The St. Louis Cardinals have a dark horse candidate for comeback player of the year in their rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright left much to be desired with his performance last season. The former staff ace started 24 games and posted an uncharacteristic 5.11 ERA in just 123.1 innings. Waino walked 3.3 per nine innings which is almost a full walk per nine greater than his career average.
Wainwright still managed to strikeout seven per nine innings, which is close to his career average of 7.5. His FIP was a more respectable 4.29 and he actually posted a positive WAR.
Waino was great against the Cubs and showed flashes of his former self. In three starts against the small bears, Wainwright pitched 19.2 innings and allowed only 11 hits and four runs.
It is also no secret that Waino battled injuries in 2017. Indeed, Waino had arthroscopic surgery to clean up issues related to an elbow impingement that sidelined him in mid-August.
For some reason, many people are ready to give up on Wainwright. Indeed, the writers at this very site propose that he be shifted to the bullpen and explain the polarizing views on Wainwright amongst fans. The St. Louis Cardinals have 19.5 million reasons to keep Adam Wainwright in the rotation. The team and fans alike would be wise to not bet against the Cardinal legend.
Indeed, Wainwright appears poised for a run at the comeback player of the year award. For the record, nobody sets out to win the comeback player of the year award. Why is that? Well, the comeback player of the year award means that the player was (a) a good player, (b) had a bad year, and (c) returned to form or otherwise had a good year.
Sure, every player must believe in his own resilience. But, almost every player would prefer to not have the bad year prerequisite necessary to qualify for the comeback player of the year award. There is no debating, however, that Adam Wainwright had a terrible year (although he still managed to win 12 games for a team that only won 83 games).
Thus, Adam meets the necessary prerequisites to qualify for comeback player of the year. Let’s examine his case by taking a look back at the last St. Louis Cardinals pitcher to win the award.
Chris Carpenter wins Comeback Player of the Year
In 2009, Chris Carpenter was 34 years old. He had started just four games over the previous two seasons due to elbow and shoulder injuries. Many wondered, at the time, whether or not we had seen the last of Carpenter, and whether a career riddled with injuries would take down the former Cy Young award winner.
Carpenter proved the world wrong. Finally healthy, Carpenter went 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA. He made 28 starts and pitched 192.2 innings, posting a gaudy ERA+ of 182 – the highest of any pitcher to finish in the top five in National League Cy Young voting.
By the way, Carpenter should have won his second Cy Young award that season, but he finished second to Tim Lincecum (who had a worse year) mainly because he split votes with his co-ace Adam Wainwright – who posted a 19-8 record with a 2.63 ERA over 33 starts and 233 innings. Waino finished third.
Carpenter met all of the comeback-player-of-the-year criteria. He had a track record of great performance. He performed poorly the previous two seasons due in large part to injuries. He returned to form and had one of his best seasons. He was a no-brainer for comeback player of the year.
The difficult thing with predicting a comeback player of the year is that, conceptually, it is difficult to convince people that a (usually older) player will return to form after an abysmal season. Wainwright provides as good a case as any player and picking Wainwright for comeback player of the year next year significantly parallels Carpenter’s comeback player of the year season.
Adam Wainwright as Comeback Player of the Year
Waino enters the season at age 36 – just two years older than Carpenter in 2009. He is coming off of two seasons that were shortened and greatly impacted by injuries (sound familiar?). By all accounts, Waino will be healthy entering the 2018 season.
Additionally, the team needs Waino to return to form more than ever. Waino prides himself on being a workhorse, and this rotation needs an innings-eater.
Waino is poised to fill that role. Adam is only a few years removed from dominant performance as a starter (again, sound familiar?). He is determined and motivated by his doubters to be a leader and top performer in the St. Louis Cardinal’s rotation. Can he pitch like the Wainwright of old?
The answer is yes, and I will explain why. First, Wainwright showed flashes of increased velocity last year. There were several starts where his fastball was consistently in the 90-92 range, and he could reach back and hit 94-96. Those are great signs. Adam can fully return to form if he uses his fastball and great fastball command with his devastating curveball.
Adam appeared to get into trouble last season (again, when healthy) due to an over-reliance on his cutter. Adam was cutter-happy, but that pitch tended to flatten out last season – becoming very hittable.
Hopefully, Adam will regain control of his cutter or limit its use – turning instead to his changeup and curveball. The more Adam pitches like Rich Hill (mainly using a two-pitch mix of fastball-curveball) the more likely we are to see a return to form.
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Adam also has contractual incentives to perform well. For example, Waino earns a $500,000 performance bonus if he finishes in the top ten of Cy Young voting, and he earns $50,000 for all-star nomination and $25,000 for winning a silver slugger (something he accomplished last season). Additionally, Waino understands that the St. Louis Cardinals have significantly closed the gap between them and the Cubs this offseason. If Waino returns to form, you can consider the Cardinals the favorite in the division – not the Cubs.
Finally, Waino is motivated because he is pitching for his next contract. I highly doubt that Waino will hang up his cleats after the 2018 season. If he can prove to be a serviceable member of the rotation, why would he?
I am certain that a vintage Waino performance, and a comeback player of the year award, will prompt discussions with the St. Louis Cardinals of a two-year deal to ensure that Adam finishes his career with the Cardinals.
Fans should not discount the financial incentives and motivators for MLB players. Yes, I understand that Waino has made his money, but the desire to extend his playing career and to provide for his family in perpetuity should not be discounted by the fans.
Money is a motivator just as a legacy is a motivator. Adam can cement his status as a top Cardinal pitcher of all time, and increase the chance of extending his playing career with a vintage performance.
What do I predict? I predict Waino will make at or near 30 starts and pitch 200 innings. I predict that he will have a high wins total and that he will post an ERA under 3.5 (think 2016 Waino, but with an ERA improved by just over a run). I am so bullish on Waino that I believe he will earn that half a million dollar kicker by finishing in the top ten in Cy Young voting.
Finally, let me say that there is no reason to root against Wainwright. He has shown throughout his career that he is a top performer and he deserves our backing in his pursuit of the comeback player of the year award. If he is healthy, he should be able to do just as Carpenter did and post gaudy numbers sufficient to earn the comeback player of the year award.
You can book it now, and tell your friends you read it here first. I’ll be there smiling with an “I told you so.”