The St. Louis Cardinals will send veteran Adam Wainwright to the mound against the Chicago Cubs this evening, with Jon Lester his Opening Night opponent. Let's celebrate the start of the 2015 season with a look at Wainwright's minor league career and how he developed as a prospect.
Adam Wainwright was the Atlanta Braves' first round pick in the 2000 draft, out of high school in Brunswick, Georgia, 29th overall. At one point he was considered a candidate for the top ten, but a strained elbow ligament dropped his stock just enough for him to fall to the bottom of the round. He signed with his home-state team quickly and looked excellent in his pro debut, posting a 1.13 ERA with a 42/10 K/BB in 32 innings in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, then a 3.68 ERA with a 39/2 K/BB in 29 innings after being promoted to the Appy League. Scouts praised his 92-94 MPH fastball, projected more velocity as he filled out his 6-6, 190 frame, and also liked his breaking ball and changeup. His command was obviously sharp, too. He rated as a Grade B+ in my 2001 book.
Wainwright moved up to Low-A Macon for 2001, going 10-10, 3.71 with a 184/48 K/BB in 165 innings, 144 hits. His workload was large for a 19-year-old, though his walk rate was low and his component ratios were outstanding. His velocity was still 90-94 MPH, but his curveball, slider, and changeup all took a step forward, and his mechanics were remarkably consistent for such a tall pitcher. This resulted in another Grade B+, with a note that he could take a step forward to A- or A with another good year.
He had that good year in 2002, posting a 3.31 ERA with a 167/66 K/BB in 163 innings for High-A Myrtle Beach, with 149 hits allowed. The walk rate crept up, but overall it was hard to knock his performance. His velocity picked up a bit, as he was clocked as high as 95-96 on his best days. I was still a bit concerned about the workload and the possibility of future injury, but moved his rating up to Grade A- in the 2003 book, ranked as the Number Seven pitching prospect in the game.
Promoted to Double-A Greenville for 2003, he went 10-8, 3.37 in 27 starts, with a 128/37 K/BB in 150 innings, 133 hits. The strikeout rate declined again, but his control improved and overall it was another strong campaign. He was traded to the Cardinals that December for J.D. Drew; once again he was a Grade A- and ranked at Number Eight on the pitching prospect list.
Remember the strained elbow ligament back in high school? Elbow trouble cropped up again in 2004: he was limited to 12 starts for Triple-A Memphis, posting a 5.37 ERA. He did have a decent 64/28 K/BB in 64 innings, but gave up 68 hits and 12 homers. His velocity was down much of the year, and he missed half the season on the shelf with a partially torn elbow ligament. Surgery was avoided, but his future health status was doubtful and this lowered his rating to a Grade B- in the 2005 book as a result.
Wainwright's elbow felt better in 2005, although his velocity was down a peg to 89-92 MPH post-injury. He posted a 10-10 record, 4.40 ERA in 182 innings for Triple-A Memphis, with a 147/51 K/BB but 204 hits allowed. His secondary stuff regressed along with the fastball. I gave him a Grade B- again, writing that I expected him to develop into a workhorse number three or four starter type, but thinking that his ability to dominate had been permanently impacted by the elbow.
The Cardinals did the Earl Weaver break-in-the-rookie-pitcher thing and used him entirely as a major league reliever in 2006, getting strong results (3.12 ERA, 72/22 K/BB in 75 innings, 64 hits). He moved into the rotation in 2007 and has been terrific ever since. The one exception was 2011 when his elbow finally gave out and and required Tommy John surgery. He came back just adequate in 2012 but has been truly outstanding the last two seasons.
As a prospect, Wainwright started off strongly but had some issues in the high minors brought on by health issues. These were eventually overcome, certainly justifying his early status as a top prospect with the Braves as well as St. Louis' decision to trade for him.