No day but today as Waino preps for '18

Veteran righty not thinking about retirement entering final season of 5-year deal

February 15th, 2018

JUPITER, Fla. -- There were dire days last year, admits now, when he considered hanging it up. Sure, the most celebrated Cardinals pitcher in recent memory was under contract through that season and the next. But his fastball felt less fierce. His curve became less compliant. Coming off his least-effective season to date, Wainwright had a 6.12 ERA through April. And the famed competitor in him couldn't bear it.

"I don't want to be not great at this game," Wainwright thought. "I started thinking about retirement."

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Flash forward to Thursday, when Wainwright called an impromptu press conference at the Cardinals' Spring Training facility to declare that his days of doubt were over.

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"I got a big announcement to make," said Wainwright, arms folded, after assembling the full media corps following a one-on-one television interview. "Here's the announcement:"

Wainwright, 36, has sensed the concern swirling around Cardinals nation, where so many tweets, so much early-season radio chatter, so much of the winter conversation centered on questioning how much the righty has left.

It's a fair criticism, given the way Wainwright finished 2017. Slowed by back and elbow injuries, the former Cy Young contender ended the year in relief, with a 5.11 ERA and a fastball hovering around 85 mph. He underwent offseason elbow surgery, and enters the final year of a five-year, $97.5 million contract extension a wild card in the middle of the Cardinals' rotation.

"If you have a question about whether I'm retiring after this year, or if I'm thinking about retiring, or if I'm thinking about moving on with my life, or if I'm thinking about signing an extension, I'd love for you to ask that right now," Wainwright said. "Actually, before you ask that, let me just say this: It would be great for me if everyone would embrace the idea that I love being a St. Louis Cardinal. I really want to get the most out of what I'm doing right now. And I would love to not answer that question for the rest of my life.

"I'm not thinking about anything past today right now," he continued. "I wont think about anything past tomorrow. What I want to do is be the very best St. Louis Cardinal I can be today, and tomorrow I want to be the best St. Louis Cardinal I can be tomorrow. And we'll do that every day until the rest of the season, and we'll see what happens."

The idea that eats at Wainwright the most is hanging around just because. He is one of the most decorated and beloved pitchers in Cardinals history, and for years has held a reputation as one of the most respected in the sport. His career earnings will exceed $130 million. He has two rings. When his career ends, Wainwright promises it'll be on his own terms.

"At no point in time five years ago would anyone have mentioned [the word] 'mediocre' to me," he said. "The fact that has become an issue is a real problem for me. That's why I need to focus on today. I don't want people to ever say I'm mediocre."

Using the whispers as motivation, Wainwright lost 25 pounds this offseason in an attempt to improve his mobility and the "functionality" of his delivery. The extra weight forced his front hip to open up too quickly last season, zapping his delivery of force and power, Wainwright said.

"I'm hoping to pitch really, really great this year," he said. "So the question isn't, 'Does he need to retire or not?' It'll be, 'How can he come back?'"

That competitiveness both defines Wainwright and gives his manager pause. Coming into camp, Mike Matheny comprised a plan to "temper" what he called Wainwright's eagerness to "prove the doubters wrong." The worry being a motivated Wainwright doing too much, too soon, and winding up injuring himself. More than likely, the Cardinals will need him healthy to feature enough rotation depth.

Matheny's task won't be simple. His message will be:

"Let's be smart. Make sure he understands we're not judging him on his first bullpen, and the rest of the world shouldn't be either."