Nine thoughts on Adam Wainwright’s strained-groin injury, and what it means for the pitcher and the Cardinals.
1. It’s unfortunate. Wainwright, 41, plans to retire after the 2023 season. The hope for the final year was to see Wainwright pitch his way through a solid season and reach two milestones that are important to him. The first is 200 career wins. The second is securing 16 wins to move past Jesse “Pop” Haines and into second place in franchise history with 211 victories. (Bob Gibson is the all-time Cardinals leader with 251 triumphs.)
With 195 wins, Wainwright has an excellent chance to get to 200 as long as he makes a healthy return with no additional setbacks and down time. The 200 wins would boost his case for Hall of Fame consideration. The initial injury-absence estimate was “several weeks” but it could be longer if we include a likely rehab assignment. If that’s the case, the odds would be heavily against Wainwright’s goal of finishing at No. 2 for most career wins by a Cardinal. This is a shame. The year began happily for Wainwright, who finessed his way to a 2-0 record and 2.25 ERA for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
The sad thing about this is Wainwright being scratched from the team’s season-opener at Busch Stadium against Toronto on March 30. He deserved to make that start for all that he’s done for the Cardinals.
2. The news is surprising but hardly stunning. Wainwright posted a career-low fastball velocity in 2022, and was struggling with his velo this spring. Last season there was a noticeable drop in Wainwright’s swing-and-miss stuff and strikeout rate. He had a 4.29 ERA in his final 17 starts including a 7.22 ERA in his last six outings. He had a 4.73 ERA in 13 road starts. When a pitcher reaches an advanced age in his career, it becomes more challenging to pitch effectively. ANd he becomes more vulnerable to injury. This is Wainwright’s first stay on the IL (non-Covid) since he tweaked a hamstring in June 2019.
3. The proud Wainwright will work as hard as humanly possible to make a successful return and overcome the injury and the delay to his final campaign. But can Wainwright pitch consistently well when he makes it back? I’m not trying to spin a false positive here, but it’s possible that he’ll benefit from the interruption. He didn’t have a normal spring training. When he begins rehabbing, he can use the extra time to build up arm strength without having to deal with the pressure of competition. That applies only if Wainwright doesn’t try to rush back too soon. (I wouldn’t bet on that.) Wainwright will make fewer starts this season, and that should help him avoid fatigue and lessen the wear and tear on his body. He may have more in the tank late in the season, right around the time of his 42nd birthday in late August.
As Wainwright told reporters in Jupiter Thursday: “I’ll be able to strengthen everything really well,” and added that he needed to strengthen the groin muscle, anyway.
Huh. If his leg (groin muscle) wasn’t strong, then why did he pitch in the WBC?
4. The Cardinals’ starting-pitching depth will be tested early. It appears that Jake Woodford will fill Wainwright’s spot in the rotation. Woodford has earned it – and that’s an understatement. Since the start of September 2021, Woodford has a 2.34 ERA for the Cardinals in 77 innings. That’s the best ERA by a St. Louis pitcher that has worked at least 77 innings over that time. And during the stretch Woodford faced 300 batters and gave up only one homer. He’s sharpened his slider – as requested by the team – and is having an excellent spring training.
5. Another plus: the young lefty Matthew Liberatore had an excellent camp, striding in a positive direction with a more aggressive approach with his 95 mph fastball and more extensive use of his improved curve. Liberatore had a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings this spring, striking out 24.3% of hitters faced and walking only one batter. He’ll begin the season in the rotation at Triple A Memphis, which will keep him ready to go should the Cardinals need to address another problem in their rotation. A talented prospect – Gordon Graceffo – could emerge as a rotation replacement later in the season.
The Cardinals could always repurpose Andre Pallante and use him as a starter. After a poor camp Dakota Hudson (6.23 ERA) will have a chance to pitch himself back into consideration by improving at Triple A Memphis.
6. The early Wainwright injury draws more attention to a recurring issue with the front office: deciding to take a pass on bolstering the rotation by adding an above-average starting pitcher during the offseason. Management tends to overrate the quality and the viability of its rotation and never seems to learn from past mistakes.
Because of (mostly) injury issues, the Cardinals used 13 starting pitchers in 2021, and 14 last season. But to their credit, John Mozeliak and crew did a terrific job at the trade deadline over the last two seasons by acquiring Jon Lester and J.A. Happ in 2021, and Jose Quintana plus Jordan Montgomery in 2022. But even with those four late–season additions, the Cardinal rotation over the past two seasons (combined) ranked 19th in WAR, 12th in ERA, 16th in Fielding Independent ERA, 24th in walk rate and 28th in strikeout rate.
The Cardinals have the depth to cover for Wainwright’s absence. But what happens if this rotation is hit with additional injuries? Mozeliak may be scrambling to add a veteran starter at the 2023 trade deadline.
7. The Wainwright injury could put more pressure on manager Oli Marmol. When Wainwright returns but doesn’t pitch adequately, what will the second-year manager do? Send Wainwright back out there every fifth day to absorb punishment? Does Marmol stay the course or turn to a more effective starter?
No one wants to think about this scenario, and hopefully it won’t materialize – but this is a legitimate question to ponder. Many months later, I still find it unsettling to know that Marmol planned to start a diminished Wainwright in Game 3 of the wild-card series had the Cardinals avoided a two-game sweep by the Phillies.
A manager has an obligation to put the team’s interests first. Do you think it was easy for Red Schoendienst to relegate the immortal Bob Gibson to the bullpen in 1975? In his final season Gibson, 39, had a 5.16 ERA in 14 starts. Red made the tough call to remove Gibson from the rotation, and Gibby made his last big-league start on July 15 of the ‘75 season.
8. No matter what happens with Wainwright in ’23, it doesn’t change a thing about his distinguished pitching career – not only as a Cardinal but among starting pitchers of his era.
* As I’ve written numerous times, Wainwright is arguably the second-best starting pitcher in franchise history. As mentioned earlier, Wainwright ranks third in victories. He’s second (to Gibson) for most strikeouts by a Cardinal. He ranks third in starts, fourth in innings pitched, fourth in appearances and has the second-best ERA+ in franchise history among pitchers who threw at least 2,000 innings.
* As a rookie emergency closer in 2006, Wainwright bagged the final out for a save in all three postseason rounds to clinch the team’s first World Series championship since 1982.
* Wainwright finished second in the NL Cy Young voting two times, and was third in the balloting in two other seasons.
* Wainwright has pitched for the Cardinals in nine different postseasons. He has pitched in more postseason games (29) than any Cardinal pitcher in franchise history. He is the team’s all-time leader in postseason innings pitched, and in postseason strikeouts.
* Since 2006, 16 MLB pitchers have worked at least 75 postseason innings. Wainwright’s 2.83 postseason ERA is fourth-best among the 16 over that time, behind only Madison Bumgarner, Jon Lester and Cliff Lee. Wainwright’s postseason ERA since ’06 (minimum 75 IP) is superior to that of Chris Carpenter, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, Charlie Morton, Walker Buehler, David Price and Jon Lackey.
* During the expansion era (1961-present) Wainwright ranks tied for 14th in winning percentage (.625) among pitchers that have a minimum 2,500 innings pitched.
* During the expansion era only two pitchers have a combination of at least 195 regular-season wins and four postseason saves: John Smoltz and Adam Wainwright.
9. Waino is a lock for the Cardinals Hall of Fame. There’s enough on his resume to warrant a future discussion of his case for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Wainwright has shaped an outstanding legacy but isn’t done yet.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Stathead.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.