Ignorance is a beautiful thing. I found out about the Adam Wainwright contract from a friend. I thought “Cool” then went and worked for the rest of the day. If you had asked me in that moment whether I would have written something on Adam Wainwright’s contract, I would have told you no. I would have assumed it was received the same elsewhere in Cardinals fandom. Something most of us expected by the start of next Spring Training happened, and the contract appears even more favorable than I first would have guessed.
I got home, checked the general response to the contract... and was frankly shocked. From a human perspective - and don’t worry that’s not how I’m ultimately going to make my argument - the response makes zero sense to me. Wainwright is an affable guy. He’s seemingly a fan favorite, although the immediate response makes me question that. To be clear, the for-against might be even 50-50 and not as negative as I’m portraying but I’m still kind of shocked it’s even remotely that high!
If I may be so bold as to make a truly hot take, Yadier Molina’s three-year contract extension was more objectionable than this and the response to that was about 90 percent positive (with dissent coming from basically who you’d expect). Molina signed a contract that definitely blocked and still blocks Carson Kelly at a position where you can be sure he’d be expected to play in somewhere like 80 percent of games when healthy over the length of the contract. Adam Wainwright might block somebody. If nobody gets hurt. We’re talking about pitchers here.
I’m truly mystified at this after the year the Cards just had. If you are capable of witnessing the 2018 season and then saying “Adam Wainwright is going to do nothing but block better pitchers” we watched a different season. The team that gave 34 starts to Austin Gomber (projected 4.81 FIP going into the season), John Gant (4.73), and Daniel Poncedeleon (5.12). No possible scenario where Adam Wainwright would be a better option to start than other available options. Really?
It’s not like the Cardinals went into 2018 thinking they were giving 34 starts to those three guys. I would have guessed probably zero starts would have gone to any of them before the season. Carlos Martinez was the ace, the Cards were committed to Miles Mikolas for the year, Michael Wacha without injury should always start, Luke Weaver was 24 and coming off a 2.93 xFIP year (!!), and Jack Flaherty AND Alex Reyes were knocking on the door.
Adam Wainwright began the year on the DL, so Flaherty took what would have been his first start. Wainwright started a couple days later and was not very good in the home opener. He threw 3.2 IP, walked 4 and struck out 3 and gave up 3 earned runs. It looked like the worst fears of Cards fans were coming to life. Six days later, he had a good start. He threw 7 innings and allowed 3 runs with 4 Ks and zero walks. Six days after that, he was shaky, but ended up allowing one unearned run through 5 innings. He went back on the DL and Flaherty replaced him again. He returned from the DL on May 13, was awful, and then wasn’t seen from again until September.
Not ideal that Flaherty lost a couple starts because of Wainwright of course. Flaherty started on April 28, but not again until May 15. Wainwright was on the disabled list from April 17 until May 13, so it wouldn’t be fair to blame Wainwright for that. But Flaherty was a 22-year-old coming off 21 not very good innings in 2017. Treating Flaherty like the pitcher he became is hindsight.
Then of course, Alex Reyes made one start and got hurt for the year again. Michael Wacha got hurt after 15 starts. Luke Weaver became unplayable. Carlos Martinez got hurt for multiple starts. Adam Wainwright comes back and has one bad start and three pretty good starts. Where the Cardinals went wrong is they rushed him back from injury so he could pitch in the home opener. Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson about that.
There’s also a key difference between this year and last. Last year, Wainwright was going to be a starter. The Cardinals gave him a shot at starter. It made sense - CC Sabathia looked similarly done and had a renaissance of sorts the past couple seasons. It didn’t work out, but the logic was there.
This year? Both Wainwright and the Cardinals are going into this season with clear eyes about the fact that Wainwright might not start. It’s written in the contract with incentives specifically so that if he gets moved to the bullpen, he’ll still presumably get a bump in pay similar to every start he gets. The Cardinals didn’t want to give him a contract with incentives focused on starts so that Wainwright would take a move to the bullpen easier. That’s the key to the contract. I would guess the incentives are health-related, as in he will get a bonus for a certain number of games played or innings pitched.
I think Wainwright showed enough in September that it’s worth it to give him another year. I know this point gets made a lot, but it gets made because it’s true. You can never have enough starting pitching. Someone gets hurt, someone becomes ineffective, something will happen that will derail the original plan. Something usually happens as early as Spring Training. Wainwright is another pitcher to throw when something goes wrong.
Anyway, to sum up my point, Wainwright gives the Cardinals another arm, allows Wainwright to retire a Cardinal, and potentially prevents giving starts to arms like Gant, Gomber, and Poncedeleon. If you can move these pitchers from the backup plan, to the backup to the backup plan, that is good. Also, maybe Wainwright can do something close to September for a full season. Wainwright’s presence in the dugout and for the younger pitcher staff for another year is probably nothing but a good thing too. Wainwright made me look like a genius earlier this year, so I’m hoping he can do it again.