After pitching coach Dave Duncan transformed Jeff Weaver from a consistent loser into a postseason ace with the 2006 Cardinals, the club wanted him to work similar magic with Kip Wells in 2007. Duncan and Wells were willing. The results, though, were far from the same.
Desperate for starting pitching just a month after winning the 2006 World Series championship, the Cardinals, with Duncan’s endorsement, signed Wells, a free agent, 10 years ago on Nov. 28, 2006.
Wells, 29, agreed to a one-year contract for $4 million. The Cardinals projected him in their 2007 rotation, even though he had produced one winning season among his last seven in the big leagues.
A significant factor in their investment was their faith in Duncan, who had a reputation for bringing out the best in pitchers who had struggled or underperformed.
Since joining the Cardinals in 1996, Duncan, a former catcher, had helped rejuvenate the careers of several starting pitchers, most notably right-handers, including Andy Benes, Kent Bottenfield, Garrett Stephenson, Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan, Chris Carpenter and Weaver.
In 2006, Weaver joined the Cardinals in July after posting a 3-10 record and 6.29 ERA that season with the Angels. Working with Duncan, Weaver gradually improved. He earned three wins for the Cardinals in the 2006 postseason, including the Game 5 World Series championship clincher.
After the season, Weaver and two other Cardinals starting pitchers, Suppan and Jason Marquis, became free agents. Another starter, Mark Mulder, was injured. That left Carpenter and Anthony Reyes as the Cardinals’ only experienced big-league starters.
The Cardinals planned to replenish the rotation by signing free agents. Wells was an immediate target.
Signs of brilliance
Because of a blocked artery in his right shoulder and a foot injury that required surgery, Wells was limited to nine big-league starts in 2006. He was 1-5 with a 6.69 ERA in seven starts for the Pirates before he was traded to the Rangers for pitcher Jesse Chavez on July 31, 2006. Wells made two starts for the Rangers and was 1-0 with a 5.62 ERA.
The Cardinals were familiar with Wells. With the Pirates from 2002-2006 after starting his career with the White Sox, Wells was 2-6 against the Cardinals.
Duncan saw enough skill in Wells as an opponent to determine the right-hander could be a reliable St. Louis starter.
“I always felt like he had great ability and was a very interesting guy to watch,” Duncan said to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There were signs of brilliance and sometimes mistakes that were made that weren’t understandable.”
Said Wells: “I definitely relish the opportunity to get some insight, some wisdom (from Duncan) and further my career and my ability.”
Reaction to the Cardinals’ signing of Wells largely was positive:
_ Bernie Miklasz, Post-Dispatch columnist: “He looks like another low-risk Dave Duncan specialty: a groundball machine, finally healthy and in need of a mid-career tuneup.”
_ Chris Carpenter, Cardinals pitcher: “Getting Kip Wells is a first step. That was a nice first step.”
_ Walt Jocketty, Cardinals general manager: “We got a guy everyone agrees will be very good if he stays healthy.”
_ Randy Hendricks, Wells’ agent: “If Kip does what we and the Cardinals hope, he will be worth a lot more after 2007. So we are betting on each other and the future.”
The Cardinals made aggressive bids for other free-agent starting pitchers, including Jason Schmidt, Miguel Batista and Vincente Padilla (they offered Schmidt, for instance, a three-year contract for $42 million, according to Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch), but were rejected.
So they planned to convert relievers Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright into starters to join Carpenter, Reyes and Wells in the 2007 rotation.
Hard to watch
Wells had a terrible beginning to his 2007 season, losing eight of his first nine decisions. He was 1-8 with a 6.75 ERA after an excruciating performance against the Dodgers on May 16. In that start, Wells threw 125 pitches in five innings. Boxscore
Wrote Strauss: “The Cardinals’ night in the dentist’s chair ended with a root canal gone awry.”
Wells finished with a 7-17 record and 5.70 ERA in 34 appearances, including 26 starts, for the 2007 Cardinals. He yielded 186 hits in 162.2 innings. Wells also gave up the most runs (116) and issued the most walks (78) of any pitcher on the staff.
The 17 losses by Wells are the most by a Cardinals pitcher since Jose DeLeon was 7-19 in 32 starts for the 1990 Cardinals.
By midseason, Duncan “had become frustrated by Wells’ ponderous pace, heavy pitch counts and inability to avoid huge innings,” Strauss reported. “Wells complained that the coaching staff failed to help him improve his mechanics.”
Wells turned out to be a better hitter than he was a pitcher for the Cardinals. He batted .321 (17-for-53). He was used once as a pinch-hitter, producing a RBI-single off Astros reliever Dan Wheeler in the ninth inning of a Cardinals victory on June 1 at Houston. Boxscore
After the season, Wells became a free agent and signed with the Rockies. He was their starting pitcher in the 2008 season opener against the Cardinals at St. Louis.
Though he didn’t get a decision, Wells pitched effectively, holding the Cardinals to one run (a Yadier Molina home run) in 5.1 innings. The Rockies won, 2-1, scoring their runs in the eighth inning off reliever Ryan Franklin. Boxscore
Wells played his final big-league season in 2012 with the Padres. His career major-league record is 69-103 with a 4.71 ERA.
Previously: Why Cards took a chance on Jeff Weaver