Wainwright comfortable in relief

Wainwright gets comfortable in the bullpen

The short-term conundrum of Adam Wainwright doesn't bother the rookie right-hander. Wainwright has established himself as too valuable to the bullpen of the 2006 Cardinals to be considered for occasional spot-start duty.

It may seem like a good news-bad news deal, but for Wainwright, there's no ambiguity. He's right where he wants to be. From the first moment the Cardinals broached the idea of pitching in relief, Wainwright didn't have to think twice.

"I was pretty adamant about not wanting to go back to the Minors," he said. "I had already told everyone that I would do whatever it takes to get to the big leagues. So there was no hesitation on my part."

Once considered the Cardinals' top prospect, and now considered their most exciting young pitcher, Wainwright entered this spring with an outside shot at winning the No. 5 job in the St. Louis rotation. That job went to Sidney Ponson, but unlike fellow competitor Anthony Reyes, Wainwright stayed in the Majors.

Reyes has been brilliant again at Triple-A Memphis, and he got the call when Ponson missed a start recently due to a DL stint. But the day after that start, Reyes was back in Memphis. Wainwright has not only stayed on the Major League roster all year, he's pitched himself into a valued role in the St. Louis bullpen.

He made his biggest mark to date on Wednesday in San Francisco, when he pitched three innings for the win and hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat. On the first pitch, as a matter of fact.

It was just another sign that Wainwright belongs in the big leagues, and he knows he belongs.

Late in 2005, he got a cup of coffee with the big club, and it didn't go so well. He seemed uncomfortable in relief. He's been anything but uncomfortable this year, though. He's been dominant.

In 15 appearances, he's pitched 22 2/3 innings, allowing 13 hits, four walks, one homer and posting a 1.99 ERA. His 17 strikeouts are tops among St. Louis relievers, and his curveball may be the single most electric pitch in the Redbirds' bullpen.

That matches up with a fastball that has movement, a changeup and a developing cutter to make a pretty fearsome arsenal.

"You can work off the curveball or the fastball," said catcher Gary Bennett. "Either or. He's got a live arm. He's got good movement on his fastball, a good downward plane, and he's got that curveball. They both set each other up."

That wide array of pitches will help Wainwright down the road when he moves back to starting -- which he will do. Like Reyes, Wainwright's future is as a starter.

There may be openings for both of them as soon as 2007. Four of the Cardinals' five starters can be free agents at the end of the '06 season, and it's highly unlikely that all four will return. Whether anyone consciously ponders it or not, Wainwright's 2006 relief campaign is the start of an audition for the 2007 rotation.

"I try not to worry about that," he said. "There's too much stuff going on with free agency and all that stuff. The Cardinals have money to put into some players and I really don't want to worry about it. I can't control it. All I can do is pitch well, and hopefully I'm in the plans for next year."

It's somewhat remarkable, though, that he features as prominently in the club's plans as he already does. His star seemed to be at an apex when he was acquired from Atlanta between the 2003 and 2004 seasons. He immediately took his place atop the list of St. Louis' prospects.

His first year in the St. Louis organization wasn't a good one, though. Wainwright suffered elbow pain and made only 12 starts, and put up a 5.37 ERA. At the same time, Reyes emerged as a sensational prospect in his own right.

When Spring Training 2005 started, Reyes was the darling and Wainwright fell more into the background. That was still the case this spring, but Wainwright pitched his way back to the forefront.

And he's aiming still higher.

"I never paid attention when I was the No. 1 or 2 prospect or whatever when I was over there with the Braves," he said. "But when I came over, and I wasn't the top guy anymore, I think it drove me a little bit. Deep down, I think pitchers all want to be the best. If you're not considered the best, you've got to try to do whatever you can to make sure that you get back on top.

"This offseason, I really put a lot of work in. I was just trying to make myself better and come in with a good mindframe. This year I came in more confident and more prepared than I've ever been."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.