Usually, I run the links for my pieces over at StLouisSports360 here, but on the occasion of writing a joint I’ve been waiting to do since last Spring Training, I’m going to let the whole thing go here as well. Enjoy.
This time last year, Adam Wainwright was the exact opposite of what he is now: healthy, optimistic and certain of where he’ll be spending his summer. Just over a week ago last year was when the St. LouisCardinals’ ace (part 1 or 2 depending on what day it is) injured himself in a bullpen session and was officially out for the season. And while the team reached the pinnacle of the game last year, it still was never the same without him. Now, he’s schedule to make his debut in the Grapefruit League on Friday with a 30-pitch start that will mark the official end of a long road back to the mound.
However, in a similar fashion to last year, Wainwright’s return is the most talked about topic around the team, albeit in a much different fashion than it has been since last March. While the “if’s” have been quelled, curiosity and hope are taking over, and until both player and fans get comfortable and beginning seeing what they became accustomed to getting since 2009, the questions will remain.
So, I’ll go ahead and toss it out there: What can we expect from Adam Wainwright in 2011?
This is the question that has both excited and forced Cardinals’ fans and management alike into some nervous curiosity. Simply because to get back an average performance from his is to automatically inject one of the top pitchers in all of baseball back into your lineup. Waino’s average performance over his past two seasons has been 20 wins, a 2.53 ERA and 212 strikeouts over 34 starts. His norm has landed him in the top three of the last two Cy Young votes he’s been eligible for, so the expectation is high for his return.
However, it is also measured, because the road back from such an injury is never simple and because he represents so much more to the club now than he even did before his injury. His return represents a boost in the confidence of a team that has lost many of the men that built up the confidence and identity of the team. His return is not only the biggest piece in keeping the team’s momentum on the field going, but is also the biggest addition to a team that lost much more than any team should be able to at once while still sustaining itself.
Most of the impact additions this winter in free agency all happened for American League clubs. With the exception of the Miami Marlins big bank roll through free agency and the Washington Nationals moves to push themselves up the standings out East, no other teams have made many power moves to get better. What’s more is that none of the Cardinals’ playoff qualifying contemporaries from a year ago made anywhere close to as substantial of an addition to their club. So while he was always here, he stands to be the biggest bump to any team’s roster in the NL.
But what will it all mean? What kind of season could be in store for him, and more importantly, what sort of rehab road in-season could be in store? To figure that out, the best example is once again his rotation mate in Chris Carpenter. Both pitchers have a very similar repertoire and skill set. Neither is prefaced on being overpowering; rather it’s about location and keeping opponents off-balance. When Carpenter was sidelined in 2007 and 2008 from Tommy John surgery, he returned with the same cautious optimism. However, when he got back on the mound he delivered the same stuff he had left with, in addition to a few new offerings that made up for anything he may have lost due to the time off. After all of those struggles and in the light of similar hopes & finger crossed optimism, Carp turned in a 17-4 season, along with a league-leading 2.24 ERA in his 2009 comeback season.
Wainwright will benefit from having Carpenter with him daily to talk through both the mental and physical trials faced with returning from such a setback. Never one to truly overpower batters, Wainwright will also be further expanding his use of a change-up he added to his pitch selection in the second half of 2010, which will allow his fastball, which always sat in the 90 to 93 mph range, to work its way back in a much easier way. And then there’s always the fact that he commands the best curveball in baseball, and for all accounts that have seen him working this spring, that’s something that did not get lost in translation on the way back. His curve is the type of bonus weapon that few pitchers have to count on when trying to make such a comeback.
So what’s actually going to happen? He’s starting the season as the team’s #3 starter behind Carpenter &Jaime Garcia…..one that also is slated to start the home opener vs. the Cubs as well. Something else says that a quick return to vintage Waino, and short spell in the middle of the rotation, are also in store.
In the next “12 in 12″ over at StLouisSports360 (in full), a look at the kids in the hall that are headed towards St. Louis. Who are the top prospects headed into the season, and which have the best shot at landing a great gig under the arch. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.