Adam Wainwright is one of the greatest pitchers in Cardinals history, and nothing he can do during the final two years of his contract will change that.
Waino currently ranks #6 all-time in terms of pitcher WAR among Cardinals, almost certain to crack the Top 5 this season. He ranks 2nd all-time in strikeouts. As for signature moments? He’s got that covered.
Throughout his career, Wainwright has persevered through injuries, bouts of ineffectiveness and other obstacles, always promised he would return to form, and delivered on that promise a stunning number of times.
Wainwright recently told Derrick Goold that supreme confidence came after a minor league career when he was “riddled with doubt,” which caused him to spend 5-and-a-half years in the minors. Now, I believe that doubt was a very real feeling for Adam, but when you look back at his minor league track-record, the idea that it held him back looks about as real as when the team everyone predicted to win secures the championship and proclaims “nobody believed in us!”
Wainwright was the 29th overall pick in the 2000 draft out of high school, and would likely have been a Top 10 pick were it not for some late concern about a strained elbow ligament. He advanced a level every year, with excellent results. In December of 2003, after posting 128/37 K/BB in Double-A, he was traded to the Cardinals as the centerpiece of the J.D. Drew trade. Braves GM John Schuerholz said at the time, “Adam is our No. 1 pitching prospect and that was tough to do.”
Wainwright’s first real external adversity came that next season, 2004, when a partially-torn elbow ligament limited him to 12 starts and a 5.37 ERA in Memphis. But in our first glimpse of Waino being Waino, he would return in 2005 strong enough to pitch 182 innings in Memphis and even get a cup of coffee as a September call-up. He would open 2006 with the Big League club and stay there until he threw the final strike of the World Series.
The next resurrection of Adam Wainwright would come after that elbow ligament finally blew, causing him to miss the entire 2011 season. Wainwright began 2012 0-3 with a 7.32 ERA. After struggling through much of the first half, he promised Rick Hummel he had regained his form. He would go on to post a 2nd half ERA nearly a point-and-a-half lower, and in 2013 he would have the best season of his career.
In 2015, after tearing his achilles in April, Wainwright promised to return before the end of the season. While the positive attitude was admirable, it seemed like a ridiculous notion. Then he not only returned, but provided some very valuable innings out of the bullpen for a team that desperately needed pitching.
But in 2016, Wainwright opened the season with a disastrous run of starts and an April ERA north of 7.00. Always the open book, he talked with the P-D about his struggles to correct what he believed were mechanical flaws. He was good in June and excellent in July, but fell-off again, ultimately posting a 2nd half worse than his first.
Coming into this season, Wainwright again promised a return to form in an article with a headline that feels like it will be the recurring theme of the next two seasons: Aging ace? Wainwright driven to 'prove that I've still got it'.
And it’s here that I think it’s important we make a distinction. Great athletes - such as Adam Wainwright - are great in no small part because of that supreme confidence in themselves, which Adam even eludes to in that article. They believe their bodies can achieve things that science and reason say they cannot. They motivate themselves by saying “nobody believed in us” when everybody believed in them. Basically, these are crazy people.
But thank God for these crazy people, because every now and then, they do the seemingly impossible. Adam Wainwright has pulled that feat off more than most, and he will keep promising to do it again forever... because that’s how he’s wired.
The challenge, for we as fans, will be not to expect him to conjure another miracle, and not to feel a steady stream of disappointment if-and-when he does not.
You’ve no doubt already noticed the trend where Adam tells reporters after a rough start he’s identified some small flaw or new mechanical tweak that will return him to the player he once was. This spring, we had the story of Wainwright rediscovering his curveball grip by watching old video of himself. I couldn’t help but imagine Adam as Norma Desmond, locked in a dark room watching her old movies.
In his last start, he apparently started moving across the rubber in an attempt to get lefties out. This is just who Adam Wainwright is. He will tinker. He will rage against the dying of the light.
But we fans, and the organization itself, need to remain mindful of the reality of declining players in the back-half of their 30s. It’s okay to harbor a little secret hope that we see another resurrection, but we certainly shouldn’t count on it.