Adam Wainwright was not the best pitcher available this off-season. Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg was/were (and is/are). Either would be a valuable addition to the St. Louis Cardinals, but not uniquely so. Gerrit Cole has built a growing legacy with the Houston Astros and would remain a valuable member of the team’s World Series-contending rotation; meanwhile, his Southern California roots would make him a logical fit for the Los Angeles Angels or San Diego Padres, two pitcher-starved teams that would cherish his services. Stephen Strasburg is a World Series hero for the Washington Nationals and, as a San Diego native himself, makes him an intuitive fit for the Padres as well. Either would fit on the Cardinals; neither, once one divorces one’s self from blind Cardinals partisanship, is the fit.
Adam Wainwright is.
Adam Wainwright, who re-signed with the Cardinals today on a one-year contract for his sixteenth season in St. Louis, is, to twenty-nine other MLB teams, a guy with a 4.19 ERA and 4.36 FIP in 2019. He is a guy who pitched well in two postseason starts and logged a respectable 171 2/3 innings last season. At 2.1 Wins Above Replacement by Baseball Reference’s measure and 2.2 by FanGraphs’s, Wainwright is an average-ish MLB starting pitcher—his park-adjusted ERA was exactly 1% better than league average and his park-adjusted FIP was exactly league average. For most teams, he is the equivalent of a nice, cold glass of lemonade—it’s something that sounds appealing in the abstract but you probably aren’t going to pay more than a few bucks to get. In a world where the Cardinals don’t exist but Wainwright’s track record does, he probably signs a one or two-year deal in February for a few million bucks per year.
But for the St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright is a definitive part of the team’s history. He is the pitcher who has recorded the final out of an NLCS, a World Series, and an NLDS (2006, 2006, and 2013, respectively). He is, by the imperfect but ultimately objective measure of Wins Above Replacement, the 12th greatest player in St. Louis Cardinals history, and if he repeats his 2019 performance in 2020, he would pass Lou Brock and Dizzy Dean while equaling Curt Flood on the list. He is unequivocally the greatest St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher since Bob Gibson and is, with the possible exception of his long-time teammate Chris Carpenter, certainly the most beloved. While Wainwright may not get his number retired by the Cardinals, new members of the team would certainly be advised to avoid the number 50 for at least a few years after his time as a Cardinal comes to an end.
And from Wainwright’s perspective, he gets to stay put. There is value in consistency, and while I certainly believe he could survive playing elsewhere, he now won’t have to test it. One-team players are increasingly rare in Major League Baseball—only Clayton Kershaw and the presently-unsigned Felix Hernandez come particularly close in terms of innings pitched with one and only one team. Those who saw Hernandez’s final start in Seattle this season know how valuable this phenomenon can be from a fan perspective, and the same goes for Wainwright. If Adam Wainwright had signed with, say, the Oakland Athletics, he might be reasonably popular—he’s a likable, decent pitcher. But he wouldn’t be Adam Wainwright. There is only one city in which he could be Adam Wainwright. And now he will be playing there for another season.
Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, currently in a virtual tie on the WAR leaderboard, are the ultimate avatars of the last decade and a half of Cardinals baseball. The goofy but soft-spoken white southerner and the hyper-competitive, occasionally abrasive Puerto Rican are simultaneously very different and inseparable. Both are now under contract for one more season and it is very possible that the duo will now get a chance to ride out into the sunset together. And that’s an amazing thing to consider.
From a pure baseball perspective, the Cardinals needed pitching depth, and Adam Wainwright makes sense. From a perspective of everything beyond the box score, the Cardinals and Adam Wainwright agreeing to terms was a necessity for all parties involved.