Wainwright is back and what that means for the Cardinals’ offseason

This article was previously posted on October 11th on the Redbird Dugout Facebook page.

At 1:23 pm Eastern time, the press release hit my inbox. “Cardinals & Adam Wainwright agree to a 2019 contract.” And there it was. Adam Wainwright has agreed to terms on a one year deal that will keep him with the St. Louis Cardinals through the 2019 season. Financial terms have not yet been leaked, but it is reported to be a low cost, incentive laden one year deal that has incentives available whether he ends up starting in the rotation or coming out of the bullpen.

The Cardinals under Bill DeWitt Jr and John Mozeliak have historically been a franchise unafraid to cut ties with players when it made sense for them to do it. The organization did pursue Albert Pujols, but refused to match the big offer the Angels gave him and he left town. Kyle Lohse posted a 3.11 ERA over his final two seasons with the Cardinals, and they didn’t even call him. Matt Holliday was given a full sendoff after declining his 2017 option.

However, they have circled two players who are likely to spend their entire Major League careers with one franchise: Yadier Molina and now Adam Wainwright. The rarity of this cannot be understated.

At 37 years old, Wainwright is far from the dominant pitcher he was from 2009 to 2014 where he posted a 2.83 ERA, averaged 226 innings a season and finished in the top-3 of Cy Young Award voting in all four seasons (he missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery). He was off to his best start of his career in 2015 when he tore his Achilles tendon. That would sideline him for most of the season, but he pushed his way back, managing to return as a reliever at the end of the season.

I still firmly believe that Wainwright has good left in his arm.

Wainwright’s detractors like to point out that the last few years he’s been terrible. And if you look at his overall numbers, you’d be right. He has a 4.77 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over his last 64 games started for the Cardinals. But the overall numbers don’t always tell the whole truth. If you dig in a little bit, you find that he’s been good far more often than he’s been bad, and a few bad performances have skewed his numbers.

If I asked you whether you’d prefer a pitcher who had allowed 3.5 runs every for every six innings pitched for 32 starts (a 5.25 ERA) or a pitcher who allowed 2 runs for every six innings pitched for 29 starts (a 3.00 ERA), but was blown out in the other three, who would you prefer? Wainwright’s numbers look a lot like the latter pitcher.

If you look at Wainwright’s 2017 season, he had a 5.11 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP over 23 starts and one relief appearance. But his season was disrupted by a disabled list stint for elbow soreness that he admitted he came back too soon from. Before that DL stint he had a 4.89 ERA over 20 starts. In 12 of those starts he pitched at least 5 innings and allowed 3 or fewer runs. In fact, if you remove the two games where he was left in and the other team was allowed to run up the score on him, Wainwright posted a 3.60 ERA in those remaining 18 starts. A mid-3s ERA in 90% of your starts is more than enough to deserve a place in a starting rotation.

Beyond that, the Cardinals win when he takes the mound. They’ve won 64% of the games that Wainwright has started since the start of the 2016 season. Of the pitchers who have started 20 or more games for the Cardinals in that time, only Miles Mikolas has a better winning percentage. The team wins behind Wainwright and isn’t that the point?

Even if you look at the disappointment that was 2018, the Cardinals were just 4-4 behind him in his eight starts. That’s the worst they’ve ever been in his career. But in three of those four losses Wainwright allowed 3 runs or less and the offense never showed up. They were winnable games. Major League teams were 468-1332 (.260) last season when they scored 3 runs or less. Those weren’t on the pitcher.

But here is the bottom line for the Cardinals: With or without Wainwright, the pitching staff is not the issue. They have 18 pitchers now who are under contract or team control next season who will be age 30 or younger.

Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes, John Gant, Luke Weaver, Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks, Mike Mayers, John Brebbia, Chasen Shreve, Tyler Webb, Matthew Bowman, and Giovanny Gallegos.

That doesn’t even include a number of prospects who are ready to come up and play the roles that Poncedeleon, Gomber, Hudson, and Hicks played on the 2018 Cardinals.

That also creates a very real issue. The Cardinals have a severe 40 man roster squeeze entering this winter as John Mozeliak’s affinity for stockpiling prospects has reached critical mass. Difficult decisions will need to be made to clear space and protect prospects.

The 40 man roster is currently full, but the needs for both sides of the ball could not be more different.

On the pitching side, there are 22 pitchers plus another three on the 60 day disabled list who will need a spot shortly after the World Series concludes. Two of them are free agents, but that still leaves 23 pitchers on the 40 man with additional players needing to be protected.

For the position players, the issue is more a lack of worthwhile players than a surplus of them. There are only seven position players who should have roles secured for 2019 at this point. Those are Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Marcell Ozuna, and Harrison Bader in the everyday lineup and Yairo Munoz off the bench. Everyone else should be in danger of being replaced and upgraded.

But beyond those moves, the signing of Wainwright is a low-cost, incentive-laden deal that does not come with the promise of a particular role and won’t hinder the team’s ability to make a major signing, should they chose to make one. It could also free up a pitching prospect to be made available in a major trade. The team’s 2019 roster might have more flexibility now than it did this morning.

The signing of Wainwright is the first of a dozen dominoes that will need to fall over the next four months before the team reports for Spring Training. And it’s going to be the other 11 that determine whether the 2019 Cardinals are playing in October or watching it on TV, not this one.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading. 

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