How will the Cards use veteran Wainwright come October?

September 29th, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MILWAUKEE -- Cardinals rookie manager Oliver Marmol masterfully handled the usage of 42-year-old superstar Albert Pujols throughout this season by refusing to get drunk on nostalgia, pinch-hitting for the surefire Hall of Famer when the matchups dictated and riding the hot hand when the slugger started bashing balls out of the park down the stretch.

Similarly, Marmol had to sidestep landmines all season with how he utilized 40-year-old catcher Yadier Molina and previously oft-injured fireballer Ryan Helsley. The 36-year-old manager had to navigate the “general soreness” that Molina has dealt with for prolonged stretches, and he successfully stayed away from overusing Helsley to keep him healthy and fresh for the stretch run and playoffs. (See: Helsley’s recent 104 mph and 104.2 mph pitches).

Now, Marmol could be facing his most difficult decision yet -- and the most important one of his first season as manager. How he chooses to proceed with veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright in the upcoming playoffs could go a long way in determining whether the Cardinals enjoy another golden fall. One wrong decision now and it could lead to an early ouster for a Cardinals franchise that has been in “World Series-or-bust” mode for months.

What to do with the likeable, loveable Wainwright, a franchise fixture for the better part of the past two decades and someone the Cardinals always wanted on the mound when games were on the line? Wainwright’s five most recent outings have been anything but loveable, as he had surrendered 17 earned runs and 38 hits in 24 innings pitched. Further complicating matters is the 41-year-old pitcher going through an extended period of “dead arm” -- something he’s dealt with several times before, but never in September, a month where he has 40 career wins and he’s often been picking up steam while headed for the playoffs.

As both Marmol and Wainwright explained last Sunday following the Cardinals' 4-1 loss to the Dodgers -- one in which the pitcher lasted just three innings -- rest isn’t always the best answer for the “dead arm” condition. Often, rest prolongs the lack of sensation in the arm and fingers and it’s better for veteran pitchers to power through it. Wainwright feels the issue hasn’t allowed him to have the same bite on his curveball and the same late life on his cutter and changeup. He’s frustrated by it, and he’s frustrated by the lack of results he’s gotten lately.

“I’ve been working hard and doing everything I know to do, and my body feels good, but my stuff is just not coming out right,” Wainwright said. “The only way I don’t come out of this is if I give up, so that’s not going to happen.

“If this was going on in June, people would be wondering what’s going on with me,” Wainwright added. “I know how it works and I know what people are saying about me, how it looks and how it feels, and it’s not great. I want it to be better.”

Rather than pitching on his normal four days’ rest, Wainwright’s next start was pushed to Sunday for the regular-season finale at Busch Stadium. It will be the regular-season finale at Busch for Pujols and Molina, retiring legends who have already made their future plans known. Could it also be the same for Wainwright, who has yet to decide if he will continue to pitch in 2023?

A more pressing question is this: What should the Cardinals do with Wainwright in the postseason? When he pitches on Sunday, he would be in line to start Game 1 of the Wild Card Series on Oct. 7. The first starter for live BP sessions in March, the first Spring Training starter and the Opening Day starter, Wainwright has always prided himself on being a frontline starter and leader for the Cardinals.

But can Marmol risk running a compromised Wainwright out for Game 1 in the playoffs? The Wild Card Series -- against the offensively dynamic Phillies or the familiar Brewers -- is a perilously dangerous best-of-three round, so dropping Game 1 could prove fatal to the Cardinals' playoff lives. Jack Flaherty, who seems to have fully regained his dominant swing-and-miss stuff, or surging left-hander José Quintana might present better options for Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux to choose. Even if Wainwright doesn’t pitch Game 1 of the Wild Card Series, does he pitch at all in that opening round?

That answer could change several times between then and now, but Marmol is banking on the veteran pitcher figuring things out over the next eight days to get himself ready to contribute in some form or fashion in the playoffs.

“There are a couple of things that we’ve identified that he wants to work on that will get him in a better position to get some [velocity] back and mechanically speaking,” Marmol said. “He’ll do that over the next few days and then take another shot at it.

“I think all of [the decisions] will be hard to weigh, but I guess I’m more optimistic [about Wainwright],” Marmol added. “Yes, it’s been trending in a direction that he’s not happy with and nobody’s happy with, but I’m not going to bet against that guy, ever. I think he’s going to figure it out, as he always has.”