Giants Cardinals Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright throws during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Prove you can still do it.

That was the challenge inherent to the terms of Adam Wainwright’s contract with the Cardinals for 2019. Wainwright had been paid handsomely, nearly $20 million per season, on his previous deal spanning 2014 to 2018. Though Wainwright dazzled in year one of the five-year pact, the Cardinals didn’t get great value from the veteran pitcher in the seasons that followed.

Injuries and inconsistency cropped up frequently for Waino during those next four years, as he made just 68 starts from 2015-2018.

But a renaissance to his game and physical health in September 2018 led Wainwright to believe he could still do it, that he was still capable of competing at the MLB level. And he didn’t seem to mind betting on himself to do so.

The contract Wainwright signed for this season was such a significant decrease over his previous salary that the Cardinals actually had to wait for him to hit free agency in order to finalize it. Under the collective bargaining agreement, players can’t re-up with their current team for a guaranteed salary that has been reduced more than 20 percent from their previous wage. 

To remain a Cardinal, Wainwright had to, at least officially, briefly leave the Cardinals.

That’s because the deal to which he had agreed with St. Louis included just $2 million in guarantees. His contract was all about incentives, and if you’ll recall, some of those incentives were related to relief appearances and games finished. Wainwright’s inclusion in the starting rotation for this season always seemed probable, but that those relief bonuses even existed in the first place showed it was no sure thing.

Wainwright, of course, made the rotation out of spring, and with the exception of one quick trip to the injured list for a hamstring issue in June, he’s been there to take the ball on turn for St. Louis this season. 

On Monday, Wainwright casually breezed through the Giants lineup for seven shutout innings to cement his 10th win of the year. He struck out just one batter while recording the majority of his outs on balls in the air. In the launch angle era, that can be a dangerous recipe. But these fly balls did no harm, as the crafty veteran kept the Giants in the ballpark, and worked his way through another strong outing. Monday’s W marked Wainwright’s 10th season in which he has notched at least 10 wins for the Cardinals.

Now, he’s not dominating the opposition every time he takes the mound. But nobody should be asking that of Wainwright at this point in his career. Wainwright fills innings as a back-end of the rotation veteran on a contending team. His 4.30 ERA is identical to his 4.30 FIP. His ERA at home is a sterling 2.43. He’s got a 10-9 record. He’s logged 142.1 innings in 26 starts. The associated bonuses have bumped his 2019 salary to $8 million, with one more $2 million bonus in reach if he reaches 30 starts for the season. If he stays healthy, that looks likely.

Has Adam Wainwright been worth $10 million to the Cardinals this year? I’d say so.

Would he be worth something similar again next season? 

Wainwright would need to still want to pitch. He’s said numerous times that he’s got plenty of creative ideas for how he’d like to spend his time post-retirement. Just speculating, but those ideas likely include a combination of time with family, charitable efforts, broadcasting and gardening, among other things. There’s no doubt, when he decides it’s time to hang ‘em up, Waino will still be living out a full and interesting life.

He’s said that he was going to pitch in 2019, it was going to be for the Cardinals or not at all. The Cardinals benefitted from a low-risk contract that forced Waino to earn his keep. He went out and did it. I’m not sure a 2020 contract for Wainwright should be structured quite the same; Wainwright’s earned a few more guarantees, if he wants them. 

If he still wants to compete, it would benefit the Cardinals to find some room for him for another year, opening the door for the possibility that he and career-long battery-mate Yadier Molina could ride off into the sunset together. Molina’s current contract is set to expire at the end of the 2020 season.

Because at age 38, Adam Wainwright is still pitching. He’s still battling with hitters. And quite often, as Monday’s outing displayed, he’s still beating them.

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