Longtime St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright deserves all the time in the world to make up his mind about if he’ll attempt to pitch another season in the big leagues.
Unfortunately, the team needs an answer sooner rather than later so the Cardinals can figure out their offseason plans.
Wainwright deserves a roster spot if he wants to come back based not only on his loyalty to the team and history of success — but also because of his performance last season when, arguably, he was the best pitcher on the team over the balance of the entire season. Yes, I realize Flaherty had a staggering second half. But Waino was the guy who could be counted on all year long, even when the kids were trying to get their feet beneath them in the early going. He’s also a guy who could be counted on to be a leader and mentor for those young pitchers as they take on the responsibility of trying to become front of the rotation starters.
Money certainly shouldn’t be an issue if Wainwright wants to stay. The deal he worked off of last year was a good deal for both sides. The pitcher made his money when the Cardinals gave him a long-term contract which he completed at the end of the 2018 season. It was fair to give Wainwright an incentive-laden deal to allow him to continue his career. A low guarantee but high incentive deal remains the most logical arrangement. It would be a disappointment if a player with an all-around Mr. Nice Guy reputation tries to hold up his team for a big raise when he’s already made well more than $100 million over the course of his career.
Wainwright represents the only real savings potential the Cardinals have on their roster. Raises including the ones due Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas, Kolten Wong and others total $29 million. The team will scrape $30 million off the payroll by shedding Michael Wacha, Marcell Ozuna, Luke Gregerson and others. If Wainwright retires, that’s another $10 million. That’s not a lot of money at all for a replacement starting pitcher. It seems like the best thing the Cardinals can hope for is another year of Wainwright just like the last one.
If Carlos Martinez can return to the rotation after a weak shoulder pushed him to the bullpen in 2019, he’d theoretically join a starting five that could include Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Mikolas and possibly Wainwright. With no openings in the rotation, it would seem to dictate the Birds direct their resources to trying to find a slugger to improve their inconsistent offense. However, let’s not forget that Jordan Hicks is likely out for at least the first half of the year in 2020 after requiring Tommy John surgery. So it wouldn’t be out of the question to keep Martinez as the temporary closer next year, opening a rotation slot.
While parting ways with Wacha ought to do wonders for the durability of the rotation, Wainwright will be a question mark for the rest of his career if for no other reason than his age. Martinez has a balky shoulder. So it would be a risky proposition to rely on those five with always injured prospect Alex Reyes in waiting for an opportunity.
Cardinals have money to spend
Let’s not give St. Louis a free pass on making roster upgrades because of their 2020 commitments. The financial logjam starts to break up in 2021 when Yadier Molina’s $20 million a season deal is up, the Mike Leake disaster is put to bed at a savings of $4 million, Brett Cecil’s $7.25 million goes away and the team can save $9.5 million on Andrew Miller. Assuming Wainwright would play no more than one additional season, the team would stand to pocket up to $50 million — and it would have the end of the Dexter Fowler contract in view. So the team could offer a free agent a backloaded deal to balance the budget in 2020.
There has been sudden speculation that the Chicago White Sox are interested in Marcell Ozuna and could drive up his price to $120 million or more. With the way the free agent market has gone over the past three years, I find this hard to believe. If I was to place a bet, I would guess that the Cardinals look a whole lot in 2020 like they did in 2019. I’d suspect Wainwright will pitch one more season with his longtime battery mate Molina and that the Cardinals will make Ozuna a qualifying offer that will damage his potential market. I could see St. Louis give him a four-year deal for $65-70 million. But $120 million for a suspect outfielder who is prone to long slumps seems pretty ridiculous to me. I’d be apt to let the former Miami Marlin walk if it was going to take that kind of cash to keep him.
But it’s going to be a disappointing step back for a National League Championship Series team to lose its cleanup hitter and do nothing to replace him. The Cardinals aren’t shy about doing nothing. But, with television ratings down and a disenchanted fan base passing on playoff tickets, it doesn’t seem like a good year to sit out the winter shopping season. The Cardinals don’t like to overpay for players on the overheated trade market in the middle of the summer. That means the offseason is the only time to get things done.
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Scott Wuerz is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan. The Cheap Seats blog is written from his perspective as a fan and is designed to spark discussion among fans of the Cardinals and other MLB teams. Sources supporting his views and opinions are linked. If you’re looking for Cardinals news and features, check out the BND’s Cardinals section.