I'm more than a little surprised by the reaction of some to the signing of Adam Wainwright to a contract extension by the Cardinals.
There's a group of folks who think the deal is just too much money. Not just compared to what people in the real world make to do their real jobs. But relative to other major league starting pitchers.
Wainwright's deal ranks him 12th amongst major league starting pitchers in average annual contract value and 43rd in terms of the largest deals in MLB history. But his contract is for five years relative to his younger peers who've signed deals for six, seven and eight years. Typically, when a player gets a shorter deal, the AAV goes up. Wainwright got a lower average over a lesser number of seasons, yet this is something to complain about?
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Much has been made about the fact that Wainwright is in his second season following Tommy John surgery. Is this new? Besides Adam Wainwright, current Cardinals Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Chris Carpenter have all had the procedure. And before the stat crunchers freak out about the Carpenter deal... His elbow is just fine. It's his shoulder that has put his career on the verge of its end. While there is always a chance of a freak situation, Tommy John surgery has become about as routine these days as having your tonsils taken out.
Maybe it's not new school enough thought procedure for some folks. But it's pretty common knowledge that pitchers typically take two years to come back 100 percent from elbow ligament replacement surgery. So, in my book, his 2012 season showed a remarkable bounce back and he should be the usual Cy Young candidate he was before the surgery this year. The reasons are simple: Waiwright's back in his routine, he's got his arm strength built back up and he's got his feel for his pitches back after a year layoff. But guys who have never thrown a ball before are quick to claim that because he didn't come back last season in April like nothing ever happened that the end is nigh.
And that leads me to the biggest thing about this deal that the bean counters and number crunchers don't get -- which, thank goodness, the owners and front office types of the Cardinals do: Leadership and intangibles are important factors to the success of a team.
Anyone who has seen the Redbirds work out knows that, with Carpenter gone from the clubhouse, Adam Wainwright is the undisputed leader of the pitching staff. A lot has been made of the fact that the club has so many good young arms that it doesn't even need Wainwright. As if any kid off the turnip truck who can throw 95 miles an hour is capable of beating another major league club's ace any given day of the week -- or in the deciding game of a playoff series. But Wainwright was pretty clear during his contract press conference that he's a much better pitcher because Chris Carpenter mentored him when he was a youngster. So why is it such a stretch to understand that Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha will be better pitchers with Wainwright to mentor them?
The Cardinals have had a pretty obvious plan on keeping a veteran who knows how to win a war on the staff to lead the younger pitchers and teach them how to maximize their talent. Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Carpenter and now Wainwright have worn that mantle.
If Wainwright had left, the Cardinals would have had a tremendous leadership vacuum at in the pitching staff. And it would be extremely difficult to replace it by importing or trading for a veteran pitcher who had no credibility with his teammates when he walked in the door. Plus, a trade would have cost the team some of its much ballyhooed young talent. So keeping Wainwright was certainly the most sensible path to take. And, as long as it was financially reasonable to keep him, that's what the club was going to do.
Wainwright could have easily made the case that he deserved $127.5 million over five seasons like Matt Cain. Wainwright is 80-48 with a 3.15 ERA over the course of his career while Cain is 85-78 with a 3.27 ERA.
What's not to like about Wainwright leaving $20 million on the table?
If he would have hit the open market, someone would have paid the guy every single report I've read on the subject projected to be the top free agent pitcher available over the 2013-14 offseason.
And my final point: While baseball fans typically root for the name on the front of the players' jerseys, the name on the back isn't without importance. Players and owners can claim baseball is a "business." But it's ludicrous to claim that fans don't connect with individual players. The only reason Cardinals fans would have accepted for seeing Wainwright be allowed to leave was that he was just too expensive.
When I heard the news about Wainwright's new deal I was sitting in a group of several Cardinals coaches, fans and a broadcaster at a hotel in Jupiter. And to a person they seemed like they were pleasantly surprised by the terms of the contract when they were revealed.
Every deal has risks. But this was an offer the Cardinals couldn't refuse.