How amazing is Adam Wainwright's start to his season? With 24 strikeouts against no walks in his first 22 innings and three starts, his command could not possibly get any sharper. As Mark Simon noted, his 12-strikeout shutout of the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday already puts him in the company of all-time St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson.
If you look at the list of starting pitchers who have struck out 20 or more batters without a walk over on Baseball-Reference.com, you can see Wainwright has a way to go to catch Curt Schilling’s 47 whiffs in 37 walk-less frames. But as hot as Wainwright is, I wouldn’t bet against him.
If anything, you could argue that it’s more of the same for Wainwright. In his final 14 starts last season, Wainwright allowed just 20 unintentional walks in 89.2 IP while striking out 82. Even with baseball’s skyrocketing strikeout rates, he was coming into this year already having long since dispelled concerns over his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2011.
Whether he does or doesn’t set a record of the sort is less important than what he represents to the Cardinals: He’s the ace ascendant in a franchise design that has long relied on big investments in a top tandem. Making a new multi-year commitment this spring to keep Wainwright from free agency was a move made as a matter of another franchise tradition in Cardinals history: A willingness to take the over when they find an ace. Not to win a single game or provide fans with games like Saturday’s, but to win, period, because the Cardinals play for the highest stakes.
Going back at least to the Cardinals’ decision after winning the World Series in 2006 to give the fragile Chris Carpenter a five-year, $63.5 million deal, it’s almost as if St. Louis embraces high-risk, high-return aces as a core principle. You could even stretch the argument and say it’s a legacy that goes back at least to the ’80s, with equally fragile ace John Tudor. When healthy, Tudor could front a pennant-winning pitching staff. So too could Carpenter -- as is the plan for Wainwright, for years to come.
It’s almost a case of the Cardinals doubling down when they feel they’ve got a guy they can win with. The Cardinals repeatedly spent their way past reasonable concerns that Carpenter would break down -- his five-year deal overlapped an existing club option for 2008, and they subsequently rewarded him again en route to the 2011 World Series, giving him another two years and $21 million in September of their pennant run. That the last deal hasn’t worked out well might prove little solace for the 2011 Phillies, Brewers or Rangers. What statheads or opponents might consider spending too much, too soon, the Cardinals have taken as the cost of doing business. The Yankees or Red Sox can’t sign a man if he never reaches free agency, after all.
So it’s no surprise that, just as they did time and again with Carpenter, the Cards were more than willing this spring to roll the dice and invest major money in a front man early, rather than risk ever losing him to the open market before they were done with him. Plunking down $97.5 million for a five-year extension at the end of spring training might have been too rich for some clubs’ blood, and perhaps too rich at a time when every sensible stathead is going to repeat the sense and sensibility of avoiding big-money deals with starting pitchers beyond three years in length. But not to the Cardinals.
To their credit, they weren’t hung up on Wainwright’s 14-13 season or 3.94 ERA. Saturday’s brilliant outing might represent just a bullet point documenting that they’re smart enough not to get hung up on aggregate stats in what was necessarily a bounce-back season. They know what they have, and they knew he was worth it. From here on out, it’s a matter of letting it ride where their latest big-ticket gamble on the mound is concerned.
It’s easy to look back and say that the Cardinals teams that won in 2006 and then again in 2011 were the Albert Pujols Cardinals, but they were always more than that, and watching him slip away may well have been the best thing possible for them if the money saved is what helped them afford to reinvest in Wainwright. The overstuffed Cardinals lineup of today figures to become more crowded still, with the incipient arrival of Oscar Taveras. It has already inspired new risks, like making Matt Carpenter a second baseman and carrying first baseman Matt Adams on the bench. Even once Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday or David Freese get going, it will not be “their” team.
That’s because if it’s anybody’s, it may be Wainwright’s. Indeed, the more things change, perhaps the more they really do stay the same. We’ll see if Shelby Miller becomes the club’s “other” ace in the same way that Wainwright played pennant-winning Padawan to Carpenter’s Jedi Master. But having seen this sort of plan pay off for them in the past, investing in Wainwright figures to be the latest Cardinals risk well worth running -- one they’ll ride all the way to future pennants, one brilliantly pitched ballgame at a time.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.