"...three years in baseball is a lifetime." - Liz Roscher, from the Philadelphia Phillies essay in the 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual
Exactly three years ago today, Adam Wainwright took the mound for MLB's season opener at newly (albeit at the time, partially) renovated Wrigley Field. I was there. You likely remember the evening as well whether in attendance or not. But a quick primer anyway: Before the game there was a nice tribute on the brand new LED scoreboard to Ernie Banks, who had passed earlier that year. The bleachers weren't yet completed and were mostly covered by tarps. The bathroom situation was a disaster. And we didn't even hate Joe Maddon yet.
As for the actual game, Wainwright dominated. Facing offseason prize Jon Lester and a Cubs lineup that was starting to look formidable (even with Mike Olt starting at third while Kris Bryant worked on his defense in Des Moines), Wainwright went six innings, struck out six, walked none, gave up five mostly meaningless hits, and allowed zero runs. It was vintage Wainwright. Carlos Martínez, Jordan Walden (remember him?), and Trevor Rosenthal each pitched an inning to finish the job to secure a 3-0 win. Late in the game, the Cubs fans seated behind me, who were all pleasant enough, grumbled to each other, "Will we ever beat these guys?" It was a nice feeling.
That was the climate of the Cardinals - Cubs rivalry on April 5, 2015, much of it having to do with a presence like Wainwright. Granting him a mulligan for his first year back from Tommy John surgery in 2012, the list of pitchers in the National League who were better than him in 2013 and 2014 probably began and ended with Clayton Kershaw. Wainwright was a legitimate, no-semantics-needed ace. A guy who had closed out a World Series. No one who was at Wrigley that night was alive the last time the same thing could be said about an active Cubs player. So I presume, anyway.
And the very early returns in 2015 looked even better. He went an average of seven innings in his first three starts, walked only three batters, and had a sub-2.00 ERA. He was in complete control during his fourth start, too.
Then, in the top of the 5th, the ride came to an abrupt and cruel end. Wainwright tore his Achilles attempting to run out of the batter's box and, aside from a flash here or there, he truly hasn't been the same since. He returned at the tail-end of 2015 in a bullpen role, and since has pitched 325 total innings with an ERA creeping up near 5.00. He walked batters at a higher rate in 2017 than he ever had before as a starter. He also had his lowest strikeout rate since 2008, even though strikeouts for starters in 2017 were at an all-time high across the league. The hard contact has gone up. His velocity has gone down.
That April 2015 night in Chicago now feels like it happened in another lifetime, and not just because the Cubs have usurped the Cardinals in the standings and stature. Wainwright went from league ace to a place where many wondered aloud if it's a mistake to let him back in the rotation at the expense of a young pitcher like Jack Flaherty, who has 26.1 MLB innings to his name. (Just read some of the replies.) And now that Wainwright is back, there's the tough question of what to do if he struggles, as Craig Edwards of FanGraphs noted in a great piece late last month.
I don't know enough about pitching, or the human body for that matter, to say if Wainwright's father-time moment happened to coincide with his torn Achilles, or if that injury just directly accelerated it. Maybe no one really knows. But as he takes the mound tonight in the Cardinals' home opener, the question remains if this is it for a player in his final contract year, who has arguably been the most beloved and important Cardinals pitcher of many of our lifetimes.
Then again, maybe Wainwright is actually healthy for the first time in a few years. You likely heard that he had surgery to clean out his elbow this offseason. His velocity was reportedly up in the spring (the radar gun at Roger Dean Stadium was also reportedly pretty hot). His projections look fine. Maybe he can pitch 150 innings. Maybe he can be better than his 2016 and 2017 version. I don't want to say maybe he'll be like he was before the injury in Milwaukee because that typically doesn't happen for pitchers who are set to turn 37 before the year is over, but either of the first two rings of house money with this rotation which (I know, I know, it's April 5) feels solid and deep.
Or maybe he's done. Maybe he's been done. That being the case, I wouldn't trade a postseason birth for a hokey For Love of the Game Adam Wainwright-type moment, but it's a closer debate in my head than it probably should be. And that's about as big of a compliment you can give a player.