ST. LOUIS – As Adam Wainwright prepares for his final season, it’s worth looking back at his path to becoming a St. Louis Cardinals ace.
Exactly nineteen years ago Tuesday, on Dec. 13, 2003, the Cardinals acquired Wainwright in a five-player trade with the Atlanta Braves.
The Cardinals sent over former first-round draft pick J.D. Drew and backup catcher/utility fielder Eli Marrero for young starting pitcher Jason Marquis, southpaw reliever Ray King and then Double-A pitching prospect Wainwright.
Although the trade presented some risk for both teams from the start, it looked to be one that could work to the benefit of both clubs at the time. The Braves entered the offseason with nine consecutive NL East titles, but fell victim to first-round exits three times in the new millennium and felt the need for upgrades. Meanwhile, the Cardinals noticed some regression in 2003 and wanted to bolster their depth for upcoming seasons, particularly in pitching.
Atlanta lost longtime slugger Gary Sheffield to the Yankees in free agency, and their front office saw an increasing need to find a corner outfielder to stay competitive. Unsatisfied with other options available in free agency, the Braves coveted the southern-Georgia native Drew.
Then 28 years old, Drew was near his athletic prime and showed strong upside with the Cardinals (18.1 WAR over six seasons). However, injuries plagued him early in his career. St. Louis seemed willing to move on just before Drew’s walk year, especially with three MVP caliber players in Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen.
Atlanta took a gamble on Drew. But as the old adage goes, “you have to give to get.” That included two depth pitchers in Marquis and King, but more notably, top pitching prospect Adam Wainwright.
“Adam is our No. 1 pitching prospect and that was tough to do, but under the circumstances we had no choice,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz told the Associated Press at the time.
“There were a couple deals we could have done,” then-Cardinals general manager Jocketty told AP while other teams asked the Cardinals about Drew. “We just felt this was the best overall for us.”
Wainwright, a fellow Georgia native and first-round pick in 2000, had decent, but not jaw-dropping campaigns in the minor leagues at the time. The Braves, while loaded with former All-Stars like John Smoltz, Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz, understood the risk in losing a revered prospect like Wainwright. After negotiations, Atlanta and St. Louis agreed to the deal.
Initially, it looked like a steal on behalf of the Braves. Drew turned in his finest season as a major-leaguer in 2004, leading Atlanta with 31 home runs, finishing second with 93 RBIs and fourth with a .305 batting average, all for a 8.3 WAR rating. On the flip side, Marquis and King performed above expectations with the Cardinals in 2004, but Wainwright had an unlucky minors season with a 5.54 ERA and a season-ending elbow strain.
The tides turned quickly after the regular season. Atlanta won the NL East again, but was once again eliminated in the first round of playoffs in 2004. Meanwhile, the Cardinals rode three Top-5 MVP finishing seasons (Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen), along with steady contributions from Marquis, King and many others to the 2004 World Series, though came short of a tenth title at the time.
Drew, like Sheffield the year before, departed from Atlanta in free agency and cashed in on his career year. He earned a five year, $55 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Atlanta then, somewhat unexpectedly, traded Marrero after a solid season in a platoon role (.320 batting average, 10 home runs) to the Kansas City Royals.
By 2005, the Braves lost both players of the trade, and the best was yet to come for the Cardinals. Marquis and King turned in productive seasons again, and Wainwright pitched his way to an MLB debut in September.
We all know what comes next. Wainwright clinches the 2006 World Series for St. Louis with a strikeout, nearly reaches 200 career wins and breaks MLB’s all-time starting battery record with Yadier Molina. Even better, he still has one season to add to his legacy.
Marquis left the Cardinals after 2006, and King after 2005. None of the other four players from the Wainwright trade played in the majors past 2015. Drew, who many considered to be the headliner of the trade at the time, retired in 2011 after dealing with more injury setbacks and a gradual decline in production.
Drew finished his career with 242 home runs, 1,437 hits and .278 batting average. He also earned an All-Star selection with the Boston Red Sox in 2008 after opting out of his Dodgers deal in 2006. Respectable results, but nowhere near the prolonged impact of Adam Wainwright.
Safe to say, the Cardinals have no regrets.