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Three Paths for Wainwright

Adam Wainwright is returning for a final season. What should we expect? A miracle, a mistake, or a mid-point?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Wainwright just won’t quit.

Many of us assumed 2022 would be his final season. His best friend Yadier Molina was retiring after a career that should lead him to the Hall of Fame. His other buddy Albert Pujols returned for one last glorious ride into the sunset as the greatest player of his generation.

Wainwright was silent about his playing status during the season. Some concluded his silence on his future meant the humble Wainwright preferred to give the spotlight to his Hall of Fame teammates, playing third fiddle for their swan songs. That speculation became more rampant when Wainwright struggled down the stretch.

Then the season ended. Pujols, Molina and Wainwright walked off Busch together one final time to the cheers of the adoring faithful.

If that was supposed to be the end, Adam Wainwright didn’t read the movie script. He has unfinished business. Not long after the end of the season, Wainwright announced he would return for one final year in the majors, claiming unfinished business.

He probably can’t add to his already stellar but not all-time career status. There is probably nothing he can do — short of winning 30 games and a Cy Young at age 41 – to propel himself into the Hall of Fame.

But with the collection of offensive talent and deep pitching that this club has assembled, he has a chance to contribute to a winner. He believes this team can contend for a World Series.

Early in the offseason, before he announced his return, I wrote about the impact that Wainwright’s presence and legacy would have on the 2023 roster. I said then, “Wainwright is undecided. Should the Cardinals decide for him?” The Cardinals had four other starters under control for the season and a fifth in Dakota Hudson. They also had starters-in-the-wings in Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante, and Jake Westbrook. They also only had one proven starter, Steven Matz, under control after the 2023 season.

With their offense secure and looking like one of the best in the league, I speculated that the best use of their significant offseason budget space was to invest in a top-of-the-rotation starter. Carlos Rodon was a logical choice. Trades seemed possible, too, with the glut of offensive roster depth.

Bringing Wainwright back messed up the math. He secured the fifth spot, pushing down the MLB-ready arms that the club might want to get a look at. The Cardinals – as we saw again this offseason – prefer the path of least resistance.

Financially, it was an easy and cheap decision to simply bring Wainwright back on a team-friendly deal with deferred cash. Promotionally, the club saw what the retirement tours of Molina and Pujols meant for the turnstiles. Save money. Make money. That’s more attractive to a sports team that is also a billion-dollar corporation than spending money on an injury-risk ace.

When Wainwright wanted to come back, the Cardinals were willing to let him come back. Easy. Done. Grab a catcher and head to Tahiti for a long winter’s nap.

The nap is over. Spring Training has started. Wainwright has thrown the opening bullpen of camp. He’s set to head off to the World Baseball Classic to compete with Team USA. Reports indicate he will start the opener of the Grapefruit League and the Cardinals’ opener in Busch.

What should we expect from Wainwright this season?

2022 gives us a snapshot of the extremes we could see for a player on the verge of retirement.

Pujols came to the Cardinals following his release from the Angels and a brief but productive stint as a platoon player with the Dodgers. Pujols had shown that he still could hit left-handed pitching but had struggled mightily against righties for years.

Hopes – based more on emotion and fantasy – were high for Pujols. Reasonable expectations should have been low. Pujols had a collective -3.3 fWAR with the Angels and Dodgers from 2016 forward. His wRC+ during that time was a miserable 84. He did have 88 home runs, but he had largely stopped walking, couldn’t generate much in the way of consistent contact (his BABIPs and batting averages were consistently in the .220-.245 range), and offered very limited defensive value.

He was a platoon DH and not a very versatile one at that.

The best word to describe what happened last season is “miracle”. Pujols’ return to Busch, and his work with Jeff Albert and the Cardinals hitting staff, brought about a completely unanticipated resurgence. Pujols’ line for the season was .270/.345/.550. He hit 24 homers, crossed the magical 700 milestone, and had an elite 151 wRC+.

He was brilliant. It was a legendary performance for a legendary player. It also brought an unexpected windfall of income to the Cardinals through ticket sales and promotions.

That’s the positive extreme for Pujols. What would that look like for Wainwright?

We can roll back Pujols’ career a bit to produce a model for a retirement year surge. What year in his past most resembled Pujols’ 22 season? Because of plate appearances and role change, it’s hard to compare Pujols’ last season with his previous years. His fWAR total of 1.8 in ’22 was the best he had produced since 2014 when he had a 2.7 fWAR and a .272/.324/.466 line; that’s across the board lower than his slash line in ’22. His wRC+ in ’14 was only 123. Far below 2022.

If we go by wRC+, the most comparable year is probably 2011, his final season in St. Louis. That season Pujols had a .299/.366/.541 slash line with a 147 wRC+ and 3.9 fWAR. It was probably the last “really good” season that Pujols put together in his prime years.

Let’s apply that same model to Wainwright. What would Wainwright’s last prime, “really good” season look like?

There’s a clear example. 2014 was the last full, prime season that Wainwright had before a slew of injuries stole his playing time and effectiveness. He was showing some signs of impending decline. His K% fell below 20% for the first time since 2018. His walk rate also climbed a bit over the year before but it was still in his typically excellent range. He still won 20 games that season, had a minuscule home run rate, and a 2.88 FIP with a 2.38 ERA. He produced 4.9 fWAR that season, the 4th highest of his career.

That was 8 years ago. Is such a season achievable for Wainwright this season?

Well, if Pujols did it…

It wouldn’t even require the statistical miracle that Pujols produced. In 2021 Wainwright had a slightly better K rate than in 2014 (batters are striking out more universally and even the junk-ball Wainwright benefits from that). His walk rate was 6.0%, just a hair higher than in ’14. His HR/FB rate was nearly double what he had produced eight seasons earlier and that led to a 3.05 ERA and a 3.66 FIP. His fWAR was 3.8.

That was just two seasons ago.

Even last year wasn’t that far off. In ’22 Wainwright saw another decline in his fastball velocity. In ’14 his fastball averaged 91.1 mph. Last season it was 88.1. Even with his still massive curveball, a dip in velocity means a dip in effectiveness. Waino’s K’s fell. His walks rose. He did control his homers, but his overall stats took another step back. His FIP was 3.66. His ERA was 3.71. His fWAR was 2.8.

Typically velocity and K’s will decline precipitately as a pitcher – even a once-elite one – ages past 40. Walks and homers allowed will increase. Performance will drop. Health will steal innings.

But, in Wainwright’s case, if he gets a season with good luck on homers and a small bounce back to his ’22 velocity levels, Wainwright could have his own “miracle” season. I’m not going to say it’s likely. I will say it’s possible.

The opposite extreme is what we saw from Yadier Molina last season. As Molina aged through his mid-30s, he entered a fairly steady and typical decline for catchers – even elite ones – of his age. In ’18 he produced a slash line of .261/.314/.436. He had 20 homers, a 105 wRC+, and 2.4 fWAR. He was still a plus defender.

From there, Molina’s innings dropped. His injuries rose. His production fell. His wRC+ was 88 in ’19 and 83 in both ’20 and ’21. Last season he fell off the cliff. His slash line was .214/.233/.302. His walk rate was 1.9% – one of the lowest I have ever seen from a starting player. His wRC+ was 51. Somehow, he was still a positive producer. His fWAR was .1.

Molina missed a significant amount of time midseason as he rested his aching knees and needed a little mental reset. It was a rare show of weakness from a player who had pushed his way through aches and pains to stay in the lineup consistently over his entire career.

No one wants to talk about it but what happened with Molina in his final season is an all-too-common occurrence. Father Time is the only undefeated contender in sports. Age caught even the legendary Yadier Molina, souring the movie-magic farewell performance that fans received from Pujols.

It could happen to Wainwright, too. We’ve seen it happen to Wainwright before. I have two examples to consider.

In 2017, Wainwright started 23 games, pitching only 123 innings. His K rates fell from ’16. His walk rates rose. He had trouble limiting homers. His ERA was a shocking (for him) 5.11. His FIP was better at 4.29, but even normalizing his home run rate doesn’t help him – his xFIP was 4.40. He produced just 1.4 fWAR.

Injuries – he would have surgery following the season – ineffectiveness, and spotty-for-him command all led to poor performance and the Cardinals struggled for it. The 2017 club was the worst team in StL since 2007.

Worse is what happened the following year. The injuries that limited Waino in ’17 became chronic. He only managed 40 innings and 8 starts in ‘18. He had a 4.46 ERA and a 4.28 FIP as he both wrestled with discomfort and with recovering from discomfort. It was a lost season. Wainwright reported later that it almost ended his career.

Wainwright’s ended the ’22 season dealing with a variety of struggles. At one point the club talked about him having a “dead arm”. After the season he revealed that a comebacker that struck his knee limited his stride, and resulted in mechanical problems with his windup and release.

You can see it in the stats. The injury occurred on August 28. His velocity was 88.7 mph on the season leading into that game. From that point through the end of the year, it was just 87.5. That dramatically affected Waino’s performance. His ERA down the stretch was 7.22. His FIP was 4.37 – solid. But his xFIP was 5.32.

For the pessimists among us, it’s not hard to see his late-season struggles as a potential precursor to a season full of injuries. Most pitchers don’t even get to age 41 before an injury robs them of their season and ultimately their career.

Those are two extremes, but it does reveal the fine line that Wainwright will have to walk in’ 23. A stretch of healthy performance with decent luck with homers and a tick-up in velocity? It’s not hard at all to imagine him putting up a really good performance, one that is reminiscent of his prime years. Wainwright could produce his version of Albert Pujols’ 2022.

A fluky injury, a little bit of poor luck with home runs, and a drop in velocity? It’s easy to imagine him putting up a really poor performance, one that is reminiscent of his mid-30s injuries. Wainwright could produce his version of Yadier Molina’s 2022.

Of course, there’s a third possibility. Wainwright, another year older, could simply take another step backward. His K rate could drop a bit. His walk rate could climb a bit. He could allow a few more homers. He could look a little more like the 41-year-old formerly-elite starter that he is.

ZiPS predicts this path as his most likely outcome. They have Wainwright providing a solid 3.96 ERA and a 4.41 FIP. That’s a 1.1 fWAR in 164 innings.

If he hits that 50th percentile projection, it’s probably enough to keep him in the starting rotation and keep fans relatively satisfied with him, but it likely wouldn’t be much better than the club could get (or should expect) from their depth starters, including Hudson or Liberatore. Certainly far less than they would hope to get from the high end starter they passed on to bring him back.

So, calibrate your expectations accordingly. It’s not going to take a miracle for him to produce another “very good” season at the end of his career. A quick injury could easily derail his farewell tour. Or Wainwright could squeeze out the last bit of positive production from his aging arm, barely holding off the youngsters coming for his rotation spot.

All three possibilities seem pretty balanced to me. All three seem equally possible. Which do you have? Which will you predict? Let me know in the comments.

Have a happy Wednesday, Viva El Birdos.