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What to Expect from Adam Wainwright in 2020

Setting expectations for the hurler’s age-38 season.

League Championship Series - Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Adam Wainwright is back! On Tuesday, the Cardinals announced that they had agreed to terms with the free-agent Wainwright on a one-year deal. The details of the contract for 2020 are very similar to the one expiring. According to Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch, Wainwright will receive a base salary of $5 million with incentives that escalate with the number of starts. Waino’s max salary for 2020 is $10M if he starts 28 games.

While it’s hard to judge fan reaction from the often schizophrenic world of Twitter and website posts, the vibe around Wainwright’s return seems overwhelmingly positive. And why shouldn’t it be? Wainwright is a Cardinal legend. He’s the king of crazy clubhouse dances. The man eats Carlos Beltran and double-decker s’mores for breakfast!

Oh, and he pitched pretty well last year, all things considered.

Expectations for Wainwright were low heading into 2019. The 2014 season was the last time that Waino was beuno, producing an excellent 4.9 fWAR in 227 innings and finishing third in the Cy Young voting. The next three years were marred by either injury, ineffectiveness or both. In 2015, a fluke Achilles injury essentially ended his season in late April. He returned healthy the next year, but immediately showed signs of age-related decline. He produced a career worst (at the time) 4.62 era. 2017-18 brought the pattern that clubs have come to expect from mid-30’s pitchers. Wainwright was often injured, and when he was healthy enough to take the mound, he was largely ineffective. Over the two combined seasons, he started just 31 games and produced an era of nearly five.

Persistent elbow inflammation plagued Wainwright throughout 2018, but the Cardinals gave him what amounted to a last-ditch effort to revive his career with four September starts. Box score results were mixed, but Wainwright showed improved control and the ability to get strikeouts. More importantly, his elbow held up. That was enough for Mozeliak and the front office. In early October, well before the end of the playoffs, they had inked Waino to an incentive-laden deal.

Perhaps the club initially envisioned Wainwright bouncing between the bullpen and rotation as injuries and demand required. When the opportunity arose to acquire Paul Goldschmidt, the (presumed) impact bat the Cardinals had long coveted, the Cards moved the tumultuous Luke Weaver and Wainwright’s rotation spot was all but guaranteed.

Wainwright did not disappoint. In 2019, he gave the Cardinals 31 starts and 171 innings, his highest totals since 2016. His K/9 of 8.02 was the best he’s shown since 2013. His BB rate was the second worst of his illustrious career, but at 3.36 per 9 it wasn’t all that bad for a back-end starter. Finally free of elbow trouble, Wainwright displayed increased velocity on all of his pitches, and found success in balancing sinking fastballs with his dynamic curveball in nearly equal proportions. While his fastball is now a below average pitch, his curve remains among the better knee-bucklers in the league.

Wainwright’s health allowed him to earn every escalator in his incentive-based deal. At 2.2 fWAR and a 4.19 ERA (4.36 FIP), Wainwright was not the perennial Cy Young contender that he was in his prime, but, he really was just fine for a fifth starter on a division contender.

That’s where the questions arise in Wainwright’s return. Is “just fine” enough? If the Cardinals are looking to improve upon a 91-win club that got smoked in the NLCS by the Nationals, it’s hard to see how Wainwright helps. At age 38, it defies logic to hope that Wainwright could actually be better in 2020 than in 2019.

Only eight starters age 38 or older have qualified for postseason leaderboards since 2010. Of those, just the ageless Bartolo Colon in ‘13 and outlier Hiroki Kuroda in ’13 and ’14 have managed to produce over 3.0 fWAR. Neither seems like a logical comp for Wainwright.

Several other names on this list compare favorably to Adam Wainwright, including Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, and John Lackey. Each of these was once an impact starter who managed to hang around in their late 30’s through sheer grit. Having largely lost their ability to generate high strikeout totals, each of these starters survived by limiting walks. Surviving, though, was far from thriving. Pettitte and Burnett managed fWARs of 2.7 and 2.6. Hudson, Lowe and Lackey produced 1.7, 1.5, and .5 respectively.

Considering this list, notable improvement – a 3.0 or higher fWAR – seems unlikely for Wainwright. What about a repeat of 2019?

The game has changed even since Lackey pitched in 2017. Strikeouts are up for starters across the board. While Wainwright K’ed more at age 37 than any of these arms did at age 38, his K’s relative to the rest of the league were probably in line with these other starters. He also walked more than all of them except Lowe. If Wainwright’s strikeout rate drops or his walk rate climbs, then he could end up on the lower end of those comps. If the slight increase in velocity hangs on for one more season and he can still snap his curve with well-above average break, it’s not hard to see him landing somewhere in the range of these comparables at 1.5-2.5 fWAR. Steamer is the only projection system available at the moment and it agrees, giving Waino a 1.7 fWAR in just 154 innings, a slight decrease in WAR per inning over last year.

Health is the kicker. While only eight pitchers qualified for postseason leaderboards at age 38, 22 total received at least one start. That’s an injury rate of 64%, and it doesn’t include the elderly arms who couldn’t make it through spring training. With a fairly long list of recent ailments, the injury concern for Wainwright has to be very high.

Bottom line, if Wainwright stays healthy, he should be somewhat effective. His presence in the rotation doesn’t do much to elevate the club as a whole, but when is it a bad thing to have above replacement level pitching depth? The Cardinals would be wise to make alternative plans if (when?) Wainwright gets injured and, fortunately, they have a relatively deep stable of MLB-ready starters to fill gaps as needed.

Should fans and the club have expectations beyond 2020? Tim Hudson pitched at age 39, providing just .1 WAR in 123 innings. Derek Lowe threw a handful of innings in relief. Lackey and Pettitte were out of baseball.

What does that mean? It means Cardinals fans should probably look at the 2020 season as Wainwright’s last. It also means that the Cardinals front office should consider looking at 2020 as one more chance to add to Wainwright’s legend before he hangs them up.