One more year.
That’s how the St. Louis Cardinals announced the return of veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright to the team for the 2019 season. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but it's expected to be an incentive-laden contract for Wainwright, who at age 37, will enter his 15th season in a Cardinals uniform next spring.
Despite an undeniable deterioration in his performance over the past three seasons, his return was the only way for this to go down. Since coming to the organization as an ancillary piece in the J.D. Drew trade with the Atlanta Braves in 2003, Wainwright has cemented his status as a Cardinals legend with both regular season and postseason greatness.
More recently, that greatness has seldom been on display. For three seasons now, the Cardinals have failed to reach the postseason. It’s during that same time frame that Wainwright has failed to perform as his vintage self. His consecutive ERAs of 4.62, 5.11 and 4.46 the last three years pale in comparison to his career-long dominance in the Cardinals rotation preceding.
With evidence in mind that present-day Waino is a shell of his former self, some would argue Wainwright’s signing is more symbolic gesture than strategic endeavor for success in 2019.
My contention? There’s no reason it can’t be both.
Firstly, bringing back Wainwright for another year doesn’t guarantee him anything in terms of role. But would it surprise me to see Waino back in the Cardinals’ rotation at some point next season? Or to see him fill a valuable role in relief? Not at all.
Look, we’ve seen how these things play out. Take 2018 as a perfect example. When the season began, the rotation was penciled in as something like Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Miles Mikolas--with Alex Reyes joining the fold in due time.
How’d all that play out, again?
Martinez vacated the rotation for the bullpen, Wainwright missed a majority of the season, Wacha missed about half of it, Weaver was demoted to the bullpen and Reyes never materialized.
To act like Wainwright’s inability to keep healthy was the only reason we ended up watching a rotation of Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber for a chunk of the season would be disingenuous. The Cardinals had 10 different pitchers start games for them in 2018--who’s to say next season will be any different? The Cardinals could always use the depth.
When Wainwright finally returned near the end of the season, he wasn’t consistently masterful. But was he serviceable? Absolutely. And the Cardinals can find a use for that on their roster next season, even if we don’t know precisely what his role will entail.
Of course, to think of this move as one only of roster strategy wouldn’t be right, either. There’s sentiment at play, and there should be. There’s significance in keeping a respected member from going elsewhere.
Regardless of what the public thinks of his capabilities at this stage, Wainwright wasn’t ready to retire. He wants to pitch. It’s conceivable that if the Cardinals had treated Wainwright the way they did Matt Holliday after his contract expired--by letting him walk out the door without so much as an inkling of interest in his return--that Waino would have found a contract offer some place else, just as Holliday did.
Now, Holliday wasn’t a career Cardinal. But that didn’t make the circumstances surrounding his departure any less bittersweet. Imagine then how much more unnatural it would feel to see Wainwright, definitively a career Cardinal, signing with another team--to see him forced to finish his career by wearing Pittsburgh gold or Dodger blue instead of Cardinal red? Unimaginable.
It wouldn’t get more unceremonious than that. Bringing Wainwright back for another round has practical and sentimental implications, both. Considering the presumptive minimal financial outlay--Wainwright won’t get paid a truly handsome salary unless he provides worthy results--there’s not much risk in this move for the Cardinals from a business perspective. And if you saw his performance against the Dodgers in September--that glimpse of greatness renewed--there’s reason to believe the decision can still pay dividends on the field for St. Louis.
From a public relations perspective and from a ‘doing right by your own’ perspective, retaining Wainwright for another year wasn’t just the best move--it was the only move.
There was only one way for this to end. In agreeing to this one-year deal, the Cardinals have done their part to ensure it does so with Wainwright wearing birds on the bat across his chest for his entire career, from start to finish.
Or at least until next off-season.