In his career, Adam Wainwright has started 330 games, pitched in 410, and thrown 2209 and a third innings, including the postseason. Every one of those games has been in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform, and for at least one more season, his 16th season in the majors, the 38-year-old will pitch for the redbirds. The Cardinals announced the news, though has of this writing, terms have not been disclosed.
Update: Ken Rosenthal is reporting the deal is for $5 million guaranteed with $5 million in potential incentives. The guarantee looks to be a bit of a bargain given Wainwright’s 2019 and is under both Kiley McDaniel and the crowd’s estimates.
Wainwright turned 38 years old near the end of August, but that didn’t stop him from putting up a solid regular season campaign with an even better postseason. He ranked 29th on our list of Top 50 Free Agents, with Kiley McDaniel and the crowd expecting a one-year deal worth between $8 million and $10 million. I wrote the blurb that accompanied those predictions, and noted that Wainwright was in line for a much better deal than the one he had to settle for a year ago:
Heading into last offseason, Adam Wainwright couldn’t have been thrilled to find himself at a point in his career where he had to accept a contract with a low guaranteed salary and a ton of incentives based on games started, but he looks to be in much better shape after meeting those incentives in 2019. The 38-year-old started 30 games and put up a league average FIP and ERA. He was even better in the postseason, with 19 strikeouts in 16 and two-thirds innings to go along with just three walks and three runs. His fastball sits at just 90 mph, but heavy use of his signature curve keeps hitters off balance. It’s difficult to envision Wainwright and the Cardinals separating after 15 seasons, and after the year he just had, his guarantee should be a bit higher than the $2 million he got last winter.
Wainwright has always been known for that curve, and though this season’s version was a little different than the one he’s thrown in years past, as Jake Mailhot noted, the increased usage of the curve as well as his cutter kept hitters from catching up to a mediocre fastball. In October, Mailhot followed up on his earlier piece to note Wainwright’s continued improvement and career postseason brilliance. Wainwright actually pitched well near the end of the 2018 season, but got off to a slow start in 2019. In his first 10 starts, Wainwright put up a 5.18 FIP and a 4.82 ERA while walking 10% of the batters he faced with a strikeout rate under 20%. Over his last 23 starts, including the postseason, Wainwright put up a 3.64 ERA and a 3.78 FIP while striking out 23% of batters and walking hitters just 8% of the time. That’s not ace-level, but it isn’t too far off from vintage Wainwright when you factor in last season’s increased scoring environment.
Wainwright’s 2019 season isn’t a guarantee for success in 2020. In the last five years, the only pitchers who were at least 38 years old to pitch more than 100 innings at an above-average level were Rich Hill in 2018, Bartolo Colon in 2015 and 2016, and A.J. Burnett in 2015. Wainwright’s arm might not cooperate next season like it did during this one, but he earned another spot at the back-end of the Cardinals rotation as he tries to help them bring home their eighth division title in his time in St. Louis.
As to their prospects of winning that division title, the Cardinals’ rotation presents a few question marks. Jack Flaherty is the club’s unquestioned ace after a breakout 2019 season. Miles Mikolas couldn’t hit his spots quite as well as he did in 2018, but should provide at least league-average innings after a solid 2019. But after that, things get a little dicey. We can slot in Wainwright somewhere, but counting on a 38-year-old to be a No. 3 starter probably isn’t wise. Dakota Hudson took advantage of the Cardinals’ defense with some extreme groundballing, but he walked 11% of the batters he faced with just an 18% strikeout rate, leaving him vulnerable to inconsistency. Carlos Martinez excelled as a starter from 2015-’17, with just eight pitchers throwing more innings with a higher WAR during that time, but shoulder problems forced him into the bullpen at the end of 2018 and for all of 2019. He could provide a much-needed boost to the rotation, or end up back in the pen or on the Injured List.
That’s a questionable starting five from the get-go, but the club also lacks quality depth. Ryan Helsley, who performed well out of the bullpen toward the end of the season and struck out eight and walked just one of the 18 batters he faced in the playoffs, has been mentioned as a possibility for the rotation. But Helsley was shut down in the 2018 season due to arm issues, and has pitched under 150 innings combined over the last two seasons. Daniel Ponce de Leon pitched some in the rotation this past season, but didn’t find much success. Génesis Cabrera might be a better fit in the bullpen than the rotation. After that group, last year’s first-round pick Zack Thompson might be the closest thing St. Louis has to a pitcher who’s ready to start in the majors, and he’s never made a start above rookie-ball. The Cardinal benefited from a lot of luck last season when it came to the health of their starting pitchers, with only Michael Wacha missing time due to health and ineffectiveness. The team shouldn’t expect the same good fortune next season. Adam Wainwright bolsters the team’s rotation for 2020, but they’ll need more if they want to put themselves in a good position to survive the season.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.