Watching Adam Wainwright pitch in the first game of this series against the Pittsburgh Pirates was, in a word, painful. In many ways, Wainwright has been the defining presence on the pitching side of the John Mozeliak era; even considering Waino has missed large chunks of time on a couple occasions (including, memorably, the 2011 season, leading to the somewhat fun fact that despite Wainwright being the most successful Cardinal pitcher of the past dozen years, the Cardinals have never won a championship with him in the rotation), he has been the most prominent feature of Redbird rotations since the franchise moved from Walt Jocketty to Mister Mo.
Wainwright made the jump from his previous gig, that of one-year wonder and closer of World Series games, to the starting rotation in 2007, the final season of Jocketty’s tenure. It was a dark, dark season for we teeming masses; the death of Josh Hancock, the premature and tragic end of Juan Encarnacion’s career, and the realisation that not even the Dave Duncan Reclamation Blitz could turn Kip Wells from tantalising arm talent into consistently successful pitcher all came together to create the most miserable slog of a baseball season I can ever recall from the Cards, darker in its own way than even the absentee ownership years of the early 90s. I didn’t begin writing about El Birdos for this website until after the ‘07 season, for which I am mostly grateful. It was not a season one wishes to talk about too deeply.
Wainwright’s conversion that season was one of the few true bright spots one could pinpoint for the Cardinals. I recall vividly in the 2006-2007 offseason debating my friend Greg from New York on the subject of Wainwright’s future role. He came at the issue from the perspective of a person badly traumatised by late-era Jason Isringhausen in the closer’s role, and came down on the side of believing closer was too important to move Wainwright out of it. I came down on the other side of the debate, trotting out that old sabermetric saw, the one about a pitcher capable of throwing 200 innings not being limited to throwing 60-70. What I’m saying is at the time, there were questions about what the Cardinals should do with their young wunderkind.
Luckily, they decided to slide him into the rotation, and he was an immediate success. He made 32 starts, threw just over 200 innings, posted a 3.70 ERA, and was worth 3.7 wins above replacement. It was a brilliant coming-out party for the then 26 year old. The 2008 campaign saw him miss the first significant chunk of time in his career, hitting the disabled list for roughly a third of the season with a finger injury. He was still worth 2.6 WAR in 132 innings, though, and had done enough that he looked like a solid building block upon which the Cardinals and their new general manager could lean as they attempted to lead the club back to prominence.
From there, Adam really took off. He was worth over 5.5 wins in both 2009 and ‘10. He missed the magical 2011 run due to Tommy John surgery, unfortunately, but came back strong with a 4+ win season in 2012. His finest performance came the next year, 2013, when he threw over 240 innings, compiled a 2.94 ERA, 2.55 FIP, and racked up 6.6 WAR. Over the five-year period from 2009-’13, even missing a full season, Wainwright was worth 22 wins above replacement. As successful as Chris Carpenter was during much of that same period (Carp’s 2009-’11 run is one of the greatest second, er, third acts we’ve ever seen), Adam Wainwright is unquestionably the face of Cardinal pitching during the Mozeliak era of Cardinal baseball.
That’s why it was so brutally difficult to watch Waino the other night in Pittsburgh. When you’ve watched a player for as long as most of us here have been following Wainwright, there comes to be a deeper connection than simply a fan of a player on a team. That player becomes a part of your life, and it hurts to watch them struggle. Adam Wainwright is a warrior, and has carried the Cardinal rotation for many, many years now. Unfortunately, that’s ‘carried’, as in past tense. If we’re being realistic, the vast majority of Adam Wainwright’s Cardinal contributions are now past tense.
And as bleak as it seems to consider, it’s possible that past tense is all that we have left with Waino.
I’m not saying that’s the most likely outcome; the prognosis right now is that Wainwright should be back from this latest elbow injury before the end of the 2017 season. But there’s still a non-zero chance that we’ve seen the last of Adam Wainwright on a major league mound. At the very least, we have to wonder, even if he comes back this season, can we expect him to make it through the 2018 campaign? After all, this isn’t his first ride on the elbow injury train, and at some point in time a pitcher simply becomes so physically compromised that whether he wants to or not, the game will tell him to hang up his spikes.
All of which led me to think, while watching Wainwright desperately fight to break through the 85 mph glass ceiling the other night, does this level of uncertainty now force the Cardinals to reconsider signing Lance Lynn?
Or, put another way: does Adam Wainwright coming to the end of his road turn Lance Lynn from an expensive and probably unnecessary luxury into a necessity?
It’s been a season of decidedly mixed results for Lynn this year, to be sure. He’s struck out far fewer hitters this year than he did at his peak. His walk rate, though, has held pretty much steady in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. He’s thrown a lot of innings, which is good. He’s given up a lot of home runs, which is bad.
Perhaps the best news, though, has been that Lynn has gotten better as the season has gone on. That’s not shocking; pitchers tend to do better as they get further out from TJ, and that seems to be the case with Lynn. The trend lines, for the most part, are pointing up. I think Lance Lynn in 2018 will likely be something similar to what we’ve seen from Lance Lynn much of his career. He’ll pitch at 31 in ‘18, so he may not be quite what he was at 27, but if you asked me to close my eyes and throw a dart at a WAR board for next year, I’d peg Lance Lynn at about three wins.
Side note: does anyone else suspect, like me, that FanGraphs is deliberately making their website nearly impossible to use in order to try and sell more memberships? It’s never been the fastest or smoothest-loading site, but it’s just flat-out freezing up and refusing to do anything here lately for me. I don’t use adblocker software, nor am I likely to begin doing so. I don’t believe in it. I saw a Youtube comment thread not too long ago in which someone was complaining about the presence of ads in all the videos (and the video was actually about the difficulties some creators are facing due to changes in the monetization policy over there), and essentially arguing with another commenter that the internet is getting ruined now, the same as television, because of all the advertisements. That that’s what originally made the web so cool, and now everything is shitty. I wanted so badly to reach through my screen and throttle the asshole, who I have a feeling was probably some fuckwad kid with no concept of how the world works. I believe people who make stuff should get paid for making it, and thus do not believe in adblock products. No revenue streams, eventually no content. But god damn it, FanGraphs, at least make your website usable to the point I don’t have to actually close the tab and try your website multiple times in order to get player stats. Okay, rant over.
My point is this: Lance Lynn in 2018 will probably be a dependable, solidly above-average starting pitcher, I bet. The real question is how badly the Cardinals are going to need that now.
Up until recently, it was easy to see the Cardinals’ way forward after this season. Offer Lynn the qualifying offer, watch him sign a big contract with some other team, collect your draft pick, and then move on. He would be the only pitcher the Cards would be losing this offseason, and someone like Luke Weaver looks more than capable of stepping in to fill his role, and probably with close to the same level of quality. Simple. That’s why you develop that pipeline of pitching talent, so that you can allow a Lance Lynn to walk and not worry about your team derailing.
However, we are now faced with the potentially much more complicated situation of Lynn leaving, and Adam Wainwright being a complete question mark in 2018. Starting off the season with one rookie (or near-rookie in the case of Weaver), in your rotation is a little stress-inducing, even when you’re fairly sure of the talent you’re bringing up. Contending teams don’t often hand starting rotation spots to rookies. The Cardinals did, of course, hand a starting spot to Carlos Martinez just a couple years ago, though, and to Shelby Miller a year or two before that, so they have at least shown a willingness to give the kids a chance.
That willingness, though, probably has its limits, and what if we are looking at a future with potentially no Adam Wainwright in 2018, or at least no real solid guarantee of Adam Wainwright in 2018?
If that were the case, the Cardinals would still have Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha in the rotation, but with Wacha’s persistent shoulder concerns, he’s not exactly a slam dunk to serve as an anchor point. At the very least, if the Cardinals saw Lance Lynn move on and Adam Wainwright’s career come to a premature end, they would need to fill two rotation spots from within. If they plan on contending in 2018 — and we have no reason to believe they don’t — they may very well have to consider going with the safe bet of bringing Lance Lynn back.
On the other hand, there is very much a tidal wave of pitching talent approaching St. Louis from the minors. Luke Weaver we obviously know about; he’s the closest thing to a finished product the Cards possess right now, and I believe he’s ready for a starting spot.
Beyond Weaver, though, there are the twin specters of Jack Flaherty, who will likely rank as the organisation’s number one prospect on my personal list this offseason (spoiler alert, everybody), due to his prodigious performance at the two top levels of the farm system this year, and the returning Alex Reyes, who should be back from Tommy John surgery and ready to contribute sometime in late spring of 2018. I wouldn’t say either Flaherty or Reyes has nothing left to prove in the minors the way I would with Weaver, but I would definitely say neither of them has much left to prove. Reyes is obviously the big fish we all know about, but Flaherty’s stuff has taken a step forward this year, and his results have been exquisite.
So that’s three options right there. Reyes will likely be questionable in terms of Opening Day readiness, but he should be good to go fairly early on in the season.
We also have John Gant, the headline return in the Jaime Garcia deal, who has performed quite admirably this year at Triple A after suffering a groin strain in spring training. Gant has struck out almost a batter per inning this season with Memphis, is sporting a nifty walk rate of just over 5%, and generally looks like a pretty good bet to be a solid #4ish sort of starter. So there’s four options.
It’s once we move beyond Triple A, though, that we begin to really get a feel for the enormity of the pitching depth in the Cards’ system. Dakota Hudson has actually reached Memphis, but spent most of the season in Double A in his first full pro season. I would prefer to see him get some more seasoning and development time in the minors, but he’s not that far away. Zac Gallen is at Double A, and again, could use some more time. But he’s also at Double A. Ryan Helsley is pitching for Springfield now, and running a sub-2.00 ERA with better than a strikeout per inning. Is he ready? No. But he’s not far away. (I’m getting tired of typing that.) Austin Gomber struggled early this season at Double A, but has turned it around into a solid campaign.
So we have four options to fill rotation spots that are essentially ready right now, or should be ready sometime early in the 2018 season. We have four more pitchers at Double A or higher who shouldn’t be counted on just yet, but who could be ready for an opportunity sometime during the 2018 campaign. It’s really no wonder the front office was so willing to deal Marco Gonzales for a potential offensive contributor.
The concern, obviously, would be that to begin the 2018 season you would be counting heavily on rookies, and hoping that at least two of the four I listed above are 100% ready to go right out of spring training. I can see why any club, much less one so risk-averse as the Cardinals, would be hesitant to take that leap off the pier in the dark.
Here’s the thing, though: when contemplating a potential Lance Lynn extension/signing, we have to consider something beyond the first month of two of 2018. Lance Lynn is going to sign a contract for multiple years, probably something on the order of four or five, and worrying too heavily about the first two months of a potential 30 month tenure is not a great way to approach things.
I will say this: the questions about Adam Wainwright’s future make Lance Lynn a complete and total lock for a qualifying offer, I think. He really should have been a lock anyway, but is there really any better possible outcome from all this than to get Lynn for exactly one more season, to bridge the gap to that wave of pitching getting itself established here in St. Louis? I would suggest there is not.
However, I do not expect Lynn to accept the qualifying offer. He’s good enough he’s going to get multiple years, and lots of money, from someone. Personally, even with all the questions swirling in the air right now, I don’t think that someone should be the Cardinals.
The Redbirds are locked into two starting pitchers for the long haul in Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake. (And no, trading Leake to sign Lynn is not a very realistic option, in case you were thinking of asking.) A third, Michael Wacha, is less certain, but absolutely a part of the club’s medium-term thinking. They have as many as eight starting pitching prospects who could be pushing for major league auditions at least as early as midseason 2018. Lance Lynn is still very much an expensive and probably unnecessary luxury, I believe, particularly considering some of the tough decisions this organisation is going to make soon.
There’s also the fact that, as fun as this recent run of offensive success has been, this club still has many of the same issues we’ve talked about all year. If there’s one acquisition that could prove truly transformative for the Cardinals in the near-term, it’s that true centerpiece offensive player. Finding a middle of the order bat to anchor the lineup is likely to be priority number one for the club this offseason, and I think that’s exactly what it should be.
The problem is, any offensive centerpiece the Cards might try to acquire is likely going to come with a hefty price tag. It could come in the form of the Marlins’ new ownership group concluding they can’t stomach massive operating losses on top of newly-incurred debt while fielding a bad team and deciding the best way forward is to get Giancarlo Stanton off the books and reset their approach. It could be a full-court press to make the Blue Jays an offer they can’t refuse for Josh Donaldson, who in case you hadn’t checked for awhile, is right back to looking like a near-MVP level bat. Or perhaps the Mariners realise they’ve missed their window to compete with Felix Hernandez, and moving Kyle Seager is the best way to jump three steps ahead in rebuilding. (Though, admittedly, they would actually be selling a bit low on him; he’s had a down season this year.)
Regardless of the specifics, if the Cardinals are able to actually wrangle themselves the big bat for the middle of their lineup they really need, it’s likely to cost them a pretty penny. Paying Lance Lynn $20+ million a year in addition to that new offensive engine is a tough pill to swallow when you’ve put so many resources into building a pitching pipeline.
Then again, the pitching depth is also the most likely place from which the Cardinals could deal, so maybe they end up thinning out the herd a bit in terms of their future starters down on the farm. However, unless they’re trading literally half of those eight players I brought up earlier, you’re still looking at admirable, enviable depth.
In the end, even with the questions surrounding Adam Wainwright’s future, I think the situation still leads toward Lance Lynn walking away at the end of this season. The combination of absurd minor league depth, a high price tag and long commitment to Lynn, and a potential big-ticket pickup this offseason as the Cards try to correct their course suggest to me that the Cardinals should really try to go with internal options to fill out the rotation for next year and beyond.
Admittedly, this is a risk. There’s a very real chance whoever replaces Lynn in the starting rotation will not be as close to his level of performance as we’re hoping. But the Cardinals have built themselves a pitching pipeline that is the envy of virtually every other team in baseball, and have needs elsewhere on the roster bigger than paying Lance Lynn full market price for his decline years. It’s time to see if that pipeline can do what it was built to do.
There’s a good chance we’re watching the last days of Lance Lynn in a Cardinal uniform. There’s also a decent chance we aren’t going to see Adam Wainwright wearing the birds on the bat that many more times, either. The safe bet for the Cardinals would be to make sure they keep stability in the rotation.
At some point in time, though, this organisation really is going to have to take some chances if they want to get back to the top. Resigning Lance Lynn would absolutely raise the floor of the 2018. I’m not sure it would raise the ceiling, though.
And that’s kind of how we got to this point, isn’t it?
I will admit, though, I’m going to miss the big guy’s postgame pressers when he’s gone.