Let me start by saying this: I love Adam Wainwright. He’s a St. Louis Cardinal, through and through. A Cardinal’s Cardinal, representing everything we love about the organization. He has a terrific work ethic, is by all accounts a stellar teammate and he is deeply competitive. Oh, he also has the capacity to throw the filthiest 12-6 curveball in the National League. If you disagree, I’m sure Carlos Beltran would back me up.
With that being said, it might be time to consider parting ways with one of the faces of the franchise.
Wainwright first came to the Cardinals in the epic J.D. Drew trade in December of 2003 at age 22. He made his big league debut in 2005 and pitched in relief throughout 2006 until he took over the closer role when Jason Isringhausen went down with a hip injury in September. Wainwright firmly embedded his place in Cardinals lore when he struck out the aforementioned Beltran with the bases loaded to end the NLCS, and again when he rang up Brandon Inge to give the Cardinals their 10th world championship. Since then, aside from 2011 when he missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright has been a staple in the rotation. He has averaged 15 wins and almost 200 innings per season.
So Wainwright is certainly worth a large paycheck. My question would be, is he worth it to the Cardinals?
The Redbirds will open 2013 with a big league payroll in the range of $115 million. Let’s say next year they break camp with a similar figure, give or take $5 million. Wainwright’s extension would figure to cost the team somewhere in the $18-20 million dollar a season range. Can the Cardinals afford to pay 1/6th of their payroll to one pitcher? Even if Wainwright wins 15 games and puts up a 3.00ish ERA, would that justify that kind of payday? They are a relatively frugal organization that has virtually no history of ever giving a player over 30 a long term deal (see Pujols, Albert). I can’t imagine $20 million a year being a comfortable figure for the Cardinals to sign Wainwright. This is especially true considering that Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are already scheduled to eat a fourth of the payroll in 2014. If Wainwright signs at a conservative $18 million a year, you’re talking about $50 million dollars committed to three players. Let us not forget also that hometown hero David Freese and RBI machine Allen Craig will be eligible for arbitration in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Cardinals also have a laundry list of cheap, young prospects on the horizon that project as starters.
Another cause for concern is that we still don’t know if he will ever be Adam Wainwright circa 2009-10 again, when he won a combined 38 games with an ERA of 2.53. His career arc reminds me of another Cardinal I grew up watching. Where do I start the comparisons? Like Wainwright, He’s a tall and lanky right-hander, a former 20 game winner, and was battle-tested in the playoffs. Also like Wainwright, he threw a moving low-90’s fastball, a sickening 12-6 curveball, and a deceptive changeup. He pitched out of the bullpen early in his career and was a two time all-star, just like Wainwright. I’m talking, of course, about Matt Morris. Morris became a free agent at about the same point in his career. In the five seasons leading up to and including Morris’ walk year, he won 79 games, a difference from Wainwright of one game, and posted an ERA of 3.83 to Wainwright’s 3.15. Over that same period they had a difference in innings pitched of 4. Unfortunately, past production does not always indicate future performance. After signing a lucrative deal with The San Francisco Giants in December 2005, he had a down year in 2006, was traded to baseball purgatory in 2007 (The Pittsburgh Pirates), and made five starts in 2008 before deciding to hang ‘em up for good after being released with an ERA over 9.00.
The Cardinals have made smart baseball decisions by spreading the wealth among the roster and creating stability within the organization over the past few years. The money Wainwright could command might be better spent on guys like Craig, Freese, and Jon Jay. There’s always the chance Wainwright ages gracefully and puts up all-star caliber numbers over the next few years, but for every Matt Cain-sized contract, a possible Matt Morris-sized return lurks around the corner.