Wainwright signs with Cards for another year

November 13th, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- What felt pitching in October this year was a feeling that he wasn’t ready to walk away from.

The 38-year-old veteran was confident on the mound for the first time since 2014. He embraced the postseason competition and the big moments. He was himself again, and his 1.62 ERA over three playoff games was evidence of it.

He has a chance to feel that way again.

Wainwright and the Cardinals agreed to a one-year deal for the 2020 season, the team announced Tuesday. Terms of the deal were not yet disclosed. Wainwright said he’s taking it one year at a time, so whether 2020 will be his last season isn’t known, either.

“At the moment, we are going year to year with likelihood of this probably being it,” Wainwright said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Who knows how those things work? My thought right now is only to help this team win a World Series.”

Wainwright will be entering his 16th season in the Cardinals’ organization, after being traded to St. Louis in 2003 from the Braves in a deal for J.D. Drew. The Braves drafted Wainwright 29th overall in 2000. He made his Major League debut with the Cardinals and never left.

Wainwright is a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner, and he won the 2017 Silver Slugger Award.

As a rookie in 2006, Wainwright was a key figure in the team’s World Series title, appearing in nine games in relief and not allowing a run. He recorded four saves, including in series-clinching wins in the National League Championship Series and World Series. He has a career 2.81 ERA in the postseason over 27 games.

Although he dealt with injuries for the past few years, he had some optimism for 2019, so he and the Cardinals signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract last offseason. He met all the incentives with his 31 starts -- his most since making 33 in 2016 --and went 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 171 2/3 innings. He was at his best late in the season, and his 2.97 ERA in September helped push the Cardinals to their first NL Central division title since 2015.

He made two starts in the postseason, shutting out the Braves over 7 2/3 innings in the NL Division Series and struck out 11 against the Nationals in the NLCS.

“As the season wore on, I got more confident in my abilities and different game that I was featuring as opposed to how I used to pitch,” Wainwright said. “I really enjoyed pitching down the stretch, really enjoyed pitching that postseason. That was big for me, man. I really wish we could have won a World Series, but getting those juices flowing like that for the first time in a few years, it was an empowering feeling.

“I pitched like I expected to pitch. And I expected to be great, deep down with a realness that I hadn’t had in years. That was always what made me a good pitcher that I had been lacking for a couple years.”

When the season started, though, it took Wainwright a few months to feel that way. He needed to trust that he was healthy. He needed to trust his stuff, which was sometimes difficult when Wainwright -- who thrives off his curveball -- was surrounded by young, hard-throwing pitchers both in the Cardinals' dugout and around the league.

It took conversations with a former ace and a young ace to help Wainwright find his confidence.

Chris Carpenter, the former Cy Young winner who is now a special assistant for the Cardinals, pulled Wainwright aside twice this season and told him that he needed to trust himself because his stuff was good again. The other person to pull Wainwright aside was Jack Flaherty, the 23-year-old right-hander who, in his second year in the Majors, was the best pitcher in baseball in the second half.

“He said, ‘We need you to be what you can be, and I think you can be better than you’ve been. You need to believe in yourself,’” Wainwright said. “It was right out of Chris Carpenter’s mouth. It was such a good challenge for me, and at first, I wanted to ruffle my feathers and give him a stare down, but I kind of looked at him and said, 'you’re right.' I carried that into September. Those two guys believing me and giving me their honest feedback really helped me.”

Now Wainwright is 100 percent healthy and hopes 2020 brings similar confidence and results. He sat down with his wife, Jenny, and daughters to make sure everyone was comfortable with him returning to baseball for at least another year. Once he knew they were ready for it, he and his agent began negotiations with the Cardinals about a week and a half ago, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. 

Although Wainwright was a free agent for the first time this offseason, with the chance to field offers from all 30 teams, his preference was to stay with the Cardinals. Wainwright and his family thought about the possibility of him pitching for another team, but the Cardinals welcomed him back. 

“We’re excited we could reunite again,” Mozeliak said. “You think about his history and what he’s meant to the Cardinals. What he means to our club, not only what he does on the mound, but his veteran presence, his experiences, he can be a very calming influence in that clubhouse.” 

With Wainwright’s signing, the Cardinals now have one rotation vacancy for next season. They are expected to explore ways to fill that spot via trade or in the free-agent market, but the spot could also be filled through the system. Closer is working toward a return to the rotation, and the Cardinals have plenty of other internal options, like , and .