In the winter of 2003, J.D. Drew was coming off another solid season.
He hadn’t become the superstar most had projected him to be, but he was a very good major league player.
The 2004 season was set to be the final year of Drew’s rookie contract, and his bonus baby attitude grated on manager Tony La Russa. Keen minds will recall that the Cardinals drafted and signed Drew for $10 million in 1998 after he infamously rebuffed the Phillies’ $3 million offer following the 1997 draft.
In December of 2003, the Cardinals traded Drew to the Braves. In return, they added three pitchers: Jason Marquis, Ray King and the Braves' top prospect, Adam Wainwright.
Wainwright was the crown jewel of the trade. A Georgia native, the 23-year-old was previously thought to be a lock to become a fan favorite for a new generation of Braves fans. Instead, Wainwright filled that role for the Cardinals.
He endeared himself to Cardinals fans immediately in 2006 by accepting a bullpen role. Down the stretch of the team’s 83-win campaign, he became its closer. The Cards backed into the playoffs, got hot and won their 10th World Series title, breaking a 24-year drought. Wainwright recorded memorable strikeouts to end both the NLCS and World Series.
That early success was the beginning of a great career. From 2007 through 2014 (with the exception of the 2011 season, which was lost to Tommy John surgery), Waino became one of the game’s best pitchers. Regularly surpassing 200 innings pitched, he could usually be found with an ERA around or below 3.00. He wasn’t a strikeout artist, but he racked up more than 200 Ks on three occasions.
Beyond the box score, Wainwright was beloved by the St. Louis fan base. His “aw shucks,” country boy demeanor played well in the region. The cameras regularly catch him enjoying the game and his teammates. It was far from unusual to see clips of Waino dancing, singing, playing pranks or generally goofing around between innings on days he wasn’t starting.
He seemed to combine the on-the-field bulldog mentality of his mentor, Chris Carpenter, with the fun-loving nature of a 10-year-old from your hometown.
That’s what makes the past few seasons so hard to watch.
Since blowing out his Achilles’ tendon early in the 2015 season, Wainwright hasn’t been the same pitcher. All of his numbers have been worse since that moment.
Sure, there have been small stretches were he’s at least slightly resembled the Adam Wainwright we grew to know and love, but those moments are happening less and less often.
With Thursday’s news of Waino being placed on the 60-day disabled list and the thought of another major elbow injury lingering in the air, it seems his tenure is nearing its end.
In the final year of his 5-year, $97.5 million contract and with a number of young arms ready to fill his shoes, it seems certain Waino won’t toe the rubber for St. Louis in 2019. At the moment, it’s up in the air as to whether he’ll take the mound ever again, period.
It’s an idea I, and so many others, have fought for years, but the journey seems to be nearly over.