Adam Wainwright Ace Comeback Would Keep Cardinals in World Series Picture

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Adam Wainwright Ace Comeback Would Keep Cardinals in World Series Picture
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

With apologies to Mike Leake, the St. Louis Cardinals didn't get an ace this winter. But they might be getting an ace back, which could be equally huge.

We're talking about Adam Wainwright, one of the best pitchers in baseball when he's right.

That caveat is important, because Wainwright, who turns 35 in August, missed nearly all of last season with a busted Achilles tendon. It's not a given that he'll resume his dominant, ace-level ways over a 162-game grind.

There's cause for optimism, however. And if Wainwright can be an elite rotation anchor, the Cardinals vault into the thick of the postseason scramble and become a legitimate World Series contender.

First, about that optimism. Yes, Wainwright made just four starts in 2015 before tearing his Achilles running out of the batter's box at Milwaukee's Miller Park last April. But after initial reports suggested he could be out nine to 12 months, the right-hander returned Sept. 30, well ahead of schedule.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Wainwright missed most of the 2015 season after tearing his Achilles.

And he looked good. Wainwright allowed one earned run in three regular-season frames after coming off the disabled list. Then he threw 5.1 relief innings in the Cardinals' division series loss to the Chicago Cubs, yielding one earned run and fanning six.

It's an admittedly minuscule sample size, but it suggests Wainwright—a three-time All-Star with a career 2.98 ERAis fully capable of picking up where he left off.

If he does, it'll be a rocket-fuel boost to a Cards rotation that lost veteran John Lackey to the division-rival Cubs and Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery.

The addition of Leake, a reliable innings-eater, helps. But if St. Louis hopes to defend its National League Central crown, it needs an undisputed stud to front a group that also includes Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez.

The projection systems are mostly bullish on Wainwright. Steamer foretells 203 innings with a 3.52 ERA, per FanGraphs. And FanGraphs' own projection is even more optimistic, predicting 207 innings and a tidy 2.95 ERA.

The wet blanket is age. Plenty of pitchers have remained elite into and beyond their age-35 seasons. But Father Time is always lurking ominously in the background, waiting to exact his inevitable toll.

Really, that specter hangs over the entire Cardinals roster. Remember when Jason Heyward suggested he chose the Cubs over the Cards because of the former's emerging stars and the latter's aging core?

In addition to providing bulletin-board fodder for St. Louis, Heyward made a decent point. Catcher Yadier Molina is 33. Left fielder Matt Holliday is 36. And both have battled injuries and signs of decline.

David Goldman/Associated Press/Associated Press
Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina are part of the Cards' talented, aging core.

Still, this team won 100 games last year. It's strung together eight consecutive winning seasons and hoisted a Commissioner's Trophy in that span.

Plus, sprinkled among the graying vets are promising youngsters like the outfield duo of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, which yours truly recently highlighted as a possible antidote to the Heyward defection.

To hear Wainwright tell it, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, age isn't necessarily a bad thing:

Nobody likes being called old, right? But I think they're right, for the most part. We are aging. We're just becoming more wise. Somebody has to get old. If we’re still playing and older it means we still have some ability. The more people talk about it, the more we laugh because we just know Matt Holliday is still going to hit well. We know that Yadier is still going to catch well. And hopefully we know I'm going to pitch well.

There are no guarantees in life or in baseball. And the Cubs, with last season's National League Championship Series run under their belt and the offseason additions of Heyward, Lackey and Ben Zobrist, are the division darling.

As Goold pointed out, "The Cubs have one of the richest harvest of young players in baseball. Their projected lineup has an average age of 26.78. With Brandon Moss (32) at first base, the Cardinals’ is 30.22."

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Additionally, the defending NL champion New York Mets, redemption-seeking Washington Nationals, even-year San Francisco Giants, perennially dangerous Los Angeles Dodgers and reloaded Arizona Diamondbacks all figure to be in the mix for Senior Circuit supremacy.

But count Wainwright and the Cardinals out at your peril. The man and the franchise have a rich, established history of winning, plain and simple.

Many teams boasted flashier, louder winters than St. Louis. You could even argue the Cardinals have been complacent, though they made serious runs at both Heyward and southpaw David Price. But the club that "wins" the offseason isn't always the one that stands tall in October. Sometimes, a workmanlike comeback means more than a splashy signing or trade.

To put it another way: The best ace might be the one you're already holding.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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