“In my mind, I’m still fighting to be the No. 1 pitcher in the game still. That’s what I want to be and that’s what I want to think of myself,” Wainwright said. “I’m confident in my talent and abilities. That’s how I get the most out of doing it and thinking it that way. Now, I know I have some things to prove.”
The veteran righty, who is set to make $19.5 million in this final year of his five-year contract, holds a disappointing 4.81 ERA over the last two seasons.
At 36, Wainwright is a three-time All-Star and the one-time ace of the Cardinals, the only major league team he’s ever pitched for. He owns 146 wins in his 12-year career, but he hasn’t won more than 13 games since winning 20 in 2014. He’s candid about last season.
“Last year didn’t go well. I was injured in the second half last year and it was just ugly,” Wainwright said. He had arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow last October. The procedure involved the trimming of some cartilage. As far as elbow surgeries go, it was relatively minor. Wainwright needed six weeks of rehab, but after that, there were no restrictions.
“My rehab has gone as completely smooth as possible,” Wainwright said. “Doctors and trainers did a great job getting me prepared. I think everybody is pretty excited about where I’m at.”
As far as being ready goes, he said he follows the same routine he did as a rookie, playing catch “like it [is] the last game of the World Series or the last pitch of the World Series.”
He says he isn’t thinking about retirement. He also isn’t pondering a contract extension. Those thoughts, he insists, will come at another time.
“To put it plainly, I’ve got one more year on my contract that I’m going to give every single thing I have to. We’ll see what happens,” Wainwright said. “Let me just say this, it would be great for me if everyone would – I don’t know if ‘respect’ is the right word – if everyone would embrace the idea that I love being a St. Louis Cardinal, love my time here and I really want to get the most out of what I’m doing here right now.”
Manager Mike Matheny is endorsing Wainwright’s live-in-the-now approach. After all, Wainwright remains tied for the Cardinals lead with 12 victories last season.
“He’s always pushing the envelope for greatness and that’s exactly what he should be expecting of himself,” Matheny said.
Catcher Yadier Molina also is not concerned about Wainwright.
“Waino is a warrior. He’s a solider,” Molina said. “He’s great to compete. I have no doubt about Waino. He’ll be ready to go.”
Wainwright has charted a personal course for the season, at the end of which, he said he hopes the organization will be asking, “How many years can we get him back?”
“That would be my goal,” Wainwright said. In an effort to ensure that success, he arrived at training camp nearly 25 pounds lighter than he did one year ago. He hadn’t come to camp weighing as little as his current 225 pounds in at least five seasons.
“Earlier in my career, it was the heavier I felt, the bigger and stronger I felt, the better I pitched because I felt better,” Wainwright explained. “Last year, I came in really heavy and strong as a bull but I was very stiff and so, functionally, it didn’t work.”
Fighting the added weight, Wainwright’s hips flew open too early in his delivery, leading to back soreness and, eventually, the elbow issue that interrupted his season. This spring, he figured he’d try the opposite approach and even joked that he might attempt to steal a few bases this season.
While he realizes he may no longer be the ace of the staff, he hopes the other pitchers “can still look at me as a guy who can help shepherd them.”
“I told Mo [John Mozeliak] that last year,” he said. “I love being the guy who can help shepherd these young guys into being a professional like I was taught. I was taught by Chris Carpenter and many other people like Jason Marquis, Braden Looper, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan and many, many others. All those lessons I’ve learned I love pouring that stuff back out.”