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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Knee-Jerk Reactions: Cardinals Extend Adam Wainwright

With less than a week until opening day, the Cardinals finished a last-minute extension with Adam Wainwright, according to Ken Rosenthal. And not just any extension; a massive 5 year, $97.5 million deal. My first instinct was more or less “that’s a lot of money for a 31-year old”, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad deal. But a 31-year old a year removed from Tommy John surgery? Could Wainwright still live up to that deal?


Well, to address the Tommy John surgery: as a pitcher that hasn’t showed an extensive injury in the past, Wainwright should be fine. With another year to recover, he might be even better, in fact. The Cardinals might even deserve extra trust with regards to Wainwright’s medical record, seeing their past success with Tommy John recipients Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.

Has Wainwright’s past performance justified an almost-$20 million salary? The answer is a resounding yes. 2009 and 2010 saw him finish third and second in the Cy Young, respectively. Even last year, his first back from the surgery, was more than solid. For comparison:

In order: Innings Pitched, K/9, BB/9, HR/9, Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), Strand Rate, ERA, and Fielding Independent Pitching
2009: 233.0, 8.19, 2.55, 0.66, .296, 80.4%, 2.63, 3.11
2010: 230.1, 8.32, 2.19, 0.59, .275, 79.1%, 2.42, 2.86
2012: 198.2, 8.34, 2.36, 0.68, .315, 67.8%, 3.94, 3.10

The innings pitched are lower, and he stranded fewer runners while allowing more hits on balls in play, leading to more runs allowed. However, strand rate and BABIP are much more dependent on defense than the pitcher, so he’s been the same pitcher more or less over that time. He’ll probably be able to pick up some of those lost innings now that he’s had more time to recover, meaning that he’ll be even closer to his value from those years. For another look, here’s his Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs) for his past three years: 5.7, 6.1, 4.4. Most of Fangraphs’ projection systems expect him to match those levels for this year, at least.

Speaking of WAR, we can use it to estimate a player’s value. Current estimates are at $5 million a year for one win on the free agent market. That would mean that, at $97.5 million, the Cardinals are paying for about 19.5 Wins over five seasons, or 3.9 WAR per year. Is that reasonable? As mentioned, he was worth around 4.5 last year, and will probably be close to 5 this year. However, this extension doesn’t affect this year; this buys out Wainwright’s 2014 through 2018 seasons. For that time, he’ll be between 32 and 36. That’s a little old to be buying out on a pitcher, in my opinion.

However, as a mitigating factor, the league has experience some fairly large growth in recent years, with accompanying salary inflation. That might decrease the value to something like 18.5 or 19 wins. Maybe that’s overly optimistic, maybe not; I really don’t know what to expect. If everyone follows the Dodgers’ lead, it may go even further down. Teams may also stay at a more constant level of spending, nullifying this. I think the inflation option is more likely, but I still have no idea what amount to expect. Either way, I’m not sure if the Cardinals actually got a discount here.

And really, I guess that’s my biggest problem with this deal: I’m not sure if the rush was totally necessary. The Cardinals already had Wainwright for 2013, and it looks like they gave him a market rate contract. I mean, at any rate, Matt Cain just signed for just over $21 million per year, and the Giants got his late 20s and early 30s. Cole Hamels just got $24 million per year even though his deal runs for his ages 29 through 34 seasons. Would it have been that bad to see how he does as a 31 year old, just in case? Especially with the team’s large amount of promising pitching prospects, between new starter Shelby Miller, reliever and fallback starter Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, among others.

I can’t get too upset about it, though. Prospects come with a certain level of uncertainty, and the team will already be losing (presumably, assuming they don’t take his mutual option) Jake Westbrook, a year after losing Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse too. And there wasn’t a clearly better option in next year’s free agents. Josh Johnson and Matt Garza have as many injury concerns as Wainwright or more. Roy Halladay will be even older than Wainwright when he hits the market. Jason Hammel doesn’t have the track record. Tim Lincecum has the track record, but even more questions. And all of these are assuming all of these players actually make it to free agency, too. Why not go with the player with the higher prior level of performance? Even if he will be older, he’ll probably keep some of that value in the next few seasons.

Even the payroll shouldn’t be too much of an issue. 2013 looks to have a payroll of $112 million, about equal to the 2012 one (and the highest mark in franchise history). After this year, about $54 million will be coming off the books in long-term contracts ($12 million from Wainwright’s current deal, as well as about $8 million from Westbrook, $13 million from Carlos Beltran, $10.5 million from Chris Carpenter, $7 million from Rafael Furcal, and $3 million from Edward Mujica). So maybe half of that money goes towards raises through arbitration and Wainwright’s new deal.

That’s actually not too bad, especially since most of those leaving from free agency should be able to be replaced internally, and therefore, cheaply. Carpenter is already being replaced this season, Westbrook will probably be replaced by one of the earlier mentioned pitching prospects or Joe Kelly, Oscar Taveras is primed to take over for Beltran in the outfield, and a bullpen spot shouldn’t be too difficult to fill. For a team that doesn’t project to have many holes going forward (just shortstop by my reckoning, which they already are trying to fill this year), that $27 million should go a long way.

In all, I guess this is a fair deal. Wainwright will probably be worth pretty close to what he’ll be paid, he’ll provide stability in a time where young pitchers are being tried out, it doesn’t appear that the finances will handicap the team going forward, and he was probably better than any other options that would have been available next offseason anyway. I don’t think it’ll turn into a steal or anything, but barring a precipitous decline from Wainwright in the next few years (something I’m not sure you should worry about too much even given his age, thanks to his track record), it looks solid, and much more reasonable than I thought at first glance.

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