Adam Wainwright made his first “start” in what could be a year full of both starts and stops. Of course he’s still over a month away from his first meaningful appearance of the year, but these days, not much he says or does is without meaning.
With the high stakes nature of his ongoing contract negotiations hanging over his 6’7” frame, the comparison machine is going crazy in a wild attempt to get a grasp on what a long-term extension for the Cardinals’ ace would look like. Would it be a rather short-term, balanced money deal in the nature of the one Yadier Molina received last spring? Or would it be an extensive, full career (and then some) style deal, such as the one Albert Pujols ultimately received…elsewhere?
The expectation that the pact would be the largest team history isn’t a far fetched idea. In reality, it’s very much a fact. And the best comparison possible is one that is drawn from the terms that the current holder of that distinction agreed to: Matt Holliday.
Holliday turned 29 just days before signing his seven-year, $120 million deal back in 2009. This is was a mid prime deal for him that also would carry him likely through the remainder of his career. It also became the winter’s biggest deal, despite him likely passing on more lucrative offers from the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. It also came during a time when there was rapid contract growth around him, with Jason Bay, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez all recently receiving long-term deals.
This is nearly the exact scenario that Wainwright is placed in right now. He is 31 years old right now, and would be 32 by the end of the year. Yet, the starting pitching position is the middle of a massive salary push, with large scale deals going out to Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez over the past year. If he was to hit the free agent market, he would instantly become among the most sought after free agents available. He stacks up very well in a class that features Matt Garza, Josh Johnson and Tim Lincecum, each of which will also be over 30 years old by the winter. Basically, Wainwright is running out of contractual obligation at a perfect time for his causes.
But what does the organization have to consider? There is much to be considered in how the team has approached its recent dealing, but also many parallels to pull away as well. The differences from the Pujols deal are numerous. In Pujols’ case, he had been playing a far lower rate than his performance would indicate for many years. And while he entered the market a similar age, his value took on historic connotation, not a superb prime for a top-tier performer, which is what Wainwright is, much like Holliday was. In the case of Molina, he took a shorter term extension, which will carry him into his late 30’s. Yet he still didn’t push for every dollar that he could have on the open market, and likely would have earned if he waited a few months.
The differences between the Pujols and Molina deals are clear, but there some similarities as well. All indications are leaning towards Wainwright wants a guarantee on the length of the deal, which was something they balked at with Pujols. The Cardinals have taken a pretty strong stance against signing over the low-to-late 30’s bridge. It was a balk in their offer to Pujols, and both Molina and Holliday’s deals would expire at ages 35 and 37, respectively. If Wainwright is seeking a deal that is comparable in length to either Cain or Hamels, the balance in length would be six years. This would carry him to his 38th birthday, and most likely into a scenario where is paid past his prime and into his decline years. The ability to avoid doing this; and have been able to sign many players to their exact prime years and escaping the decline as it approaches. This is a primary factor for what has kept the small market Cardinals with the ability to field the financially flexible roster it has for so many years.
It doesn’t seem that Wainwright would push to hamstring the financial competitiveness of the team, but he has acknowledged that a lowered value deal isn’t likely. In comparison to his last deal he signed at age 26, his focus has changed, “I’m in a different place from last deal. My family is set up, and I’m looking at different things,” he stated last month regarding his desires for this contract. These are the words of a man that is looking towards the future, his own.
And as always, the organization will do what’s best for its future as well, financially and competitively. Both sides will be forced to concede a portion of their absolute interests to find a deal here. While the Cardinals have proven to be resistant to extreme concession (as the Pujols dealings showed), and prefer shorter term commitment (as they proved with Molina) they also have shown that when the situation requires it, as proved with Holliday, they will throw caution to the wind and compete over the long term.