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in praise of wainwright

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as recently as 2003, adam wainwright was a top 20 prospect; as recently as 2004, he ranked among baseball america's top 50. and last year, in his age-23 season, he led the pacific coast league in innings (182), placed 2d in strikeouts (147) and tied for 5th in wins (10), and logged a 3-1 k-bb ratio and 4.40 era, which is nothing to be ashamed of in the hitter-happy pcl. in six minor league seasons he has started 106 games and posted a 3.57 era, with per-9 figures of 8.0 hits and 9.3 strikeouts; in the high classifications (double and triple a) -- pitching in hitters' leagues -- he has made 68 starts and thrown 395 innings, allowing 4.17 runs, 9.0 hits and 7.7 strikeouts per 9.

yet wainwright enters 2006 presumed a failure. he has zero chance of starting the year in the stl rotation and at best an outside chance of making the staff as a mop-up man. the cardinals would surely part with him in a trade, yet teams apparently aren't biting -- even as they throw multimillions at proven failures like ryan franklin and brett tomko. the cardinals themselves are staking $2.5m on sidney ponson, who is likely no better than wainwright. a quick look at their ZIPS and PECOTAs:

w-l era whip inn k/bb hr
wainwright ZIPS 9-9 4.50 1.31 174 44/112 23
ponson ZIPS 11-12 4.57 1.38 189 61/109 17
wainwright PECOTA 8-8 4.58 1.34 137 44/92 18
ponson PECOTA 8-8 4.43 1.42 137 46/78 14

granted they're only projections, but given ponson's recent past (an aggregate era near 6.00 over the past two years) we can't say that his projections here are unrealistic. if the cards were looking for a bargain-priced pitcher to provide some spring competition for reyes, they might not have needed to go outside the organization. indeed, when you parse out wainwright's pitching line from 2005, you find that he pitched much better last year than his (already good) numbers suggest. let's break his season into thirds:

starts innings w-l era whip k/bb hr
april/may 10 66.1 4-2 2.44 1.07 8/54 4
june - aug 5 13 77 2-7 6.66 1.73 33/54 12
aug 10 - sep 6 38.1 4-1 3.29 1.33 10/39 2

zounds. a veritable jason marquis -- great at the beginning and end, horrible in the middle. (compare the table above to the one danup posted recently on the three faces of jason.) wainwright walked twice as many guys in his awful june/july stretch (3.9 walks/9) as he did the rest of the year (1.8 walks/9); unable to find the strike zone, he had to throw stuff on the fat of the plate and paid the price. "good adam" (ie parts 1 and 3 of the year) made a combined 16 starts and went 8-3 with a 2.77 era, 1.17 whip, and 5 to 1 k/w ratio (93 ks, 18 walks). with better damage control in the middle of the season, wainwright might have loomed much larger in the cardinals' 2006 plans.

the marquis comparison is particularly interesting not only because jason came to stl in the same trade package as wainwright but also because he may not be a better pitcher. 2006 projections:

w-l era whip inn k/bb hr
wainwright ZIPS 9-9 4.50 1.31 174 44/112 23
marquis ZIPS 12-13 4.68 1.36 204 69/115 27
wainwright PECOTA 8-8 4.58 1.34 137 44/92 18
marquis PECOTA 11-10 4.40 1.43 179.1 64/100 19

again, only projections. i still find it puzzling that in their pursuit of rotation depth the cards have never seriously considered wainwright as an option. even dennis tankersley (projected to a 5.00+ era by both ZIPS and PECOTA) has received more mention as a fallback option than wainwright has. i don't get it.

wainwright also had a pronounced home/road split in 2005:

w-l era whip inn k/bb hr
home 4-3 3.53 1.30 91.2 22/78 5
road 6-7 5.30 1.51 90 29/69 13

wainwright's home numbers were undoubtedly helped by the memphis ballpark, one of the best pitching environments in professional baseball per baseball think factory's breakdown of ballpark effects. but his road numbers -- indeed, his overall line for the year -- were just as skewed in the opposite direction by one catastrophic start at salt lake city, which ranks among the hitter-happiest parks in all of diamonddom. in that outing, on august 5, wainwright yielded 9 hits and 9 runs in an inning and a third; remove it from his line and take the other 28 starts/180 innings in a lump, and wainwright went 10-9 with a 3.99 era and a 1.35 whip. his memphis teammate anthony reyes (just for comparison's sake) went 7-6 last year with a 3.64 era and 1.08 whip -- a better pitcher, to be sure, but not off-the-charts better.

i'd like to see wainwright make the team. he clearly has at least as much to offer as ponson or jeff nelson, and possibly just as much as marquis or anthony reyes. moreoever, this guy has earned his shot. he's 24 years old and has nothing more to prove in the minor leagues; he deserves the chance to prove what he can do in the majors, if not for the cardinals then for somebody else. if he doesn't get it this season -- if he's shipped back to memphis -- he's at very high risk of getting seared with the career-killing "quadruple a" brand. so it's a crucial year for him; here's hoping he has a good spring.