Are St. Louis Cardinals fans seeing the end for Adam Wainwright as a competitive starting pitcher in the Major Leagues? While it's early (a phrase which will find its way into every Cardinals piece the next 30 days), the warnings are blaring on the arm of the rotation's elder statesman.
In the fictional world of Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa told Adonis Creed that time is undefeated; that father time catches up to even the greatest of athletes. Rocky was talking about Adonis' father, Apollo. Can the same idea be applied to 35-year-old Wainwright?
The pitcher formerly known as the ace of the staff hasn't looked good through three April starts, and the numbers show a continuation of last year's struggles. The fastball sitting straight on a tee while the curveball (once known as the silver bullet in Waino's arsenal) getting clobbered when it hangs inside the kill zone at the plate. Whatever Wainwright is trying to cut at the plate isn't following through, because hitters aren't being fooled by either of his pitches.
A special feature on Brooks Baseball shows Wainwright's pitches are becoming more human every start. "His sinker is never swung at and missed compared to other starters, and it has very little sinking action compared to a true sinker. His cutter has below average velo, while his fourseam fastball is an extreme flyball pitch."
In summary, Waino's once prominent pitches are being hit harder and more frequently than ever before. He is throwing the same stuff, but the effectiveness has decayed, and hitters are having more success. The guy who started 33 games and won 20 of them back in 2014 while posting a 2.38 ERA (with a filthy 2.88 fielding independent pitching mark) has turned into a 4.30 ERA arm with a running time of five innings tops.
After dominating in April of 2015 as the de facto leader of men on the pitching staff, Waino is a punching bag on the mound just two years later. The Achilles injury may have stomped one of his last stellar seasons, or it may have merely fast forwarded the tape a little.
2016's full dose of Wainwright revealed a much different pitcher, and the statistics don't lie. Wainwright led the National League in earned runs allowed (102), hits (220), and gave up a career high 22 home runs. While he won 13 games, Wainwright's earned run average ballooned to 4.62, but he could still strike out a decent amount of hitters. In fact, Wainwright's strikeouts per nine innings rose from 7.1 to 7.3 last season. He was simply catching too much of the zone.
2017 hasn't been any prettier, with the innings pitched decreasing, and the batting practice continuing. Wainwright has already allowed 24 hits in just 13.2 innings pitched, and the ERA isn't even worth mentioning, because it resembles a football score.
It hasn't helped that Wainwright has faced three deluxe teams in the Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, and New York Yankees so far in 2017, but the schedule won't get any easier moving forward. But should it even matter? Wainwright is the highest paid Cardinal player, so hoping he can topple the Milwaukee Brewers this weekend shouldn't be a huge gamble, but it looks that way.
Wainwright's contract runs out after the 2018 season, and there is little doubt that the Cardinals and the veteran pitcher will part ways at that time. Wainwright will be 37 years old in August of 2018, so the chances of bringing back a quickly declining pitcher at that age are slim to none. The question now becomes how much does Waino have left to offer.
Last September, I argued with my former co-host Matt Whitener on our 590 The Fan radio show if Wainwright was still ace material. He answered that question for us with his work down the stretch. As 2017 starts to grow legs, the question will be different, yet carry more dire flavors: what can Waino give the Cards the rest of the season, and what about next year? He's on the books for $39-million for the final two seasons. As most pitchers have proven to their teams over the years, the latter stages of a contract are far from the brightest.
Can he make some adjustments and be better? Don't count on it. These are the big leagues, and aging pitchers don't get in-season makeovers to right the ship. The winter and spring are gone, and Waino is what he is for the season. He's a bulldog on the mound for life, and has made several tweaks to his delivery and arsenal over the last season alone. He will continue to make the effort, but hoping for different results may be a stretch. Against a quality club, the Cards can only hope for five innings with the team still in the game. That is the absolute best.
It's not easy watching this unfold, because of how strong Wainwright once was on a pitching mound. He's thrown two of the biggest pitches in franchise history, but watching his curve to Carlos Beltran in 2006 is like watching Robert De Niro act in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets"; it's far different and less painful than watching DeNiro act with Zac Efron in a trashy comedy called "Dirty Grandpa".
On Sunday night in the dugout at Yankee Stadium, Wainwright looked up at the field and the pitching mound after being taken out of the game with a few shakes of the head and somber look on his face. He had given up 10 hits in just under five innings of action, and looked like a man with no answers.
As my good Twitter friend Pete Schmitt said about Wainwright on Sunday night: "this isn't a trend, it's the end."
Only time will tell what Adam Wainwright has to offer, but right now, it doesn't look like much. Oh boy, how the mighty have fallen. Give another notch on the belt to father time.