THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals are shutting down Adam Wainwright, supposedly because of right-shoulder irritation.
Or is it ERA inflation?
A deflation of confidence and ego?
Or merely the desire to avoid more humiliation?
Whatever the reason, Wainwright certainly had a major say in the decision announced after his latest rupture in the team’s 15-2 defeat at Miami. He’s headed to the IL to recover after a gruesome three-start sledgehammering by opportunistic opponents.
In his last three attempts to ignore the cruel but obvious reality and rewind the time to more pleasant summers, a worn-out Wainwright was exploited by opponents for 24 hits and 17 earned runs in 8 innings. The resultant 19.13 ERA included the scorch marks left by a .552 batting average, four homers, five doubles and an .891 slugging percentage He walked six and struck out only four of 53 batters faced (7.5%).
It was time to halt the beatdown. No one benefited from repeated assaults on Wainwright’s pitching – including the 41-year-old starter who is trying to survive until the end of his 18th major-league season.
It’s important to realize something here. While Wainwright’s past three starts were brutally extreme, this is no aberration. Wainwright has been losing velocity, swing-and-miss capability and strikeout vitality for quite a while now.
The last three starts followed a pattern. In his previous 14 starts before the last three, Wainwright was clobbered for a 6.22 ERA and struck out only 11 percent of 339 batters faced. During those 14 starts that served as a loud – but largely ignored – warning of his conspicuous decline, left-handed batters thwacked him for a .377 average, .435 OBP and .585 slug.
And again, this extensive damage occurred before his recent batterings by the Cubs, Astros and Marlins. Wainwright lasted 3 and ⅓ innings Tuesday at Miami before manager Oli Marmol intervened and pulled him from the latest rout. In Wainwright’s last three starts, the Cardinals were outscored 38-3. And they’re 1-6 in his last seven undertakings.
Marmol – as big an unabashed Wainwright fan as anyone – had finally seen enough. I wouldn’t expect Marmol to come out and say that he’s removing Wainwright from the rotation for an indefinite period of time because of a poor performance. The shoulder thing provided convenient cover if that’s how the Cards preferred to play this.
And that’s reasonable. There’s no reason to embarrass Wainwright with a straight-up demotion from the starting rotation. He’s done too much for the franchise to be given, say, the Steven Matz treatment. Waino is a proud man who, including the postseason, has given the Cardinals 2,733 innings and 202 wins since coming up from the minors in 2005.
Ideally, Wainwright would have called it a career after 2022, and his late-season collapse was a clear signal. Did he stay a year too long? We can say that, but this has no bearing in the current predicament. Once he returned for 2023 – a decision encouraged and reaffirmed by management’s enthusiastic $17 million salary for Waino’s final season – all we could do was hope for the best.
The wishcasting included a respectable 2023 performance and his 200th career win. If all went really well, Wainwright would Houdini his way to 13 individual wins to pass Pop Haines and move into second place in franchise history with 211 victories. That would put him at No. 2 to Bob Gibson in both career wins and strikeouts.
Wainwright didn’t need to reach any of these milestones to ensure his place as the second-greatest starting pitcher in Cardinals history. And even though his final season has wildly careened off the rails, no one will remember that in a way that sticks. Wainwright will be celebrated by current and future generations of Cardinals fans.
Waino’s electric Game 7 strikeout of Carlos Beltran to clinch the 2006 NLCS will go down as one of the most iconic pitching moments in team history. That was part of his perfect 2006 postseason that included saves that secured three postseason rounds for the World Series champion Cardinals.
Wainwright’s current disappointment is completely understandable, but he shouldn’t beat himself up over it. This team is a mess, and the rotation is horrendous, but he’s just part of a large cast that’s produced a sickly 35-50 record. And the St. Louis bosses didn’t have to bring him back for 2023; they were absolutely thrilled to do so.
The Cardinals are drifting and sinking to their worst season in a very long time, and that isn’t because of Wainwright. He’s just a member of a rotation that was poorly assembled by the complacent president of baseball ops John Mozeliak. Waino isn’t bringing this rotation down – not when there’s only one starter, Jordan Montgomery, who is lifting it up.
As I’ve written, there’s a long list of pitching greats who crashed in their final seasons – or in the late stages of their careers. I did some additional research and updated the list: Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Christy Matthewson, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Dizzy Dean, Juan Marichal, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, Waite Hoyt, Red Ruffing, Carl Hubbell, Catfish Hunter, Nolan Ryan, Don Drysdale, Lefty Grove, Burleigh Grimes, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro, And there others.
So, what’s next for Wainwright and the Cardinals?
There are three scenarios:
1. If Wainwright does in fact have a sore shoulder: He rests and rehabs and comes back with enough juice to contribute a few decent starts and bag No. 200. This scenario makes sense. Why? The Cardinals won’t be in serious contention for a postseason spot. Their flimsy rotation doesn’t have attractive candidates (including prospects) that are being blocked by Waino. And if the Cardinals trade one or both of their pending free-agent starters – Jack Flaherty and Montgomery – there will be even more room to accommodate Wainwright’s return.
And the big guy did have a decent four-start run that began on May 29, pitching to a 4.73 fielding-independent ERA over that time. He gave the Cardinals a chance to win in all four starts. If he’s physically sound and can pump some life back into his pitching, I could see him doing that again.
1a. And as I wrote last week, the 2023 season was never going to be about going all-out to win. The pathetic management and front-office inactivity made that clear. If Wainwright is physically able to pitch, then let him pitch. I wouldn’t be saying this if the Cardinals were above .500 and in good position to make a run for the division title. But they’re a bad team in virtually all phases of the game … and a team that lacks competitive edge and motivation. The manager and coaches are hardly distinguishing themselves.
2. Wainwright calls it a career and announces his retirement during the All-Star break – or perhaps later in the season. That would be the decision only if (A) he accepts that the velocity and magic are gone and can’t be regenerated, and (B) his final-season hero tour means little to him.
3. Wainwright is moved to the bullpen. I don’t see that happening. And I don’t see how he’d help that particular cause. His strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate are the worst in the majors (minimum 50 innings) and his ground-ball rate has dropped to 35.4%. Recent velocity readings are abysmal. How does he get guys out? And does he really want to be a mop-up long reliever?
4. Wainwright returns – but much later in the season. He’d be on the active roster to start the final regular-season game of 2023: Cardinals vs. Reds at Busch Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 1.
5. I’ve seen fans suggest another cheery outcome: Wainwright retires and immediately takes over as the team’s pitching coach. That’s a very nice thought … and a pure fantasy. But it isn’t an option. Sorry.
I don’t believe we’ve seen the last of Adam Wainwright on the mound, pitching for the Cardinals. If he is indeed hurting, his reemergence becomes a matter of pitching health and timing. For now, the pitcher and the manager and the front office did the right thing by moving Wainwright to the side to regroup and reconsider.
What does he want to do? And what, if anything, can he do to prevent additional punishment and embarrassment? This is sad, and it didn’t have to be this way.
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.
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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.