On Thursday, after months of non-news coming from the St. Louis Cardinals on the player acquisition front, the Cardinals announced the signing of veteran starting pitcher Adam Wainwright to a one-year contract reportedly worth $8 million. Compared to the recent resurgence in rumors that the Cardinals are interested in Nolan Arenado, a player coming off an injury-plagued, unproductive 2020 season who might be available at a major discount, a veteran starting pitcher is a little bit more anticlimactic, but a signing is a signing, and that’s a start.
Starting pitcher, the position Adam Wainwright has played almost exclusively since 2007 (he has had four relief appearances since then, three of which came in the immediate aftermath of a major injury in 2015), is an area of need for the Cardinals. Prior to signing the veteran righty, the rotation consisted of Jack Flaherty (whose numbers weren’t great in 2020 but who figures to bounce back at least somewhat to what he was thought of based on 2019 performance), Kwang-hyun Kim (basically, take the parenthetical description of Flaherty and flip it), Miles Mikolas (great in 2018, fine in 2019, is coming off an injury which cost him his 2020 season), hoping for Carlos Martinez to bounce back as a starter beyond his very lackluster 2020 returns, and various other mysteries. Maybe Alex Reyes will bounce back and be great; maybe Austin Gomber can carry forward his solid 2020 into full-time rotation worthiness; maybe John Gant can move into a starting role.
Adam Wainwright is far less of a question, at least for one season–he will turn 40 this season, so he certainly would be a concern for a medium-to-long term deal, but while his performance has dipped from his Cy Young-caliber peak years, he remains a formidable pitcher. The number that stands out about Wainwright’s 2020 season is his 3.15 ERA, which was good for 18th-best in baseball. This number is almost certainly an abberation–this was his best earned-run average in a full season in six years by a full run. A 65 2/3 inning season can produce some weird results on a somewhat regular basis. During 2020, while Wainwright did an admirable job of avoiding walks, his strikeout rate was a pedestrian 7.4 per nine innings, and his opponents batted a measly .247 on balls in play. Advanced batted ball metrics place expectations for the ERA Wainwright deserved noticeably higher than 3.15–4.11 by FIP, 4.23 by xFIP, and 4.39 by SIERA.
It seems reasonable to expect Adam Wainwright, based on last season, to come back to Earth and be something like a lower-side-of-four ERA pitcher. Luckily, the Cardinals didn’t sign him to be a borderline Cy Young-level pitcher; otherwise, his salary might have doubled or even tripled, even given the snail’s pace of free agency during a pandemic. Forget that Wainwright was above-average in 2020 by ERA; he was also above-average in 2020 by FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Granted, he isn’t way above-average by any of these metrics, but the Cardinals will likely enter 2021 with the expectation of him to be the team’s fourth starter. And a guy who is 6% above league average by FIP, 12% above league average by xFIP, and 9% above average by Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average is a perfectly good fourth starter to have. FanGraphs, which makes its player value projections based on FIP, estimated Wainwright’s value last season at $8.5 million, and that’s in a season that lasted two months. If he replicates his 2020 performance in 2021, Adam Wainwright will be found money by Memorial Day.
There is a temptation, especially in the wake of hypothetical major acquisitions, to dismiss minor moves, but baseball in particular is a sport where star power alone isn’t enough to win championships. Mike Trout has been the best baseball player alive for almost a decade and has never won a playoff game. There is a reason the Colorado Rockies are reportedly shipping Nolan Arenado, and it isn’t because Arenado isn’t good–it’s because he isn’t good enough to single-handedly carry an otherwise mediocre team to postseason glory. It’s not Arenado’s fault. Nobody is. Acquiring a pitcher like Adam Wainwright improves the floor of the team. Perhaps the Cardinals don’t have enough stars to take the team to a next level, but if they can at least establish a baseline, a player emerging as a star (or being acquired, in Arenado’s case) might be able to improve from decent to playoffs, rather than having to simply get them from lousy to respectability.
The Cardinals could acquire any one player in baseball and still not be as good as the Los Angeles Dodgers (with the possible exception of Mookie Betts, and that’s only because doing so would keep Betts off the Dodgers). If they want to be serious contenders in 2021, incremental steps are going to be necessary, even if acquiring one of the oldest players in Major League Baseball isn’t particularly exciting. One could nitpick the acquisition and say that Jose Quintana, Robbie Ray, or J.A. Happ, who signed for identical term and dollars, would be superior signings (“could” deserves some added emphasis), but this signing lines up with the market and with the team’s needs enough that I can’t complain about it.
There is a lot that goes into any baseball signing beyond a player’s numbers, or even a player’s production. I’ve never met Adam Wainwright, so I have no idea if he’s a good guy. But if he’s been in Major League Baseball since 2005, that seems to suggest other players might like him. He certainly has a wealth of experience. And who knows? Maybe St. Louis will learn to love Adam Wainwright.