By recently set standards, the St. Louis Cardinals have had quite a busy offseason. They have acquired an elite hitter in Paul Goldschmidt and an elite left-hander in Andrew Miller. The position player side of the roster seems to be just about set in stone, besides a left-handed utility player. The bullpen, however, still seems to have some question marks.
More specifically, manager Mike Shildt has yet to officially name the St. Louis Cardinals closer. There are seemingly a handful of candidates on the current roster in Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks, and Alex Reyes. However, I think there is another option that many have yet to consider: Adam Wainwright.
I understand that many believe that Jordan Hicks is the closer for 2019, but I don’t feel as though he is ready for the job yet. He has only pitched one season above A ball. Though Hicks performed quite well last year with a 108 ERA+ last year, I feel there is still growth to be made before closer duties are assumed. Namely refining his slider as a true strikeout pitch. I am not suggesting that Waino is the closer moving forward, but the closer for just 2019.
Wainwright is at the end of his career. That is not debated. As much as St. Louis Cardinals fans’ would love to see a vintage year as a starter, his elbow simply won’t allow it. I think Wainwright should take a page out of John Smoltz’s book and close out his career, well, closing. Not to mention he’s done it before when he took over closer duties in his rookie year of ’06.
At this point in his career Waino doesn’t have the stuff of a stereotypical closer. He doesn’t light up the radar gun with anything. He’s more Brad Ziegler than he is Craig Kimbrell or Kenley Jansen. Those are two pitchers who make their living with electric fastballs backed up with decent offspeed pitches. Ziegler, like Waino, tops out in the high 80’s and relies on good movement and location to get his outs.
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Even though his velocity may have left him, Wainwright still possesses the curveball that famously buckled Carlos Beltran’s knees. This makes him a deadly asset out of the pen. Not to mention he has grown crafty with age, throwing a multitude of fastballs with unique breaks. This is a concept that Mariano Rivera employed with his cutters, throwing some fast and far-breaking, and others slow, heavy, and with a sharper, smaller break.
To further my point, Wainwright was actually quite effective in the first inning last year. He posted a .219 BA against, .250 SLG against, and a 2.25 ERA while beginning 8 starts. He also struck out 13 in those 8 innings. These numbers point towards a pitcher who can get an innings worth of outs. That is all he needs to do in the 9th, just three stressful outs.
Another factor to consider is that Wainwright’s worst inning is the third, right when the lineup should roll around for the second time. He falls victim to hitters seeing him more than once. This is the effect that Kevin Cash in Tampa Bay tried to remove with the concept of the opener. This strategy has a reliever begin the first inning and then have a starting pitcher follow. Assuming the closer role eliminates multiple plate appearances against him in the same game.
The purpose of this move is twofold. For one, it should help to keep Wainwright’s innings down and therefore also keep him healthier. For two, it allows the aforementioned closer candidates (Hicks, Reyes, Miller) to function as firemen. This means they can be brought in at a critical moment in the game. This can be in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and so on. They would take on a hybrid role.
Miller famously brought this role back to relevance in the 2016 postseason with the Indians. Josh Hader furthered it’s use just last year for the Brewers. I’m personally a big fan of this strategy and would love to see all three pitchers in this particular role. Especially Reyes, who will likely be limited to around 125 innings this year (Hader had 81.1 as a fireman last year).
In short, I believe Adam Wainwright should be the closer of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019. He has experience in high leverage situations as a starter and has closed before. He still possesses his best pitch, the one that sets up the rest. He has the capability to be the stopgap until Jordan Hicks is ready for the roll. He also allows the other fantastic relievers in the ‘pen to function as firemen to quell rallies and preserve leads.