For thirteen days, I assumed that Adam Wainwright’s final appearance in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform would be a mediocre outing on a Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, surrendering four earned runs, including a home run (though with perfectly fine true-outcome totals of one walk and seven strikeouts), in an 8-4 loss to the hated Chicago Cubs which, in conjunction with a Los Angeles Dodgers loss later that night, sent the Cardinals’ odds of making the 2018 postseason to under one percent.
It felt uncomfortable. Not every athlete can go out on a high note, but this one felt particularly grim. Bob Gibson was shelled in his final Cardinals appearance–he allowed five runs in one inning–but at least it came before a friendly crowd (of 14,119, which seems impossible given a modern perspective) at Busch Stadium. Chris Carpenter pitched poorly in his final outing as well, but at least his came during a nationally-televised playoff game. Adam Wainwright’s came at Wrigley Field on a weekday game. I cursed day baseball, and I cursed the comfluence of events which led to a likely unceremonious end to the Cardinals career of arguably the second-greatest pitcher in franchise history.
Adam Wainwright made his MLB debut early in my junior year of high school. During my senior year, he closed out the first Cardinals World Series win in my lifetime. When I was in college, he went from starting pitching prospect to one of the better starters in baseball. In my post-college afterglow, Wainwright completed his transition from fresh-faced kid to grizzled veteran, all while not changing all that much. As a 24 year-old, Wainwright showed poise well beyond his years. As a 37 year-old, Wainwright remained one of the team’s goofiest and most jovial personalities. Some of you reading this don’t remember the Cardinals without Wainwright, but if you do, you were probably a very different person when he came into your life. And yet he remained the same Adam Wainwright you always knew.
Off the mound, that is. On the mound, it is impossible to deny that Adam Wainwright is not the same pitcher he once was. In 2010, at or near the peak of his career, Adam Wainwright threw 230 1/3 innings and had an ERA+, a metric which adjusts his ERA for league and park factors with 100 being a league-average pitcher and higher marks being better, of 160. Over his last three seasons, with varying levels of health, Wainwright posted an ERA+ of 88, 83, and 88. In each of the last three seasons, particularly in 2016 and 2017, Wainwright’s fielding-independent statistics indicated that he got somewhat unlucky, but not to such a degree that one could see anything better than an average pitcher without squinting.
On Thursday, the Cardinals announced that they had signed Adam Wainwright to a one-year extension. Details were not publicized (and as of when I submitted this to post, still had not been), but multiple reports indicate that the contract is built primarily around performance incentives. All parties–fans, the Cardinals themselves, and Wainwright–surely hope that he reaches these incentives–sure, the team might have to pay more, but if Wainwright is an effective pitcher in 2019 for the Cardinals, it’s a small price to pay.
But there is also a level of risk to even the most incentive-laden contract in that it will require the Cardinals to pay Wainwright something upfront. It means tying up a spot on the team’s roster with a 37 year-old who will not have pitched a full, above-average season in half a decade. It means, if Wainwright is ineffective, potentially forcing Mike Shildt to decide between a quantifiably sound decision and a clubhouse mutiny.
Much of the retrospective analysis of whether or not the Cardinals were smart to sign Adam Wainwright to an extension yesterday will focus on what can be measured. What was Adam Wainwright’s 2019 WAR? What does FanGraphs tell us the market value of said WAR is?
And maybe that should be the focus, rather than our feelings on players. After all, I can look at the numbers and watch the games and while I might not be able to precisely measure Adam Wainwright’s true baseball talent, I can come reasonably close. I don’t know Adam Wainwright. I’ve never met the guy. It’s possible we’d get along terribly. He seems nice and fun on TV, but he’s essentially an avatar upon which Cardinals fans have projected what they want Adam Wainwright to be. It’s possible the consensus on Wainwright is wrong, but the mere idea of Adam Wainwright has value itself.
What price tag would you put on “Yadier Molina remains a Cardinal through his 17th MLB season and likely retires without having worn another team’s uniform”? It may not be the $60 million that Molina is set to be paid through 2020, but it may be more than whatever gap one might see between that $60 million and his tangible, on-field contribution to the team. Adam Wainwright may not quite be Yadier Molina when it comes to local popularity (and unlike Molina, who will be the subject of passionate Hall of Famer arguments, Wainwright will likely have to settle for being a first-ballot Cardinals Hall of Famer), but he’s a close second. And whereas a $60 million contract does have genuine bust potential (though if Molina repeats his 2018 for the next two seasons, he’ll come an accounting error away from worth the cost by FanGraphs’s estimation), a one-year contract doesn’t have that level of downside.
Even if Adam Wainwright repeats his 2018 exactly–decimated by injuries, frequently ineffective–FanGraphs estimates his value last year as $3.7 million. If the Cardinals view Wainwright solely as depth, there are worse options. And in the case of Wainwright, they can keep selling his jerseys at the team store, which is a nice little bonus (my guess is the Cardinals could’ve made quite a bit extra money since December 2011 if they could keep manufacturing and selling Albert Pujols jerseys–not $254 million, but something). And while seeing Adam Wainwright in another uniform is certainly his right and not something which would totally destroy me emotionally, like, I’d rather not if possible.
Signing Adam Wainwright won’t (or at least certainly shouldn’t) be the focal point of the Cardinals’ offseason. But if the Cardinals are going to take some minor risks, they might as well make a move that provides some additional intangible benefits for their fans, one with a player who has earned over $134 million in his career and would likely be willing to sacrifice a marginal increase to his bank account for the comfort of remaining in the organization with which he has spent his entire Major League career. In the end, Wainwright was more valuable to the Cardinals than any other organization, and the Cardinals organization meant more to Wainwright than any other organization, and it made all the sense in the world for the two parties to come together and agree to an extension of their mutually beneficial relationship.