"We got him!!!!"
I'll never forget waking up in the middle of the night on March 28th, 2022, seeing this text from my dad. I knew right away what he meant.
Albert Pujols was returning to the St. Louis Cardinals.
After an entire offseason of "Will they?" or "Won't they?" akin to a high school relationship drama, Pujols and Cardinals finally made their reunion happen. It never felt right for Pujols to dawn a Los Angeles Angles or Los Angeles Dodgers jersey, so seeing him don the Birds on the Bat one more time was a sight to behold.
We already had our tickets to Opening Day that year and had been crossing our fingers that we'd see Pujols join Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina for one last dance in St. Louis.
The first half of the season was rocky for Pujols. His first 53 games back in St. Louis saw him slash .215/.301/.376 with 6 HR and 20 RBI. He had his moments from time to time, but overall, he did not belong in the everyday lineup for the Cardinals.
This led Pujols to almost walk away and call it a career midseason.
And that's the risk associated with bringing back not only a baseball legend but someone who means so much to your organization and city.
We all know his story didn't end that way. Pujols went on to slash .323/.388/.715 with 18 HR and 48 RBI over the last 56 games of the season, hitting that iconic 700th career home run and having a truly storybook ending to his Hall of Fame career.
Albert Pujols' storybook farewell tour is the exception, not the norm for aging stars
Pujols wasn't the only future Baseball Hall of Famer and Cardinals legend retiring that season. One of the greatest catchers of all time, Yadier Molina, made it clear that 2022 was his final season in a Cardinal uniform as well.
Since 2019, Molina had struggling with injuries and lost his ability at the plate. While Pujols found the fountain of youth in his final year, Molina appeared in just 78 games and hit .214/.233/.302 for the season. While he still was an impactful leader for the team and had a huge impact on the pitching staff, there were times when it became hard to navigate what was best for Molina and what was best for the team.
The third member of that group that most believed would retire, Adam Wainwright, went on to defy the odds once again in his 40s. During his first 26 starts in 2022, Wainwright was 9-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 163 innings pitched for the club. Just the season prior, Wainwright went 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA, finishing 7th in Cy Young voting. If it wasn't for Pujols, his success would have been an even bigger story around baseball.
But then something happened. Wainwright pointed to an injury he experienced after getting hit by a comebacker against Atlanta, and said his mechanics had been off ever since. His last six starts of the 2022 season resulted in a 7.22 ERA, and Wainwright lost his spot in the Cardinals' Wild Card Series rotation due to that.
When Wainwright decided this offseason to play one more season in St. Louis, the Cardinals were in an impossible situation. None of us would have been happy about them letting one of their franchise icons walk and pitch for another team, but the $17.5 million deal he signed was questionable at best.
Fans and media have been all over that decision since it was announced by the Cardinals. And after a very concerning Spring Training velocity wise and injury that had Wainwright begin the season on the Injured List, the voices became even louder and concerns loomed even larger. Wainwright heard them and assured Cardinals Nation that he was ready to prove the doubters wrong.
In his first 9 starts this season, Wainwright has a 6.56 ERA and 1.82 WHIP and ranks in the 7th percentile or worse in xERA/xwOBA, xSLG, xBA, K%, Whiff%, and fastball velocity, which has averaged 87 MPH on the season. All of these issues reared their ugly head on the international stage in the London Series against the Chicago Cubs.
My first real baseball memories are from that iconic 2006 World Series Championship team. Adam Wainwright locked down the 9th inning for the club as they made their improbable run to be World Champions. I grew up with Wainwright as my ace. My heart broke for him when injuries robbed prime years of his career, like his elbow injury in 2011 or his Achilles tear in 2015. Wainwright is easily a Baseball Hall of Famer if he is able to play those seasons, and may even have a Cy Young to his name.
Still, Wainwright has stepped up when the Cardinals have needed him most, time and time again. Even in the twilight of his career, coming off some mediocre seasons from 2016-2019, Wainwright somehow spun three amazing seasons for the Cardinals from 2020-2022, so it hurts to doubt him the way many do now. Wainwright's character is impeccable, and his career has been historic, but we are all at a loss as to how this story should end. And no one is more upset about it than Wainwright himself.
Wainwright's last 15 starts dating back to last season have resulted in an ERA well above 6.50. At some point, the club and Wainwright will have to accept that this is who he is now. And there is nothing wrong with that. He's almost 42 years old. He's been playing since 2005. He's thrown more than 2600 innings. No one wants to see things end this way.
So, let's all hope that this London Series is that turnaround moment for Wainwright. That, similar to Pujols last season, he can find something left in the tank and spin a wonderful ending to the 2023 season and ultimately his career.
When you're a club as historic and rich with tradition as the St. Louis Cardinals, and your fans cannot stand the idea of their legends going somewhere else, you run the risk of endings like this. It's sad. It's hard. But it's part of the game. Wainwright deserves a better ending than this. He means so much to this team, this city, and the game of baseball.
Let's hope that Wainwright and the Cardinals can find a way for this chapter to end gracefully for all involved.