As another offseason of eye-poppingly large free-agent contracts begins to wind down, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves in an unfortunate, yet familiar situation as one of their biggest stars heads into the final year of his contract.
The Cardinals co-ace is headed into the final year of his six-year, $59.4-million contract. That number is almost laughably low for a Cy Young Award quality pitcher with a career 80-48 record, 3.15 ERA. In the past year, pitchers with less impressive numbers have signed contracts nearly triple the size of Wainwright’s current deal.
The San Francisco Giants signed Matt Cain in April to a six-year, $127.5-million extension. That was, of course, before he had a career season that included starting the All-Star Game and pitching a perfect game June 13 against the Houston Astros. The Los Angeles Dodgers also recently signed former Cy Young winner Zack Grienke to a six-year, $147-million contract. And those are just the big-name pitchers.
Even mediocre pitchers got paid big bucks this offseason. The Detroit Tigers signed Anibal Sanchez, who has a career 48-51 record and 3.75 ERA, to a five year contract worth $80 million. The Chicago Cubs were in the hunt for Sanchez, but they quickly turned around and gave Edwin Jackson, a 70-71 career pitcher with a 4.40 ERA, a four-year, $52-million deal.
If those types of pitchers are getting around $15 million per year, a pitcher with Wainwright’s record could honestly be looking at the possibility of a contract that pays him closer to $30 million than $20 million per year. That’s one heck of an investment.
The Pujols situation blew up in Spring Training of 2011 when Pujols cut off contract negotiations, and that issue lingered throughout the entire season. Pujols, of course, ended up signing with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for 10 years and $254 millions the following offseason.
The Cardinals avoided a similar situation with catcher Yadier Molina when they gave him a five-year, $75-million contract extension in Spring Training before the 2012 season even began.
If the Cardinals and Wainwright don’t reach a deal before the 2013 season starts, the unrest in St. Louis concerning the team’s best pitcher will build and build whether Wainwright pitches great or pitches poorly.
The Cardinals have plenty of incentives to get a deal done quickly, but Wainwright could play the system and cash in at the end of next season. The Cardinals would likely be able to sign Wainwright at a cheaper price now because no other teams are currently able to offer him contracts, and if Wainwright pitches great in 2013, that will also drive up his price.
The team’s other co-ace, Chris Carpenter, currently holds the record as the highest-paid pitcher in Cardinals history. He signed a five-year, $63-million contract in 2006.
Like it or not, the Cardinals need to be prepared to shatter that record with Wainwright because the price for good starting pitchers continues to skyrocket. It’s not impossible to think Wainwright could sign the largest pitcher’s contract in the history of the game, exceeding the seven-year, $161-million contract the New York Yankees gave CC Sabathia before the 2009 season began.
Otherwise, St. Louis baseball fans might spend next Christmas bemoaning the fact that one of the best pitchers in franchise history moved on to take a huge sum of money somewhere else.
After Pujols’ departure in December 2011, that’s probably a Christmas story few Cardinals fans would want to relive.
Correction: a previous version of this article claimed Adam Wainwright was a former Cy Young Award winner. That has since been corrected.