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The Cardinals need to make sure Adam Wainwright finishes his career in St. Louis

If Adam Wainwright’s swan song hasn’t started, St. Louis needs to make sure he never wears another team’s uniform.
If Adam Wainwright’s swan song hasn’t started, St. Louis needs to make sure he never wears another team’s uniform. AP

Judging from the remarks he’s made, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright doesn’t seem ready to hang up his spikes at the end of the 2018 season.

That could be a sticky situation for the Redbirds, who likely have already been counting the money they’ll save when his $97 million contract expires. Wainwright obviously isn’t the same pitcher now that he was when he inked the contract that pays him $19.5 million this season. But he is still an iconic fan favorite who many of us would like to see spend his entire career wearing the Birds on the Bat.

The Birds can’t pay Wainwright to be an elite pitcher when he can no longer be an elite pitcher. But it’s difficult to let go of a guy who is the leader of the pitching staff and a great asset both in the clubhouse and in the community. So, what to do?

Well, it would be awesome if Wainwright paid back the Cardinals for their faith in him when they gave him the largest contract for a pitcher in team history by offering to play in St. Louis for $1 million in 2019.

I’m not sure if the Major League Baseball Players Association would be happy about it. But Wainwright isn’t exactly one of the top pending free agents because of his advanced age for a professional pitcher. So it doesn’t need him to set the market for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, it’s a great deal for the Cardinals because they get to keep a guy with the upside of being the best fifth starter — or bullpen long man — in baseball at a bargain basement price. A $1 million contract isn’t going to keep the Birds from going out and getting any other players it needs to round out the roster. And if he can’t play anymore, it’s not an amount the team would have a tough time eating. It’s nice for Wainwright because he gets to try to keep playing baseball without the pressure of trying to justify his soon-to-expire contract.

If the $1 million contract is too much to ask, maybe the team can offer him an incentive-laden deal that pays him a $1 million base salary with additional bonuses based on innings pitched. If push came to shove, the Cardinals could offer bonuses based on innings pitched that would pay him $10-$15 million if he threw 200 innings (which doesn’t appear likely unless he has a miraculous resurgence and is both dominating and durable.)

Should the Cards fail to find a creative way to keep Wainwright in red, I have a suspicion that he’s going to end up wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform in 2019. His individual stats might not impress. But I believe Wainwright would be nice to have around guys like Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Luke Weaver and Jordan Hicks.

One of the biggest obstacles to Wainwright coming back in a scaled back role next year might be the injury to fellow St. Louis starting pitcher Michael Wacha.

I believed Wacha, who will be entering his winter of arbitration eligibility, was the Redbird was most likely to be traded this winter. But a lingering oblique injury that ended his season likely will put a serious dent in Wacha’s trade value. If the Cardinals can’t get a good return on a very serviceable starter, they’re probably going to be forced to keep him for at least one more year. Simply put, he’s likely worth more in a St. Louis uniform than he is on the trading block. If that happens, it’s pretty difficult to imagine where both he and Wainwright would fit into a pitching staff that also would include Flaherty, Hudson, Weaver, Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon and hopefully Alex Reyes.