adam Wainwright arrives back in the Majors and immediately falls to pieces, at which point it is incumbent that manager Mike Shildt have a relatively short leash on the experiment. I understand why Cardinals fans might be a bit scarred by managers having extreme loyalty to “their guys”, but Wainwright is no more a Mike Shildt guy than the guys with whom he is competing. Shildt has never managed during an Adam Wainwright start. And assuming a relatively quick hook, the downside of a Wainwright start isn’t that dramatic, particularly with expanded rosters and other pitchers who can pitch multiple innings waiting in the wings. The upside is much higher, as Wainwright could help stabilizing the rotation. The most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle, but even that would be a net positive.
The Cardinals may not owe Adam Wainwright anything, but they still should put themselves in the best possible situation to succeed. Whether Adam Wainwright gives the team the best opportunity to succeed remains to be seen, but there’s only one way to find out.