For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
There was no shortage of headlines this winter regarding what David Price was bringing to the Boston Red Sox, and how it heralded a new day for the recently downtrodden franchise’s hopes. Likewise, when Zack Greinke shockingly landed in the Arizona desert over the more accomplished rosters of the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants, it set baseball’s hot stove abuzz. Hell, even when much lesser arms in John Lackey changed between the Hatfield’s & McCoy’s of the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry. On top of that, long-time middle of the rotation arm Mike Leake landed in St. Louis – both made more buzz than what could prove to be the biggest addition that any team made to its pitching staff this offseason truly was.
That is because, in the typical fashion of his career, Adam Wainwright’s return fell just beneath the headline radar. Perhaps it is because he did not change addresses, nor did he ink a new deal that looked more like Lottery prize pot than a pro sports contract, but could be said that no pitcher’s ‘addition’ to an existing staff means more than what Wainwright will bring back to St. Louis this season.
Because think about it, this is a staff that moved on to unfathomable heights, even after losing its most lethal and accomplished weapon. The 2015 version of the Cardinals posted the lowest team ERA in last 30 years at 2.94. It was the weapon that propelled them to an MLB-best 100 win season, and was done so with only four starts and 28 innings from Wainwright as a member of the rotation. This was due to him tearing his Achilles tendon during an at-bat in late April 25. It would be another five months before he miraculously rebounded within the same season and returned to the mound in a limited relief capacity.
But the days of him being limited in any capacity are done, as Wainwright has already been dubbed the Opening Day starter for 2016 by manager Mike Matheny, asserting the fact that it is right back to business for the venerable three-time All-Star.
Regardless of this, in the big picture, the impact of his return to the mound is oddly understated, if for no other reason than it is the tone that his career has taken on. He is not seen as a standalone force off the mound, much because he is a part of the Cardinal ensemble that has regularly brought forward such a balanced and steady attack that no one player stands too far ahead of the other. More often than not, his best seasons have regularly just been outdone by an elite offering of another.
Early in his career, it was the presence of his mentor and rotation mate Chris Carpenter that tempered his singular impact. In 2009, Wainwright and Carpenter both put forward dominant performances, with Wainwright winning 19 games with a 2.63 ERA, with Carpenter offset it with an NL-best 2.24 ERA and 17 W’s of his own. So tight was the margin of difference between the pair that they divided Cy Young voters and opened up a path for Tim Lincecum to take it out of both of their hands. When the dust settled, it was even revealed that Wainwright had garnered more first place votes, 12, than Lincecum had totaled (11).
In subsequent years, Wainwright found himself runner up to a trio of the best pitching performances of his era. In 2010, he finished a distant second to unanimous winner Roy Halladay, and then had the two best seasons of his career to date, 2013 and 2014, be curtailed by a pair of the instant classic seasons of Clayton Kershaw. The Dodger's ace posted 37 wins, a 1.80 ERA over 60 starts during the time span, enough not only for a pair Cy’s, but also the 2014 NL Most Valuable Player nod as well. Slight work for Kershaw, even more tough luck for Waino.
Of course along the way Wainwright has posted memorable outings of his own that have added to the Cardinal lore, such as the hellacious curveball he struck out Carlos Beltran with to send his club to the 2006 World Series, and then issuing the subsequent final out in the same series. Seven years later, he tossed a classic series closing victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Division Series, sealing a comeback in the series for the Cardinals on the back of a dominant complete game effort.
Despite these efforts, Wainwright has perpetually never been the bride, but always the bridesmaid has been when it has come to singular honors for his exploits. It could be argued that the most notable Wainwright has ever been to the masses is when an on-air joke he made regarding facing Derek Jeter in his final All-Star Game was taken terribly out of form.
Regardless of it all, the fact that Wainwright has been able to thrive in relative obscurity given his level of accomplishment speaks to the fact of why his 2016 return has been widely underestimated. His return to the team is part return of the king to his throne, as well as a test of putting the theory of WAR to the test as well. Along with the addition of Leake, Wainwright’s insertion back in the St. Louis rotation will be tasked with replacing the team’s top pitcher a year ago in Lackey, as well as Lance Lynn. The team’s innings horse, Lynn will miss 2016 after Tommy John surgery in November. The duo combined for 15 wins, a 2.88 ERA and, most importantly, 393.1 innings over 64 starts, good for 9 Wins Above Replacement.
And while the Lackey/Lynn duo produced an impressive haul of hard to replace outings, but if anybody is up to the business of taking it on, it is the bulldog Wainwright, who will embark for the second time in his career on a comeback season from a devastating injury.
When he returned from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series campaign in full, he struggled to a 14-13 record. However, over the next two seasons, he proved his mettle by twice finishing in the top three in NL Cy Young voting, working 468.1 innings to a 39-18 record, while completing 10 games, posting five shutouts and a .684 win percentage from 2013-14.
Wainwright is a battler, it is something that he inherited from Carpenter, who had it handed down from Pat Hentgen before him. Just as important is his leadership, which is conversely balanced between his oft-light hearthead leadership in the dugout, which is immediately suspended by the maliciousness of his industry-best curveball which he wields with the ease of a four-seam fastball.
Wainwright means more to the Cardinal culture than just wins and quality innings; he is the rare pitcher who changes the dynamic of a team on an everyday basis. The bottom for the Cardinal run last year happened when they lost momentum late in the season and could not extend their series to putting the ball in Wainwright’s hand for game 5, as they had against Pittsburgh a few years prior. And while they may not equal their 2015 win total, and will face the toughest path a divisional title that they have faced during his tenure sporting the birds on bat, Wainwright’s presence alone every fifth day changes nothing short of everything for the Cardinal’s long-term 2016 potential.
I'm a firm believer that the closest I've gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I'll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and 'Live From The Cheap Seats'.