The KC Royals should add an established starter to their rotation. Could Adam Wainwright fit the bill?
Sunday brought an end to the KC Royals’ 2020 season, but ushered in a few offseason months of speculation, predictions, and conjecture before spring training begins. There’s a reason they call this time the Hot Stove League.
The baseball media is already churning. Proof that the stove is already hot came Wednesday from Kansas City beat writer Alec Lewis’ thoughts about the 2021 Royals; in a piece projecting the club’s potential lineup in The Athletic (subscription required), Lewis discussed the starting rotation and hinted Adam Wainwright might be a fit.
Lewis has a point. The idea shouldn’t be quickly dismissed.
Wainwright, scheduled to start the second game of the playoffs today for the St. Louis Cardinals, is as established a starter as there is. He’s been a reliable fixture in the Cardinal rotation for 15 seasons. A few injuries aside (Achilles and ankle problems deprived Wainwright of most of his 2015 season and elbow inflammation did the same to his 2018 campaign), Wainwright has given the Redbirds critical innings throughout his career.
And this shortened 2020 campaign hasn’t been any different—good reasons justify his playoff start today. Wainwright started 10 of the Cards’ 58 games (COVID-19 infections postponed several of their games, only two of which didn’t have to be made up) and threw two complete games. He averaged almost seven innings per start on the way to a 5-3, 3.15 ERA (137 ERA+) and 1.051 WHIP record. Those five wins gave him 167 for his career.
The 6-foot-7 right-hander’s 2020 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a vital measure of effectiveness, was 3.1 and he averaged less than three walks per nine innings for the 10th time.
A three-time All-Star with two Gold Gloves (and even a Silver Slugger), he’s won 20 games twice and 19 twice, and owns a 3.38 career ERA. Wainwright has also enjoyed success against the KC Royals, posting a 5-3 record in 11 career starts.
Lewis pointed out that Mike Matheny now manages the Royals, a fact that only adds to the intrigue. Matheny and Wainwright worked together from the time Matheny began managing the Cards in 2012 through his mid-July firing in 2018 and, despite missing most of two seasons, Wainwright went 81-49 during that span. Their familiarity with each other couldn’t hurt.
Does Wainwright’s age weigh against the Royals pursuing him this winter? He turned 39 in August, an age at which most pitchers no longer pitch or, if they do, struggle. He threw a complete game victory on his birthday, then averaged almost seven innings per game in his next five starts. The ability to get past the fifth inning would be crucial for the Royals.
His history with the Cardinals, though, the only club he’s ever played for in the majors, could be the greatest obstacle to any interest the Royals might have in bringing Wainwright aboard. Before this season started, he suggested to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal (subscription required) that he’d like to return to St. Louis in 2021. And he had the chance to leave St. Louis for free agency after the 2018 and 2019 campaigns but chose to stay—he signed two one-year deals, the first for $2 million after his injury-shortened 2018 campaign, the other for $5 million covering this season.
But age and obvious loyalty to the Cards shouldn’t dissuade general manager Dayton Moore from at least reaching out to Wainwright. The Royals need a proven starter to complement Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic, especially because Duffy’s future as a starter is uncertain, Singer and Bubic still have rough edges after their short but impressive debuts, and the club will once again enter a new season with at least the fifth rotation spot open.
Wainwright can give the Royals reliability, consistency, and effective pitching, not to mention the veteran leadership and mentoring that comes from 15 successful big league seasons with a winning franchise. Kansas City doesn’t have such a well-credentialed starter.
The cost of acquiring Wainwright could be an additional plus. Although he’ll be among the free agents declared after the World Series ends, the revenue hit clubs took this season will probably depress the market significantly; although some clubs always find money no matter how dire the situation, most of this year’s free agents may not find offers to their liking. What’s more, Wainwright will be hard-pressed to find clubs willing to spend lavishly on, or offer a multi-year deal to, a hurler on the verge of 40.
So it is that Wainwright may be an inexpensive risk. That gives Moore a shot at him as he works to improve the KC Royals, and means Wainwright may be affordable enough to still enable the team to invest in a hitter and a couple of contract extensions for core players. The odds may not be in the Royals’ favor—Wainwright may indeed want to stay in St. Louis—but it may be a shot worth taking. And the risk is low, especially when the club needs an established starter to help bridge the gap between its present rotation and the flock of talented young arms who are almost ready.
Adam Wainwright is about to become a free agent. The KC Royals should at least kick the tires.