I’m starting to wonder, after watching Adam Wainwright’s most recent start, if this is going to be the last season for one of the greatest St. Louis Cardinals in history.
Wainwright has another year left on his contract at a substantial salary. But I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who would hang around and embarrass himself if he didn’t think he was capable of performing up to his high standards.
Fans spent much of the year wondering if Waino was washed up when he struggled for the first couple of months. But his promises that he was going to figure things out were finally kept. He’s somehow managed to lead the team with a 12-5 record despite a 4.87 ERA.
Things were looking up. But last weekend against the Atlanta Braves, Wainwright struggled to hit 80 mph on the radar gun. Suddenly losing 8 to 10 mph is no small thing when it comes to trying to get out major-league hitters. While his diminished velocity was certainly a concern, it’s not the fact that his pitches were slow that made me think Wainwright may be ready to call it quits. It’s the fact that he decided to pitch anyway after he felt the discomfort in his arm that caused his velocity to be reduced.
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History is littered with pitchers who tried to pitch through a minor ailment and, because they were compensating for the problem, they put more stress on another area and ended up blowing out their arm. Maybe the most dramatic case in Redbirds history caused the demise of Dizzy Dean.
Ol’ Diz was an All-Star in 1937, winning 12 games before the break with a 2.40 ERA. During the Mid-Summer Classic, Dean was hit with a comebacker that broke his toe. Trying to return too to action quickly because the Redbirds needed him for the pennant race, Dean blew out his pitching elbow. Those were the days before Tommy John surgery. There was nothing that could be done to fix the damage. Dean was never the same hurler again, his future so bleak that the Cardinals traded him to their rival Cubs as little more than a gate attraction.
A 27-year-old pitcher with 134 wins under his belt would go on to win only 16 more games before hanging it up in 1941. (He did make a one-off comeback appearance in 1947 in which he pitched four innings before heading back to the broadcast booth. But that was merely a publicity stunt. It was all over for the Hall of Fame hurler.)
Back in those days, players were treated with complete disregard. If a pitcher complained his arm hurt, his team would find another guy who could do the job. Today, players are handled much more carefully. Typically, if a modern-day starter felt a twinge in his pitching arm while warming up, he’d be shut down. Especially one who is under contract next year for $19.5 million. If Wainwright were to damage the ligaments in his elbow again, he’d likely miss almost all the remaining time on his contract, effectively ending his career.
The fact that he was allowed to pitch in such a compromised situation makes me wonder if he’s told the team his time as a pitcher has gone into sudden death. That he’s going to go as far as he can go in 2017 and then hang it up at the end of the year.
It would also explain why the Redbirds tried to make a play for former Oakland Athletics starter Sonny Gray at the trade deadline when it seemed that the club was set in its rotation.
I would hate to see him go. Wainwright is a guy Cardinals fans have always been able to count on to give his all every time he takes the field. It’s a shame that injuries held him back because he deserved to win at least one Cy Young Award as great as he was back in his heyday. Still, he created tons of great memories for St. Louis fans, not the least of which was his stellar performance as the team’s closer during the 2006 postseason. Not many players get to throw the last strike of the National League Championship Series and the World Series.
Still, if he decides to call it a career, the Cardinals will have a whole pile of cash added to their war chest in 2018. I sure hope, unlike in recent seasons, they invest this winter in a pillar player or two to give the club a real chance to compete in the near future.
The Cardinals lost one of those guys last year when Matt Holliday was let go as a free agent. Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina aren’t getting any younger. It sure looks like the future may be now.