Wainwright on Leake, Heyward, the Cubs and Underdog Cardinals

Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright joined me on Wednesday morning’s “Bernie Show” to discuss a number of topics including the fresh signing of free-agent starter Mike Leake, the loss of free-agent right fielder Jason Heyward to the rival Chicago Cubs, the Cards as underdogs, the potential of Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Wainwright also defended team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and GM John Mozeliak, who have been criticized by some fans for the team’s relatively quiet offseason — at least until Leake agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract.

Wainwright, 34, will be coming back from a 2015 season truncated by a torn Achilles injury suffered April 25. Though he made a stunning late-season return in a relief role following surgery and a lengthy rehab process, Waino was limited to only 33.1 innings last season including 5.1 IP in the 2015 NL division series vs. Chicago.

“I got a year off last year to get this wing rested up,” Wainwright said. “I’m ready to rock. I just chugged a protein shake and I’m ready to go work out right now. My leg feels good. I’m feeling young again. I think motivationally, I’ve got so much motivation to work hard and be ready for spring training and the season.

“Just to prove (wrong) all these people that keep saying I’m getting old and eventually I’m going to go the other way (decline.) I read an article the other day and it was funny. It said ‘Clearly Adam is on the downside of his career.’ Well, other than popping the Achilles show me where that’s true? I don’t feel like I’m getting old. I’m still having a great time getting ready for each season, having a great time playing baseball, and I don’t think that changes anytime soon. Listen, I’m here for the long haul. These Cardinal fans are stuck with me. And I can’t wait to see what this young team can do.”

For those that prefer reading to listening, I transcribed the most important parts of the “Convo with Waino,” so here you go:

On the Cardinals landing Leake, who has averaged 199 innings over the last three seasons while pitching mostly for division-rival Cincinnati: 

“I think this is one of those patented, under-the-radar, great signings. He doesn’t come with the $200 million price tag, but if you look at what he’s done … first of all, he’s a tremendous athlete. He is one of the best hitting and running pitchers in the game. Which people (listening) are scoffing at now, like who cares. But it does mean something, and it wins games. He fields his position outstandingly. He’s a great athlete, great hitter. He’s gotten multiple hits off me. But what he does pitching wise that is so great is, he takes the ball every fifth day. He goes deep into games, and he keeps the ball on the ground.

“And if he can do it what he did at Great American Ball Park having to pitch there 15, 16 times a year — I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do at Busch Stadium. He’s been tough on us … and he’s getting better. His stuff has gotten better. He’s throwing a hard, hard cutter now to go along with his good sinker. I actually have to a wear a thumb guard when I hit now, because he stung my hand so bad a few years ago that I haven’t been able to hit the ball since without a thumb guard. I think he’s a great addition, and I think he’s one of those guys that will help the team on many different levels without that $200 million price tag which obviously is great for business too.

“He’s solid, he’s a proven winner, he’s a proven innings eater and he’s a proven great athlete. and so when you take all of those intangibles and put them in a system like we have, with a team that is focused on winning, and in a good situation, I really think Mike Leake is going to take off. He’s just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do. And I think you’re going to see him be even better as a St. Louis Cardinal.”

When Heyward left the Cardinals he cited the Cubs’ youth and promising future and the aging STL roster core of star players as a primary reason. Wainwright offered a theory — Heyward didn’t want to take on a franchise-player role in St. Louis as older Cardinals retired or moved on: 

“A great teammate. One of the best teammates actually. A great friend and a great person. But when you look at that money that was offered to him, there’s really not much more our management can do than offer him that contract. He knows that we’re going to be in a position to win every year. and what it comes down to is this: he didn’t want to play there after myself, and Yadier (Molina) and Matt (Holliday) were gone, on such a long contract. it really comes down to a personality trait to me. The person that we want to give that kind of money to, that big money to, he needs to be a person that wants to be the guy that carries the torch. He needs to be a guy that wants to be the person, that after we leave, he carries on the tradition. And that’s just a personality thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re looking for that guy who wants to be the man.”

Wainwright insists he wasn’t irritated by Heyward’s comments about the aging Cardinals: 

“We’re not mad about that at all. We love Jason. And it really comes down to a personality trait. If he’s the guy wants to carry the torch, if he’s the guy that wants to be ‘The One’ — the cornerstone guy that you build a team around, then he takes that contract. But he wants to be a part of a system that he knows is going to be there for years and years. and there is nothing wrong with that. Listen, we know Jason so well. He is such a great teammate, and such a great guy. We love Jason. And he’s going to do great for Chicago. It just wasn’t the right situation for Jason and frankly it wasn’t the right situation for us. we’re going to find that guy and it may be somebody already there.”

Wainwright touted Piscotty and Grichuk as young stars to lead the next generation of Cardinals: 

“Personally? I think that guy, or those guys, are already there. I think when you look at what Stephen Piscotty’s got, you’re going to see an MVP candidate this year, I think. if you look at what Randal Grichuk has in his potential — this guy could hit 40 home runs playing center field. I mean, there hasn’t been many of those the last few years. I think if you look at what we already have, the kind of untapped potential of a Grichuk or a Piscotty, of a Kolten Wong … There’s a lot of talk that’s not being said about we don’t even know how good these guys can be.”

Waino later added: “There’s just more in the tank, watching those guys play every day at the end of the year, Grichuk and Piscotty … man, Stephen Piscotty may have been the best player in the league those last few weeks leading into the postseason and even in that postseason. He was dangerous. He’s retooled his swing and he’s got power to all fields. I really think that he’s a special player. If you add a Heyward, then you have to sit one of those guys. You know Matt Holliday is going to play almost every single day. You know Grichuk needs to play every day. You know Piscotty needs to play every day. It just gives our young guys that have this great ability a chance to be great. And if you remember, if Grichuk doesn’t get hurt last year there’s a very good chance he wins Rookie of the Year.”

On the fuss being made over the Cubs, who have been installed in Las Vegas with the SF Giants as co-favorites to win the 2016 NL pennant:  

“It’s going to so fun being the underdogs. Because everybody in the world besides Cardinal country wants the Cubs to go out and win. They want them to go out and beat us, especially. And we’re going to do our dangdest to not let that happen.”

Wainwright also said, “It’s always funny, and I get it. When a team has had success like we’ve had over the years, and you’re not a Cardinal fan, you’re tired of it. You want to see us fall, and you want to see some new teams in there mixing it up. as Cardinal players and obviously in Cardinal country, they want to see us have that longevity in the playoffs that we’ve had over the last few years. Like the Braves had in the 1990s and early 2000s. And we’re working on building a dynasty here. And that’s what we really want to do. Minus maybe 2009, and 2013, we’ve never really been favored to win our division. We’ve always been the team where ‘Yeah, they’re good and they played well last year but these other teams, they have these new and exciting players. And they’re going to do it this year.’ That’s never really been us. And we’ve played well in that (underdog) situation.”

On DeWitt and Mozeliak and their aggressive but unsuccessful effort to sign free-agent starting pitcher David Price — which was followed by a reported $200 million offer to Heyward: 

“In looking at what Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Mozeliak have done this offseason, who could possibly be mad about that? We came in second on two big-name free agents. David Price who would have been a great addition to our team, obviously. Or to any (team.) And a guy named Jason Heyward who we know was already a great addition. … Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Mo have done such a great job. They’ve probably been taking some heat in St. Louis, but as players we know they’re giving it their all. The contracts we offered? I mean, there would be a bunch of premier, top talent, best in the league players lining up to sign those contracts. You come up second every now and then. But those under the radar type of things with a Mike Leake … those kinds of things are what makes teams win… we know that we don’t need much. We just need a piece here, a piece there and we need to see what those young players can do too. This gives us a chance to see what these young players can do. And we’re going to be very dangerous playing from a position of underdog.”

Thanks for reading … and for listening.