Since the Cardinals resigned veteran hurler Adam Wainwright very early in the offseason, it has been widely expected that the right-hander will join Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson in the 2020 St. Louis rotation. If this is the case, it leaves just one spot available. Nonetheless, this possible scenario should not preclude the Cardinals from shopping the starting pitching market, nor should it hinder the team from promoting promising arms from the farm.
Before I go any further, this is not an article meant to disrespect Wainwright or his contributions to the organization. Regardless, I do think the team could improve by moving the right-hander into the bullpen, even with his long (and successful) history as a starter.
Wainwright pitcher notably well last season, all things considered, as he finished with a 4.19 ERA and 4.36 FIP. This led to a 2.2 fWAR, which is solid for the back end of the rotation, but it would be foolish to not expect some form of regression from Wainwright. He is 38 years old, so it might be overly optimistic to expect him to throw 171 innings again in 2020. Also, like most starters, Wainwright struggled as he faced the lineup multiple times. And, unlike most pitchers, this drop was pretty drastic. In his first time through the order, Wainwirght pitched to a 2.98 ERA and a 3.64 xFIP (3.65 FIP). That jumped to a 4.88 ERA and a 4.69 xFIP (4.38 FIP) the second time through and an ERA of 5.01 and 4.97 xFIP (5.15 FIP) the third time.
This is a case, however, where FIP is not necessarily the best measure of success. For five of the last six years, in two of which he was hurt, Wainwright’s ERA has outperformed his FIP — and sometimes drastically in his first time through the lineup. In the same vein, Wainwright's ERA has been much worse than his FIP in three out of the last four years on his second time through the lineup. Because of this, representing Wainwright by his FIP might not create a completely accurate picture of his success. In short, just because he had a 4.38 FIP in his second time through the order, his 4.88 ERA is not simply bad luck or an anomaly.
Given his age and his struggles as the game progresses, it could be prudent to transition Wainwright into the bullpen. If this happens, it would allow Wainwright’s arm to stay fresh and contribute to the club more often than once a week. It would also allow the team to change the look of the rotation.
There were some quiet rumors at the beginning of December that the Cardinals had conversations with left-handers Dallas Keuchel, Wade Miley, and Madison Bumgarner. These are not the only options either. There are plenty of pitchers, Robbie Ray for example, that would be available on the trade market, and there are internal options in Carlos Martinez, Ryan Helsley, Daniel Ponce de Leon and others.
Worth repeating is that Wainwright would not just be an old, washed-up started moving to the bullpen in an effort to prolong his career. Mike Shildt could deploy him as a weapon that can pitch in any situation. While his fastball velocity is gone, Wainwright throws a steady diet of offspeed pitches that has helped him maintain effectiveness through the years. Wainwright could be deployed either before or after a pitcher such as Jordan Hicks, Carlos Martinez, or Giovanny Gallegos to provide a drastic change in velocity. Also, when he is only pitching one or two innings at a time, it will be difficult for a hitter to get used to his variety of offspeed and breaking pitches.
All of this is dependent on the Cardinals finding a pitcher that is worth more than 2 WAR to replace Wainwright in the rotation. Whether this comes from an external acquisition or internal switch does not matter. At this point, the internal option seems more likely, especially given the Cardinals history. Nevertheless, there are plenty of options in both the free agent and trade markets, so the opportunity is there if the front office decides to take it.
Either way, it should not to be surprising to see Wainwright finish the 2020 season in the bullpen — or even begin there.