Adam Wainwright, due in part to injury, has yielded his familiar position at the top of the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation. Carlos Martinez is regarded as the ace of present and future.
Who can argue? The 25-year-old right-hander was 16-7 with a 3.04 ERA last year, holding hitters to a .233 average and a paltry .333 slugging percentage.
Martinez, asked Sunday during the Cardinals’ annual Winter Warm-Up what he thinks he can achieve in 2017, puts winning the National League Cy Young Award at the top of his agenda. Future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina considers it a strong possibility.
“For sure, he can,” Molina said Monday at the final day of the Winter Warm-Up. “He can do whatever he wants to do in the game. Let me tell you that. He’s got some skill. He’s one of the best young right-handed pitchers I’ve ever caught.”
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In the background, there’s a chuckling Wainwright. It’s not that he doubts Martinez’s Cy Young potential, it’s just that you can almost hear him thinking, “Don’t forget about me.”
Wainwright is now 35. He struggled to a career-high 4.62 ERA in 33 starts last season and surrendered an NL-high 220 hits. Hitters recorded a .287/.338/.446 slash line against Wainwright, far above their career success rate of .248/.299/.366.
Wainwright, for one, believes he can return to previous form — the one he showed before he tore his left Achilles tendon April 27, 2015, during a game in Milwaukee.
If he’s right, a rotation of Martinez, Wainwright, Alex Reyes, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake, with Michael Wacha waiting in the wings, suddenly looks more formidable.
The Achilles injury was the second major setback of Wainwright’s career. He previously had Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2011 season.
Wainwright knows how to rebound. He won 14 games in 2012 and 19 in 2013 before registering his first 20-win season in 2014. He describes his motivation level as being “at an all-time high.”
“I’m ready to turn the page,” he said Monday at the Winter Warm-Up.
“From a team standpoint, not making the playoffs last year, it hurt,” he continued. “To know from a personal standpoint that we missed by one game, and if I win two more games, we go to the postseason, that’s hard for me to swallow knowing that I pitched the way I pitched. Traditionally, I’m so much better than that. I’m going to be so much better than that.”
If Wainwright is correct, the Cardinals’ absence from the playoffs will be but a blip.
Of course, there are many other keys for success in 2017. Will Dexter Fowler kick-start the offense? Can Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk finally realize their potential? Will Aledmys Diaz continue toward stardom?
All of these are fair concerns as spring training approaches.
But in the end, would a bounce-back performance from Wainwright mean more than anything?