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Hochman: Adam Wainwright would bring assurance and insurance to the 2021 Cardinals

Hochman: Adam Wainwright would bring assurance and insurance to the 2021 Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals V San Diego Padres, Game 2 wild-card series

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) throws a pitch in the fourth inning of Game 2 of a wild-card series between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at Petco Park in San Diego. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

This isn’t about a red jacket; it’s about beating the Reds.

This isn’t about a Busch Stadium ceremony in September; it’s about getting the Cardinals to October.

This isn’t about being sentimental; it’s about business sense. And it sure makes a lot of it for the Cardinals to bring back Adam Wainwright for 2021.

In due time, all those other bows will be tied. But at this time, it’s about fortifying your rotation with an affordable force, the guy who had a 3.15 ERA last year and was arguably your most valuable starter. Yes, he only made 10 starts in the shortened season, so here’s thinking his 2021 ERA will be in the “low 4s” instead of the “low 3s.” But if that happens, that still means Wainwright will have pitched numerous strong starts. And historically, he’s best in the final month of the regular season — he has more career wins in September than any other month, and his career September ERA is the second-best of all his months.

A lot is made of the Cardinals’ starting pitching depth, and rightfully so. As you’ve read on these pages in most winters this century, the Cardinals will enter spring training with an abundance of arms. Heck, counting Wainwright, three potential starters weren’t on Monday’s “For Starters” Zoom teleconference for fans, and they still had a packed panel.

But beyond Jack Flaherty, how many quality starts can each pitcher guarantee?

Miles Mikolas is a workhorse, but he’s coming off a missed season due to injury. Kwang Hyun Kim was sharp last season, but he made only seven starts — he’ll be a year older and has yet to pitch a regular-length regular season in Major League Baseball. Alex Reyes should be great, but with his injury history and lack of starting experience, how much Reyes greatness will they get? Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford are each wonderfully talented, but last season they had 18 starts. Not 18 each. That’s 18 combined.

Having “Waino” is assurance and insurance.

Oh, and you get all that fun history stuff, too. If this is really his final season — he turns 40 in August — then he could go out the way a team legend should (which is to say, not on another team). And maybe, just maybe, there will be fans in the stands come fall to cheer him on. Incidentally, Wainwright does quite well in front of St. Louis faithful — his career home ERA, in 167 starts, is 2.86.

And while Waino is very old by MLB standards, he sure hasn’t pitched like he was on his last legs lately. He had the 3.15 ERA in 2020 with two complete games, and in 2019 he had a 4.19 ERA overall and went 9-3 after the All-Star break. And while he’s got a lot of innings in that right arm — he’s been a starter since 2007 — consider that in three different years since 2007 he’s had 10 or fewer starts.

Oh, and when you talk about risk-reward with a one-year contract, it’s not a huge risk, right? If he suddenly stinks, you can still say you gave it a shot, and then insert one of the previously named guys in his spot. And maybe Wainwright could end his career the way it began — as a nasty curveball pitcher out of the ‘pen.

Yes, it’s fair to acknowledge that during a pandemic, and without fans in the stands, the Cardinals (and other teams) are slowing down their spending. But there should be a way to compromise and bring back Wainwright for a fair price, understanding everything you’re getting with him.

Because beyond a reliable starter and legacy player, you’re also getting someone (like Yadier Molina behind the plate or Paul Goldschmidt scooping up would-be errors) who makes other Cardinals better. Manager Mike Shildt often talks about a “residual benefit” or effect that a player has on a teammate. Well, the gushing pitchers on Monday’s Zoom reinforced his residual effects.

Flaherty described him as “a model of consistency … you just watch him work, you watch him go about his business, you watch the way he prepares and you watch the way that he competes, and it just it makes you want to do better. He’s special.”

Dakota Hudson won’t pitch this season due to Tommy John surgery, and said the very next day that the news broke, Wainwright gave him a “checklist” of things to develop during the year off, such as his “mental game and being a good teammate.”

Wainwright, of course, was out the majority of 2011 and 2015 (both playoff years), but still had quite an impact on the team as a leader and cheerleader.

“It’s hard to say he’s anything short of a mentor to me,” Hudson said. “It’s like — this is how you become a big leaguer. This is how it’s supposed to look.”

And perhaps pitching coach Mike Maddux summed up Wainwright best when he said: “He’s the kind of guy you really want your daughter to marry. …

“Character-wise, he’s right up at the top. I mean, there are not enough compliments you can give a guy like Adam. What he does on the field, what he does in the community, what he does at home. And if you went around there and asked everybody, ‘How did Adam touch you?’ You’re going to find 20 guys with 20 different answers, because he has a unique way of touching everybody in their own special way.”

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