Wainwright Deal Makes More Than Just Fiscal Sense

Throughout spring training, Chris Duncan and I agreed in “The Fast Lane” that the most applicable comparable for Adam Wainwright as he negotiated a new contract with the Cardinals would be the first five years of Matt Cain’s new contract with the Giants. That deal, signed last year, calls for Cain to get a straight $20 million for this year through 2017.

Wainwright’s deal, as you know, is for five years and $97.5 million. Wainwright is three years older than Cain, and his new deal goes through 2018. But what could the Cardinals have expected had they allowed Wainwright to get to free agency? Some people think the Cardinals gave him too many years, but were they going to get him for a shorter-term contract under those circumstances?

Zach Greinke, who’s two years younger than Wainwright, got a six-year, $147 million dollar deal from the Dodgers this offseason. Greinke has a Cy Young trophy, and Wainwright doesn’t. But who’s the better pitcher? For 162-game averages, Wainwright has turned in a 3.15 ERA, 200 innings, 169 strikeouts, 56 walks and a 1.211 WHIP. Wainwright averages 15 wins a year, and has had seasons of 20 and 19 wins. Greinke’s 162-game averages: 3.77 ERA, 202 innings, 180 K’s and 51 walks, with a 1.247 WHIP. Are we to think someone wouldn’t value Wainwright as much as Greinke, who, by the way, has averaged 12 wins a year and whose career high is 16? Cliff Lee was 34 when Philadelphia signed him to a five-year, $120 million deal in 2010. You have to believe Wainwright’s value would be at least similar to Lee’s, and that someone would have offered at least what the Cardinals gave him had he reached the open market.

My thought process with this deal wasn’t necessarily about what I thought Wainwright is worth, but what others in baseball would think. And they see what he does, and put value on that.

I know the sabermetric crowd doesn’t like to hear it, but Wainwright provides value beyond just what he does on the mound. He leads the staff, and is a major presence in the clubhouse. He’s someone the Cardinals can feel comfortable with in big games (yes, it’s true – not all games are created equal), and can match up with other No. 1 starters in the National League. Is there anyone on the team or in the system that you’re 100 percent confident about sending to the mound against Cain this year or next?

Wainwright influences young players by teaching them how to be professionals, how to go about their business on and off the field, and how to be a member of the community. And he’s a guy who has professed his love for St. Louis, and his pride in being a Cardinal. When a guy who feels that way is influencing your young players, there isn’t a price you can put on it.

In 2018, when this contract ends, Wainwright will turn 37. He’ll have a lot of miles. But he keeps himself in great shape and may provide a level of effectiveness even then. If he doesn’t provide great physical offerings, he can be like Chris Carpenter, who convinced Lance Lynn to lose weight last season and helped youngsters like Trevor Rosenthal by teaching his workout regimen.

But the key with Waino is 2014. Did you really want to hold off on giving Wainwright his market value now and lose him in free agency? That would allow you to start a group of Jaime Garcia, Lynn, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Rosenthal or Joe Kelly next season. Who’s your No. 1 in that group? Who do you pitch on opening day? Who’s your leader?

Bill DeWitt Jr. and the Cardinals have earned the benefit of the doubt from me. I like having a core of players that includes Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig, and then building around them. The Cardinals, as I’ve mentioned, have a plan – and I think it’s a good one.

So, if you were hoping the Cardinals would let premium performance and leadership walk out the door next year so DeWitt could save some money in 2017 and 2018, you’re entitled to that opinion. But with the departure of Chris Carpenter, this franchise was desperate to keep the key to its pitching staff and the ace of its rotation. And to get him for less than $20 million a year is below market value. It’s an excellent deal for the Cardinals, on the field and off.