The St. Louis Cardinals enter spring training this week with another star player entering the final year of his contract just two years after the Albert Pujols contract circus. But the Cardinals suddenly have leverage in these negotiations they never got with Pujols.
Adam Wainwright will be a free agent at the end of the season if he and the Cardinals can’t agree on a long-term contract before the end of the season. This sounds similar to the Pujols situation, but the Cardinals should suddenly be more optimistic this time around thanks to an American League team on the West Coast.
The Seattle Mariners are close to signing pitcher Felix Hernandez to a huge contract that could range from five to seven years and $135 million to $175 million. Either way, Hernandez is going to be a very rich man, but he probably helped the Cardinals in negotiations with their own ace pitcher.
Hernandez could make somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million to $27 million annually, which is close to the price tag many people figured it would take to keep Wainwright in St. Louis beyond this season. However, the Cardinals have a few good reasons not to pay Wainwright that much money, or at least not for that long.
See, Hernandez is just 26 years old even though he’s pitched in the big leagues for eight seasons, but he has never had a major arm injury. Wainwright is 31 years old, missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and struggled at times in 2012 to regain his dominant form.
The bigger concern for the Cardinals was when the San Francisco Giants signed righthanded pitcher Matt Cain to a six-year, $127.5-million contract extension before the beginning of the 2012 season. Cain was 27 years old at the time he signed the deal, but he also had a career record of 69-73.
Granted, the deal worked out last year as Cain led the Giants to a World Series title with a 16-5 record and a perfect game along the way, but Wainwright still looked like the better pitcher at the time.
Maybe it’s been good for the Cardinals to let negotiations with Wainwright drag on into the final year. The constant questions about the contract won’t be pleasant if they don’t get a deal done before the season begins, but the Cardinals would’ve certainly had to pay more for Wainwright if they had signed him to an extension two years ago, and probably even last year. There was a chance Wainwright could have made between $25-30 million per year up until the Hernandez deal.
Wainwright could still shoot for that type of money as a free agent in the offseason if he has a Cy Young Award-caliber 2013 season, but teams will likely be much more unwilling to give a 31-year-old pitcher with a history of arm problems more money than a 26-year-old pitcher who has never spent an appreciable amount of time on the disabled list.
Of course, time will determine if the Mariners made the right decision to sign their righthanded star pitcher. Hernandez could have a Cain-type season, or he could turn into Barry Zito, who hasn’t pitched above .500 since the Giants signed him to a $126-million deal in 2007.
No matter the long-term outcome, news of the Hernandez deal should make Cardinals fans more optimistic their team’s own righthanded star pitcher will take the mound at Busch Stadium in a Cardinals uniform to open the 2014 season, and God-willing, several more seasons beyond that.