The final pitch of the St. Louis Cardinals 2006 World Series victory was a strike thrown by Adam Wainwright and caught by Yadier Molina. At the time, Wainwright was completing his first major league season. Molina had more big league experience, but was only 24 years old. Fast-forward to this spring, and the two are still throwing to each other. Wainwright and Molina recently passed legends Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver for the most starts together as a St. Louis battery. That is no small feat, given the club’s venerated history and the modern free agency climate in which loyalty is not always prioritized.
Cardinals Wainwright and Molina Building on their Legacy
With Wainwright and Molina now into their mid-thirties, the Cardinals continue to rely on the two stalwarts in their attempt to keep pace with the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. What can be expected from these two in 2017?
Wainwright missed virtually all of 2015 due to an Achilles rupture, and never returned to his former self last year. He had a 7.16 ERA in April, straightened out mid-season, then floundered at the end with an ERA north of 5.00 in September and August. This led to a mark of 4.62 over the full season, more than half a run higher than any other year of his career. He also gave up more walks and home runs than he ever had.
Wainwright’s 2016 stumbles were traced to the loss of effectiveness in his curveball. The curve is his go-to pitch (his apt twitter handle is @UncleCharlie50), though last year he struck out only 66 with that pitch. Throughout his career, that number had routinely been over 100. To seek answers, Wainwright revisited a video on the curve he made back in 2013. It was determined that his current grip had deviated slightly from his grip back then. An adjustment was made, and from all reports that pitch has regained its bite. Wainwright requested additional spring starts to perfect his curve and mix in his change-up more often than in recent memory.
Though Wainwright is no longer the ace of the Cardinals (see: Carlos Martinez), he continues to be the staff leader. His treatment of teammates was encapsulated by his recent decision to rent a car for teammate Ryan Sherriff, whom Wainwright noticed was making a daily walk to and from the Cards spring complex.
Cards fans should be excited that Wainwright, a former All-Star and 20-game winner, is still striving to improve. He is not reinventing himself, but has adjusted his approach after a sub-par season. There is every reason to believe that a healthy Wainwright can return to his former self. He should soak up 200-plus innings and keep the team in the Wild Card chase.
Just as Wainwright serves as leader for the pitching staff, so does Molina in handling those pitchers. With Molina behind the plate, the Cards have not had to worry about the catching position for over a decade. However, this could theoretically be his final season with St. Louis. The club holds an option and are prepping 22-year-old Carson Kelly to be the every-day catcher. While the Cardinals are more loyal than most clubs, they are not adverse to making tough decisions on fan-favorites. Matt Holliday was declined an option last fall and now plays for the New York Yankees.
Current manager Mike Matheny was a catching mentor for Molina when he came to St. Louis, and now Molina is a mentor to Kelly. How long the grooming of Kelly takes will depend on the speed of his development. Last year, he split time between Double- and Triple-A, with a September call up to the bigs. It seems unlikely that Kelly can advance fast enough for the Cardinals to cut Molina loose this fall.
Though his string of eight-straight Gold Glove awards was snapped, Molina is still an elite catcher. Nevertheless, there is always a question about a veteran’s ability to withstand the rigors of another full season behind the plate. There are rumblings that Molina will occasionally sub for the tandem of Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter at first.
Molina continues to be an effective offensive player. After a slow start to 2016, he caught fire post All-Star break, with a slash line of .365/.398/.529. He has enough experience that any bumpy contract negotiations should not impede his performance.
Whether 2017 is the last hurrah for this long-time battery remains to be seen. Each start they have together will extend their club record and grow their legacy. Ideally, they will both retire as Cardinals en route to the club’s Hall of Fame. This should in no way suggest that the value in watching them this season is purely sentimental. With Wainwright fine tuning his approach and Molina coming off a tremendous second half, they will continue to be key cogs in the Cards postseason quest.