Cards lock up Adam Wainwright

After an offseason of uncertainty around Adam Wainwright’s future with the Cardinals, the team put that to rest today, introducing Wainwright’s new deal. The team’s number one pitcher put ink on a reported 5 year, $97 million extension that will keep the 31 year old righthander in Cardinal red through 2018. He’ll be 37 the next time he’s scheduled for free agency.

The deal means that he’ll keep pitching to the guy pictured with him, Yadier Molina, for at least the next five years. Molina signed his own five year extension last offseason now making it two years in a row the team has sealed up it’s biggest pending free agent to a longterm extension, spoiling the thoughts of those who figured letting Albert Pujols walk was a sign of things to come for the team.

The new deal will pay Wainwright $19.5 million per year in average annual value and begin in the 2014 season. When you consider the deals that top caliber pitching have been getting in free agency, you have to think that Wainwright left an awful lot on the table in negotiations. The opinion of many is that if he were to turn in a Wainwright-like season this year, he could have easily grabbed $23-25 million per year in free agency.

Wainwright, who established himself as the team’s ace in 2010, ended up missing the entire 2011 season after needing Tommy John surgery in February. He returned in 2012 a little rough at the beginning and maybe a little fatigued at the end, but he put together a 19 start stretch that was as good as anyone in baseball. With as routine as Tommy John surgery has become, one has to think we’ll see far more that 19 start Wainwright than the one from the other 13 starts he made.

Many don’t like the deal, thinking it was unnecessary with the amount of highly touted pitching the organization has coming through the system. Guys like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, just to name a few. They are on their way and a whole lot cheaper than $19.5 million.

The problem with that is that you really are gambling with guys who have never pitched in the major leagues. Especially a guy like Michael Wacha who pitched a grand total of 21 professional innings last year and probably never saw the same batter twice. The major league game is a game of adjustments and counter-adjustments. I expect them all to turn into good players, but at worst the signing of Wainwright allows you to free up one of those prospects for a potential trade. And when it comes down to it, I think the odds are much higher that Wainwright pitches at a high level for the next six years than one of those prospects duplicating that performance.

I also think that most of the most underestimated things about this deal is that it allows the younger pitchers to grow into their roles. A guy like Shelby Miller won’t be pressured to be the team’s ace. He now gets to be simply as good as he can be and leave that whole being “the guy” thing to Wainwright. It takes that spotlight off the young guys and puts it on Wainwright, a guy who has been there and done that, and is far less likely to crumble while in it.

You also have a veteran player who can provide peer-to-peer leadership and instruction to the younger pitchers, something that I think is extremely valuable to an organization. Someone who can be the guy to watch and learn from about how to be a big league pitcher, how to prepare, and how to make sure your body’s ready to go when your name gets called. As Kevin Reynolds put it on our UCB Radio Hour last night, organizations spend tons of money trying to develop and instill leadership and here’s a guy who already has it.

And to revisit the idea of freeing up a prospect for trade, I’ve argued since last year that Mozeliak wasn’t going to be trading any of our high quality pitching prospects until we had answers about Adam Wainwright’s long-term contract status and Jaime Garcia’s health. Wainwright is now signed and Garcia has pitched well so far this spring so it becomes more and more likely that we can use one of those trade chips, or assets as Mozeliak likes to call them, to maybe solve one or more of our other holes.

Overall I think the deal is good for Adam Wainwright and great for the St. Louis Cardinals. They now have their best pitcher locked in at a seemingly discounted rate for the next six years. That is a big positive for the club.

Now lets just hope Wainwright doesn’t experience the new extension hangover.