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Losing with Players You Love vs. Winning Without Them

Let’s return to a hypothetical question that involves winning, losing, and our favorite players.

Milwaukee Brewers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Joe Puetz/Getty Images

An age of legends for the St. Louis Cardinals is ending.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals fan favorite, future team Hall of Famer, future Hall of Fame broadcaster, and owner of 200 MLB wins is heading off into the sunset of retirement at the end of this weekend.

He’ll hopefully get to do so swinging the bat one more time. (And why not? He has 4.3 career offensive bWAR over his 17 seasons and 846 ABs.) He’s also going to perform his own original country music songs for 40,000 adoring fans.

Wainwright is such a beloved personality – and the season is going so poorly – that the Cardinals are willing to let a pitcher hit in the DH era and then play country music on the stage once occupied by Paul McCartney.

Hey, I’m not complaining. He’s earned it! Wainwright has had an incredible career. He’s one of my favorite players of all time. I’ve followed his career with great enthusiasm ever since he came over to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew. I’ll continue to follow his life post-baseball as much as he allows us to.

I’m a huge fan of Adam Wainwright the baseball player, the person, not so much the singer but we all have our preferences there, and I wish him all the best.

Make sure you hear that: I am a fan of Adam Wainwright.

But I didn’t really want him on this Cardinals team in 2023.

Hopefully, Wainwright won’t take that personally. See, I also didn’t really want Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina on the team last year either.

Yes, it’s true. I’m one of the few fans of the Cardinals who made arguments against bringing Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright back for their final flings.

Like this article from back in January of 2021, where I suggest that the Cardinals would need an outside addition that at least pushes Molina to a true backup role by 2022.

Or this one that poo-poos the idea of Pujols coming back from February of 2022 and its companion piece after Pujols signed.

You’re probably more familiar with this one where I argue that even if Wainwright wants to come back for 2023, the Cardinals should move on from him while targeting the high-impact starter they needed.

Writing these posts, and then talking about them here and elsewhere on the internet has generated significant scorn from fans.

I remember one podcast host (and friend!) asking me, jokingly but seriously, “Why do you hate fun?”

Others – mostly on Twitter – slammed me for not having any heart, any joy, or any real love for the game. The “you analytics nerds living in your mom’s basement are ruining the game!” line has been cast in my teeth more than a few times when it comes to these three Cardinals legends and their St. Louis swan songs.

I even had a Cardinals broadcaster try to take me out to the woodshed for my suggestion that Molina might not be the best catcher in the league anymore. That was after the 2021 season.

I get it.

There’s a lot of emotion, history, moments, reminiscing, and romance tied around the best players of this Cardinals’ age of legends. Who wouldn’t want as much of that as we could get?

Pujols’ return to St. Louis and unlikely quest for 700. Molina’s final farewell tour. Wainwright’s pursuit of 200 wins. All were moments that we could and should remember and celebrate. These three are among the best baseball players we’ll ever get to watch.

That said, by the time we got to their retirement seasons, those three had also lost most of their measurable value, were extreme injury risks, and/or would take up a roster spot that could go to a younger, healthier, or more productive player.

I might hate fun. But I do love winning.

So, when questioned by fans who… let’s just say disagreed with my stance on the Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright going away parties, I occasionally responded with a challenge question. An “Are you sure you’ve thought this all the way through?” query. It’s one that I’m returning to now that this era of Cardinals’ baseball is ending and we’ve experienced its highs and lows.

Would you rather lose with the players that you love getting their memorable moments or win without them?

Let me be very clear: this is a false dichotomy. It’s completely hypothetical. One player – good or bad – is not going to make the difference between contending baseball and losing baseball for a 26-man roster over 162 games. Especially when that player sits, despite their legendary status, on the marginal fringes of the roster.

Adam Wainwright is certainly not the cause of this team’s demise. Albert Pujols was not the source of the 2022 teams’ (relative) success.

Still, it’s a hypothetical false dichotomy with a little bit of teeth. By definition, these career/legacy moments come at the point in a legendary player’s career when their legend is more memory than reality.

Just consider the production and circumstances of each heading into their final season celebration:

* Albert Pujols had produced -3.2 fWAR with an 84 wRC+ from 2017-2021. Injuries dramatically limited his ability to play the field and he could no longer hit right-handed pitching.

* Yadier Molina had produced 2.6 fWAR and an 85 wRC+ over 2 and 1/3 seasons from ’19 – ’21. He could still catch at an average level by our few flawed catcher metrics but only when his degenerative knees allowed him to stay on the field.

* Adam Wainwright was decent for most of ’22. Until his season took a turn from a leg injury that caused a disturbing drop in his velocity and the erosion of his mechanics.

Father Time wins these battles. And not just against the Cardinals. Have you checked in on Miguel Cabrera’s final season with Detroit? Yikes.

Logic, history, analytics, experience, the back of baseball cards… You pick the evaluative medium you prefer. They all tell us that players in their late 30s and early 40s are far more likely to experience a steep decline than they are to continue even at their current depressed level.

Our hearts want us to believe that legendary players were legends for a reason. Surely they have some hidden reservoir of legendary-ness that can only be harnessed through the adoring cheers of the best fans in baseball in the magical confines of Busch Stadium.

We even have a moment or two here or there to feed that hope. Albert Pujols’ 2022 is pure fairy tale fiction come to life. (And just so you all don’t think I’m some hater, I did write this piece about how the improbability of his greatness makes it that much greater.)

But we have a lot more examples of things going the other way.

That brings me back to my hypothetical false dichotomy. Some fans have repeatedly told me that they would rather lose celebrating the final moments of the players that they love than win without those players on the team.

I’ve never really believed them. Maybe I’m cold-hearted, with nothing but Excel spreadsheets stuffed into my chest in place of a beating heart. But that can’t possibly be true. Because I’m passionate about baseball. I desperately want to win. I want to win the regular season. I want to win the division. I want to win every playoff series. I want to win the World Series. Every year.

I cheered Adam Wainwright on as much as anyone in his last start. But it does bug me that it came in such a terrible season.

To me, baseball is about winning. I want the Cardinals to field the best team that they can every season to make that happen. Even if that means they need to move on from players that I love before those players are ready to step away.

The Cardinals are losing this season. And doing so badly. Unfortunately, Adam Wainwright is a significant contributor to that. His 200th win bumped him up a bit but he’s still sitting in the negative (-0.4) in fWAR on the season. That’s the second-worst fWAR total among MLB starters who have had at least 100 IPs pitched. On a more historic level, Wainwright has been the worst Cardinals starter with 100 IPs since Jason Marquis (-0.5) in 2006. You have to go back to 2001’s Andy Benes to find a starter who was notably worse (-1.5 fWAR).

I don’t mention that to take a victory lap. My argument entering the season was not that Wainwright would be all-time terrible. I did question his health and his ability to reclaim his lost velocity but I did not predict this level of collapse from him.

If you go back and read the article I cite above, you’ll note that my argument against re-signing Wainwright was about how his presence would impact the team’s approach to building their roster. The $15-20M salary he required would influence the Cardinals to ignore the starting pitcher free agent and trade markets.

I think my exact words were “count to five”: 1) Montgomery, 2) Mikolas, 3) Flaherty, 4) Matz, and 5) Wainwright. With a full rotation and cheap depth behind them, the Cardinals wouldn’t even kick the tires on the top-of-the-rotation starter they needed and wouldn’t bother to look at strengthening the back end of the rotation.

Fans argued with me about that, claiming the club had way more money to spend than I was projecting. They would never go into the season relying on Flaherty or Matz. They can always push a starter to the bullpen.

It was never going to happen. The club committed to Wainwright’s retirement tour and that un-committed them to any other rotation addition. That has certainly impacted the way this season has turned out. Re-signing Wainwright and his subsequent collapse as a starter has been a significant (but not sole) contributor to the team’s struggles.

So, I’m curious. Not in a “gotcha” or “told ya so” way. But in an honest, inquisitive way.

We got our heart moment. Wainwright got his 200 wins at home. We’ll get to celebrate him during this last homestand.

We also had to suffer through a pretty miserable baseball season to get it, one that was, in some ways, impacted by Wainwright’s collapse.

Did the moment with Adam Wainwright satisfy your baseball needs for the season? Or did the losing cost you more than Wainwright’s 200th win could redeem?

Fan reaction to this season seems to indicate that it wasn’t worth it. A struggling Wainwright was not much of an attendance draw this season, once the losing started.

Sure, there were a lot of people talking about Wainwright’s 200th win.

But it netted us one really good game out of 162. 9 innings of engaging baseball out of 1458 played.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

For me, I think this season has reinforced my instincts. I would rather sell out for winning than make roster allowances for special moments.

I certainly appreciate these Cardinals legends and understand the romance around them. I’m glad that I got to watch Wainwright his 200th. And for Pujols and Molina to get one more go.

But it was a lot better when the club was winning.

Winning trumps everything for me. And, when it comes to my hypothetical question, I would rather see the club field the best roster they can and make every attempt to win the World Series than watch my favorite players lose.

You are entitled to disagree. I’m sure some of you will. That’s OK.

It also won’t matter. The Cardinals won’t face this situation for a long while. Sure, Goldschmidt might be a future Hall of Famer but he just hasn’t reached that level of Cardinals herodom. Nolan Arenado might become that special to us Cards fans, but he’s a long way from retirement.

With this season lost, let’s make the most of what we do have. We have one more weekend to enjoy Adam Wainwright. One more night to celebrate an age of legends that has come and passed. I want to see him hit. I want to see pics and videos from his concert.

But then I want to get back to winning. Really winning.

That will be my focus this offseason. I’m going to write about what it will take for the Cardinals to be at their best. I’m not talking about returning to their 88-win, get-in-and-pray-for-luck strategy of the 2010s. That’s not good enough after this debacle.

I want to explore what it will take for the Cardinals to push against the Braves and Dodgers to become the best team in the National League.

They might not be able to do it next season. It might take a while. But this season has convinced me that’s the part of this game that I love. That’s what I want to see above everything else.