The season is over. Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina are heading to retirement.
Will Adam Wainwright follow them?
All season long Wainwright remained non-committal about his future plans. That didn’t stop fans from speculating on his retirement.
When he began to struggle late in the year, many began to wonder aloud if he was planning to join Molina and Pujols in retirement. The humble Waino, though, just didn’t want to take attention away from the farewell tours of his legendary teammates.
That hypothesis was somewhat reinforced at the last home game. Wainwright got the start instead of extra rest to combat his “dead arm period” heading into the postseason. Oli Marmol was into the spectacle; he arranged it so all three players got their “ride-off-into-the-sunset” moment together, to the appreciative cheers of an adoring crowd.
The postseason followed, where surely the magic of their final year together would lead them, inextricably, toward another championship.
Sadly, fantasy writers don’t get to script the MLB postseason. Wainwright never saw the field again. The team was unceremoniously dumped from the postseason tournament by the … checks notes … 87-win, 3rd place in the NL East, #6 seed Philadelphia Phillies.
There’s no do-over for Molina and Pujols. They are done. But maybe you can see why the season’s end and his lack of participation in the process might have left a bad taste in Wainwright’s mouth. Is that enough motivation for him to return without his baseball buddies?
In an article by John Denton on MLB.com, Waino said, “We’ll see what happens. We should know pretty soon if something happens. If not, it’s been a good run, and thank you, St. Louis.”
You can read that any way you want. It’s pretty straightforward, though. Waino will either retire or not. And his decision will come soon, likely before the start of free agency.
If the retirement hypothesis was in vogue in September, that has changed now. There is growing sentiment from team reporters – including the in-the-know Katie Woo from The Athletic and Jimmy Hayes of Bally Sports – that Wainwright will return for at least one more year.
What could be motivating Wainwright to give it another go?
Here’s what Denton wrote:
“There was so much magic going on this season with Albert and Yadi, and I just thought, ‘We can’t go out like this,’” said Wainwright, who spent the early stages of Game 2 in the bullpen and said he was ready to pitch in Game 3 had the series gone that far. “It was just too special, what we had going on. With our two guys here and what they were bringing to the table, I always thought we were winning it.”
This is the attitude you expect out of elite athletes. Supreme, unshakable confidence. The firm belief that they can will themselves and their teammates to postseason glory.
If that sounds arrogant, it is.
It’s also extremely normal from high-performers.
We saw it from Yadi Molina for most of his career. Do you remember how mad Molina was two years ago when he was passed over for the Gold Glove? The statistics clearly showed that he was not the best defensive catcher in the game but Molina would not hear it.
Pujols has always been a bit more introspective with his psychopathic arrogance, but we saw what he really felt about respect and appreciation when Bill DeWitt lowballed the club’s contract offer.
This season underscored Pujols’ insane self-motivation. After considering retirement due to his poor performance early in 2022, the opportunity to show up younger stars at the Home Run Derby re-invigorated him. He came out in the second half and found that reserve well of anger, desire, brilliance, ability, and greatness that had marked his career.
And Wainwright? Everyone’s favorite Uncle Charlie has an “aw shucks” persona and is genuinely a really good dude. But don’t make the mistake of believing that Wainwright isn’t extremely self-driven. He truly believes that he can and should be one of the best pitchers in the league and should be the best starter on the Cardinals next season.
Whatever dead-arm troubles he had at the end of the year or corresponding drop in velocity ‘twas but a scratch, a temporary inconvenience easily overcome through hard work and determination during the offseason.
Read criticism into this if you want, but I don’t intend it. This is just the way it is for elite-performing athletes. Without some level of arrogant insanity, they likely would not reach the levels of greatness that they reach.
The problem is that arrogance and drive aren’t uniquely Cardinals’ traits.
Players on other teams, particularly highly competitive playoff teams, have the same levels of belief, desire, willpower, drive, and arrogance.
They also might have young-person bodies and in-their-prime talent.
Do you think the Phillies’ Aaron Nola didn’t want to go out there in that Wild Card game and end the careers of the StL legends in their home park? Oh, he absolutely did.
Players not only need psychopathic levels of motivation, they also need legitimately dominating ability. And not just former ability. Current ability.
Consider this quote from Waino: “With our two guys here and what they were bringing to the table, I always thought we were winning it.”
Pujols was great. No doubt. But Molina had the worst season of his career by wRC+ and had to take a little vacation mid-summer to rest his creaky knees and get his mind right.
Wainwright himself stumbled mightily down the stretch. In Sept/Oct, Waino had a 9.4% K rate and an 8.0% BB rate. That’s nearly a 1-1 ratio. His xFIP was 5.32, which is just not what you want from a guy who is trying to push to one more championship.
It was just 2 games, but none of the three did enough in the postseason to warrant advancement. Wainwright didn’t even pitch.
Players can think they will going to win it all and try to will it into being, but, in the end, it’s performance and not willpower that counts.
Wainwright said: “I’ll tell you this: I do not like not pitching a playoff series. So, you can take that in one of two ways – you can take that as it’s been a good run or you can take it as motivation to never let that happen again.”
That’s good self-awareness from Wainwright. He didn’t like it. He’s mad about it. He’s hyper-motivated (as always) to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
But it did.
Now he’s contemplating a 2023 return where he’ll be a year older and have the specter of his dead-arm velocity drop hanging over him.
The same argument applies. He can will himself to come back and pitch. He can desire one more season of greatness. Can he perform that way? Can he meet his own very high standards?
In the end, no professional athlete does. Father time is undefeated.
After all, what happened to Wainwright in September is not even remotely unusual. It’s exactly what happens to pitchers his age. It’s what happens to pitchers – even great ones – at much younger ages. It’s been something of a miracle that he’s held on as long as he has!
Today’s question, then, really isn’t “will Wainwright be back or not?”
Instead, it’s this: “Should the Cardinals want Wainwright back?”
Most of you will immediately answer “Of course, they should!” And that’s reasonable. He’s a team legend. He had 5 good months in him last season. He’s still driven. The curveball still plays up. There are a dozen or more reasons I could give you to prove why he will be “pretty good” for one more year.
I could write that article and all of us would go home feeling a bit warm and happy and nostalgic and optimistic about one more “cool look at what Wainwright is doing at his age” season from a team legend we all love.
Instead of doing that, answer this question for me: Is “pretty good” enough?
Is “solidly above average” enough for the Cardinals to build off a division crown in the weak NL Central and a disappointing Wild Card round loss to the worst playoff team?
I don’t think it is.
Let’s count to five. A starting rotation will feature more arms than that throughout a season, but it gives us an idea of where they currently sit in terms of quality of starter and expected performance.
1. Jack Flaherty – Flaherty was healthy toward the end of the season. He’s arbitration eligible and should get a very small raise, making him a relative discount based on his upside. He has the shoulder issue and missed most of the season, but you can bank on the Cardinals counting on him to be part of this rotation. I have him #1 here because you can bet the Cardinals expect and hope that he’ll be their top starter next season, even if you wouldn’t bet on it.
2. Miles Mikolas – Mikolas was surprisingly healthy last season and was quite effective. He had a 3.80 FIP and a 3.29 ERA. He threw 202 innings and had a very good postseason start. Despite all those innings and the good ERA, Mikolas was worth just 2.8 fWAR on the season. That’s solid #2/3 territory, right with Adam Wainwright, but it’s about half what you would expect from a team’s #1 starter.
3. Jordan Montgomery – Monty came over from the Yankees in the Bader trade and was very solid for the Cardinals after the trade deadline. His overall season performance is similar to Mikolas’. He had a 2.7 fWAR over 178 innings with a 3.48 ERA and a 3.61 FIP. He’s another mid-rotation starter in a rotation full of mid-rotation starters.
4. Steven Matz – Matz had a very disappointing season. He was prone to home runs early and that ballooned his ERA despite solid peripherals. He came back later as a reliever and was pretty decent down the stretch. The injury history is concerning and there’s little reason to believe he will be anything more than the #3/4 starter that he’s being paid to be, but that contract ensures his place in the starting rotation.
Should we go on? I don’t think so. Yes, they have depth beyond those four. Dakota Hudson is arb eligible so he’s still under team control. Andre Pallante probably deserves a shot at a rotation spot. Zack Thompson should be a starter. Matthew Liberatore will get his chances, too.
But the Cardinals only have four guys in the rotation that they know they can count on.
Four is not five. That leaves room for one more.
One arm. One performer. One insane competitor.
Who do you want that one to be?
The Cardinals could go with “pretty good” and let Waino come back if he wants, locking him in somewhere into a rotation that has no true top or bottom. With the offense and bullpen they have, that team would likely sail to another 90-win season and be very competitive in the light NL Central, assuming they shore up the catcher spot and replace some exiting offensive depth.
Or they could let Wainwright go, whether he wants to retire or not. And they could use the payroll margin I think they’ll have to bring in someone who can sit at the top of that rotation and push everyone else down.
That someone could be Carlos Rodon, assuming he opts out of his contract with the Giants. Or it could be a younger arm that comes in a package of excess offensive depth and prospects. (The Cardinals have pieces to move and some of them are pretty intriguing.) With Mikolas exiting soon, and Montgomery and Flaherty nearing the end of their arbitration period, the Cardinals need to invest money or prospects or both into securing their pitching long-term.
You can probably tell from the tone of this piece what I think they should do.
Considering the new playoff alignment and what we saw this past season, I firmly believe the Cardinals need to build a team that has two things:
1) A legitimate chance to compete with the Mets, Braves, and Dodgers for the top-2 seeds in the NL. Instead of shooting for 90 wins and the division crown, their new target win total should be 95 wins.
2) A starting pitching advantage in the 3-game Wild Card or 5-game Division Round series.
I personally believe it’s pretty much impossible to build a team that will win 100 games. Those teams just happen. But a 95-win floor can excel up to 100 wins without digging too much into the team’s dwindling supply of devil magic. They can also fall to 90 wins with some injuries and still likely take the NL Central and face the Wild Card.
Either way, they are going to have to face tough starters. VERY tough. Every other team the Cardinals could face in the Wild Card or Division Round – the Phillies, Brewers, Padres, and Mets based on 2022 standards – have high-end starters that the Cardinals can’t match up against with their current alignment.
Rotation depth – 5 strong – can certainly help get a team to the postseason. But once there, it’s only 2-3 starters that truly matter.
Maybe Jack Flaherty reaches that level. The Cardinals hope he will. But just to compete against a team like the Phillies – the worst playoff team by record in the NL – they need to be able to beat two guys who are consistently better than Flaherty has ever been.
Does Wainwright help reach either of those goals? At the expense of acquiring a high-impact starter?
I don’t see how he does.
The flip side here is that my goals probably don’t align with the Cardinals’.
The front office prefers the path of least resistance. The Clark Street Accountants can point to the attendance bump the club got from keeping their legends in uniform. It makes a ton of financial sense to let Wainwright make his decision and sign him to a discounted one-year deal and declare their rotation complete. If he decides to retire, they have a built-in Wainwright alternative readily available in Jose Quintana.
That’s what I expect the Cardinals to do. I give either of those two scenarios VERY strong odds.
But the game has changed. We saw that last weekend. If they really want to compete not just for a division championship in the weak, middle-class NL Central but against the powerhouse clubs of the East and West, they need someone at the top of their rotation who can give their offense some margin for error.
The Cardinals should know this. After all, they had Adam Wainwright providing that same kind of psychotic, elite, #1 caliber performance for the last 20 years. It was elite pitching that fueled the Cardinals’ historic run of postseason excellence.
This team needs an Adam Wainwright. They just can’t get Adam Wainwright from Adam Wainwright anymore.
Addendum: Another possibility is that the club brings Wainwright back, assuming he wants to, and still signs or trades for an impact starter. I just don’t buy this course. Yes, we all know that the club needs 8-9 starters to get through a season. Logically it makes sense if those 8-9 starters were all proven performers. So, the argument goes, bring in Rodon. And bring back Wainwright. Heck, keep Quintana around, too! Depth for days!
They just aren’t going to do that for two reasons: 1) The players won’t sign knowing they will have to compete for a role. That wouldn’t affect Rodon or someone of his caliber, but it certainly would keep Quintana and Wainwright from coming back. 2) The Cardinals don’t have unlimited budget space. I haven’t looked at payroll yet, but considering the number of arbitration-eligibles the team has, plus Arenado’s opt-out and contract that might have to get re-worked, it is highly likely that the Cards would have to clear Waino’s salary completely just to afford Rodon, especially if they plan to add talent on the offensive side.
No, I’m sticking with what I said. 1 starter. (And it’s possible we don’t even get that if Waino retires and Quintana heads elsewhere.)