The Cardinals are turning to Adam Wainwright to make Monday’s start at Arizona. Several weeks from his 42nd birthday, Waino will be pitching only 20 days after being shut down by a shoulder strain.
A couple of cortisone injections, two bullpen sessions, no injury rehab assignment, no real plan, no problem! The Cardinals are just winging it, giving Wainwright the assignment because they have no one else to make the start.
After Saturday’s loss to the Cubs, Cards manager Oli Marmol asked Wainwright if he’d be ready to start Monday because the team really needed him. And the right-hander is up for it because time is running out on his final season, and among other things he’s chasing career victory No. 200.
And if Wainwright is asked to help the Cardinals, he’ll always try to help the Cardinals. Yes, even if it means pitching in pain and in a way that diminishes his performance – something Waino said he’d done in previous starts leading into the July 4 beatdown at Miami. By now no one should be surprised by this: Waino gets what Waino wants, and managers defer to him. Nothing new.
This time it’s a little different because Marmol didn’t have another choice. The Cardinals have declared starting-pitching bankruptcy.
This all reeks of desperation … for the team and for Wainwright. His extra-speedy return is just another example of the consequences that have hit the Cardinals hard in the aftermath of the front-office failure last offseason.
The lack of planning and action created a dire lack of depth, and that’s resulted in inevitable chaos. The Cardinals are an embarrassing 44-56 in 2023, and this is no accident. But it could have been prevented.
In the best-case scenario, Wainwright will finesse his way through four-plus innings Monday, hoodwinking the Arizona hitters with his assortment of tricks. I’m thinking of his one OK stretch of the season, a four-start sequence that began on May 29. Across the four outings, he averaged 5.5 innings and got away with a 4.84 ERA despite being walloped for a .337 average, .382 onbase percentage, and .505 slug. Resourceful and stubborn, Wainwright didn’t give up more than three earned runs in any of the starts.
Even though the Cardinals went 1-3 in Wainwright’s assignments, he gave the Cardinals a chance to win all four games. All things considered, this was about the best we could hope for. I hope Wainwright has healed enough to give the Diamondbacks a fair fight. It would be nice to see him have a positive finish with a franchise he’s been with since 2003.
In case I’ve confused anyone reading this, let me be clear here: I’m fine with Wainwright pitching in this situation because the season doesn’t really matter now.
I’d have a different mindset if the Cardinals were in legitimate competition for a postseason spot. They’re not. St. Louis trails first-place Milwaukee by 11 games, and is lagging 10 and ½ behind second-place Cincinnati. And the Cardinals will almost certainly trade off roster pieces – the only questions are who, and how many? – before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
If I appear to be grouchy in my response to Wainwright making this start, it’s for a simple reason: the front office put the team in a preposterous situation by ignoring its duty to strengthen the rotation and supply a respectable cushion of depth.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak struck out – badly – on both fronts. Because of Mozeliak’s complacency, the Cardinals entered 2023 with a flimsy rotation and gaps in the underlying depth. An overworked bullpen gave way, in part because the Cardinals declined to get insurance to cover the breakdown.
Mozeliak believed the Cardinals were dandy with Jake Woodford and Matthew Liberatore as fill-in starters, but that blew up on him. The team’s pitching was clearly vulnerable, exposed from the start and had no chance to survive Mozeliak’s neglect.
— Wainwright strained a groin muscle during the WBC and opened the season on the IL. Woodford was plugged into the rotation slot and got pummeled for a 5.73 ERA in his first six starts. He’s also been sidelined (twice) by shoulder ailments.
— The $44 million free-agent, Steven Matz, had a 5.72 ERA after his first 10 starts of the season and was demoted to the bullpen. He’s back in the rotation now and is looking better.
— The Cardinals gave Liberatore, 23, another chance, but the enigmatic lefty was relegated to Triple A after opponents smashed him for 6.75 ERA in 32 innings. Liberatore is looking like a bust at this point, and Mozeliak gave up outfielder Randy Arozarena for him.
— Before going on the IL, Wainwright was strafed for 17 earned runs, a .522 batting average, four homers and a 1.476 OPS in his three starts. That left him with a 7.66 ERA in 11 starts overall this season. This happened after Cardinals management (plus Marmol) chose to look the other way when Wainwright absorbed substantial punishment last September.
— The Cardinals have dabbled with Dakota Hudson but aren’t committed to him as a starter at the big-league level. (That could change.) He has a 2.40 ERA in one start and 15 innings for the Cardinals over recent weeks but didn’t inspire confidence with a 6.00 ERA in 11 starts at Triple A Memphis.
— Mozeliak pulled young lefty Zack Thompson from the St. Louis bullpen to repurpose him as a starter in the minors. But at Triple A Memphis this year Thompson was belted for a 9.37 ERA in 32 and ⅔ innings and the Cardinals are back to using him as a reliever. We think so, anyway. Who the hell knows? It’s a mess.
— At Memphis the Cardinals don’t have a major-league ready starter ready to go. Not Gordon Graceffo, not Michael McGreevy, not Connor Thomas. Perhaps we’ll see McGreevy or Graceffo later on, but they didn’t get a call at a time when the big club is running out of starting pitchers.
The St. Louis front office used to specialize in successful low-budget free-agent signings. That’s how starting pitchers Jeff Suppan and Kyle Lohse got here. And STL’s minor-league network had young starting pitchers that could make a jump to the majors to help out – a list that includes Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales, John Gant, Tim Cooney, Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Johan Oviedo. (Plus others.) And this doesn’t even account for the parade of young relievers that were summoned for important roles. Cultivating relievers is another area of this baseball operation that’s gone from strength to weakness.
Wacha was a star for a while; the 2013 Cardinals wouldn’t have won the 2013 NL pennant without him. But one way or another other young pitchers were asked to do a job at the big-league level and came through with a commendable job in handling emergencies.
And now? Mozeliak is running precariously low on starting pitching and the organization doesn’t have real-time 2023 solutions in the minors. That left Marmol scrambling for Wainwright, who had the worst starting-pitching ERA among MLB starters at the time he was placed on the IL.
This decision wasn’t made on merit; it made because it’s the only choice the Cardinals had. When you run out of starting pitchers and have nothing else to do except give the baseball to a soon-to-be age 42 starter who is rushing back from an injury ahead of schedule, it’s inexcusable.
Contrast this all to Milwaukee, which has survived all sorts of Injured List trouble with their starters this season including Brandon Woodruff, Eric Lauer and Wade Miley. No problem. Brewers GM Matt Arnold scrounged for helpful free-agents Colin Rea and Julio Teheran and moved reliever Adrian Houser to a starting role after Houser recovered from an early-season injury. The Crew is 20-17 this season in games started by Rea, Teheran and Houser – which includes a 17-10 record in starts handled by Rea and Houser.
Do you remember when the Cardinals did this? Do you remember when they specialized in starting pitching and made sure to accumulate the depth needed to get through difficult challenges? Yeah, me too.
From 2000 through 2020, only the Dodgers had a better starting-pitcher ERA than the Cardinals among the 30 major-league teams. But since the start of the 2021 season, the Cards are 15th in the majors in starting-pitching ERA – and trending downward.
As the trade-deadline frenzy approaches, Mozeliak has said he will prioritize starting pitching to reshape the St. Louis rotation for 2024 and perhaps beyond. We’ll have to see what he comes up with – or what he doesn’t come up with. At this point, is there any reason to have confidence in Mozeliak to make impactful deals and get the job done right?
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.