There’s been plenty of speculation about whether Adam Wainwright was playing out his final season as a big leaguer, but Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Wainwright does want to continue pitching and has already been in touch with the Cardinals about a possible return. GM Mike Girsch seemingly confirmed as much, telling Goold that the two sides have had “general conversations” about a 2019 return.
The 37-year-old Wainwright’s future was in doubt for much of the year, as he pitched just 15 1/3 innings in April before hitting the disabled list due to elbow inflammation. Wainwright returned after a few weeks only to return to the disabled list (once again, due to elbow discomfort) after just 2 1/3 innings. That second DL stint lasted nearly four months.
Wainwright, however, rattled off 17 scoreless innings on a minor league rehab assignment and returned to the St. Louis rotation in September, making four starts down the stretch. He allowed four runs in three of those four outings and pitched to an overall 4.84 ERA in 22 1/3 innings, but he also turned in a dominant 25-to-4 K/BB ratio. Fielding-independent metrics pegged him for a true ERA more in the low-3.00s, and his average fastball sat at an even 90.0 mph — nearly identical to his career 90.4 mph average. Wainwright won’t turn 38 until Aug. 30 of next year, and it seems that he still has fuel left in the tank on what has been a terrific career to date.
Exactly how he’d fit into the pitching staff, however, remains to be seen. The Cards project to have Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha and, if healthy, Alex Reyes in next year’s rotation. If Reyes’ injury troubles persist or if he’s moved to a bullpen role, the St. Louis organization has numerous internal alternatives in Luke Weaver, Dakota Hudson, John Gant, Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon, among others. Certainly, it’s a deep core of starting pitching options and one that seems unlikely to maintain wholly intact as pitching-hungry teams offer up MLB-ready bats to the Cardinals on the offseason trade market.
Reinserting Wainwright into that mix would only deepen the staff and further make trades easier to stomach for Girsch and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak, though the financials of a Wainwright return still need to be hammered out. It’s clear that Wainwright won’t command a salary along the lines of the $19.5MM annual rate that came with his previous five-year, $97.5MM deal, but the Cards would still likely need to make a reasonable guarantee, likely with the opportunity for additional earnings via incentives.
Speculatively speaking, even if the organization were to decide that there’s no room for Wainwright in the rotation, it’d be interesting to see if he’d be amenable to returning as a reliever. Wainwright, after all, cemented himself in Cardinals lore by closing out the NLCS and the World Series as an exuberant 25-year-old rookie back in 2006. The Cardinals’ closer role is currently up in the air, and a return to that job for Wainwright would represent something of a full-circle journey.
The Cardinals already have more than $110MM on the books for 2019, and that’s before arbitration raises for Wacha, Marcell Ozuna, Dominic Leone, and Chasen Shreve. It’d be a surprise, though, if St. Louis didn’t try to shed some payroll by moving some veterans whose performance makes it clear that they no longer fit with the roster. Dexter Fowler’s remaining $49.5MM over the next three seasons will be near impossible to move without absorbing a significant portion of that deal, but he no longer looks to be a par of the long-term outlook in the outfield. Relievers Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson are on less onerous contracts and could potentially be moved in salary-motivated trades, as well. Mozeliak, Girsch and the rest of the front office figure to be in for an active offseason, with the Wainwright decision presumably serving as the first of many.