By Cliff Corcoran
When teams sign players to extensions in advance of their free agency, and players agree to those extensions, both sides are managing risk. For teams, that risk comes in making an expensive commitment before getting the full test drive they've been guaranteed by the reserve system. The reward is a discount relative to the market price they'd have to pay for the same player as a free agent or after another season of excellence. For players, it's the opposite, sacrificing a larger payday down the line for long-term security now. Adam Wainwright's new five-year, $97.5 million extension with the Cardinals is a perfect illustration of this balance.
Prior to agreeing to that extension on Wednesday, Wainwright was in position to be the top free agent pitcher on the market this November. There are other big names headed for free agency after this season -- Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson chief among them -- but recent dips in performance and sketchy injury histories are likely to suppress the markets for each. This past offseason, Zack Greinke was the top pitcher on the free agent market and landed a six-year deal worth $147 million despite posting a 3.83 ERA (106 ERA+) over the previous three seasons.
At 29, Greinke was three years younger than Wainwright will be after this season, but it still seems very likely that Wainwright left money on the table by signing early. He also mitigated risk. Wainwright finished in the top three in the Cy Young voting in both 2009 and 2010, but missed the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery and his return season last year was, at least superficially, ordinary as he went 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA (97 ERA+). Wainwright's strong peripherals last year greatly resembled those of his two pre-surgery seasons, combining with a superior performance in the second half of last season to strongly suggest a return to form this year, but if that doesn't happen or another injury, particularly an arm injury, emerges, it could have dropped his price significantly.
So Wainwright and the Cardinals met in the middle. This deal appears modest relative to the record-breaking contracts signed since 2008 by Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Greinke and Felix Hernandez as well as recent extensions signed by younger and thus far injury-free aces (the Giants' Matt Cain: $127.5 million for six years signed last April; the Phillies' Cole Hamels: $144 million for six years signed last July). However, Wainwright's deal is larger than the extensions signed by the arbitration-eligible Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver in 2010 and 2011 or the market-setting free agent contracts signed by lesser but similarly-aged pitchers A.J. Burnett and John Lackey as free agents prior to the 2009 and 2010 seasons (Weaver's $85 million for five years, signed August 2011, being the largest of that bunch).
To me, that looks like a victory for both sides, with the real loser here being the teams that had Wainwright at the top of their list of free agent targets for next winter. Wainwright may be a 31-year-old pitcher with just four fully healthy seasons as a major league starter under his belt, but save for a fluke finger sprain in 2008, his injury history was almost entirely related to his now-repaired ulnar collateral ligament, which he initially sprained in 2004 and which both he and the Cardinals long knew was a ticking time bomb, even before it finally gave out in early 2011.
Wainwright had a fairly typical surgery hangover early last season, but even that was largely an illusion created by some bad luck on balls in play (his opponents had a .339 BABIP over his first 17 starts, after which that figure reverted to a fairly average .300). Nearly everything else about his performance last year, from his velocity and pitch mix to his batted ball types to his strikeout and walk rates was right in line with his pre-surgery peak. Wainwright's extension won't go into effect until next season, but he'll be just 36 when it expires, and Cardinals fans can fully expect him to earn his keep in those five seasons. If you combine last season with his two pre-surgery seasons, Wainwright had a 2.95 ERA (133 ERA+), 1.17 WHIP and 3.50 K/BB ratio while averaging 203 strikeouts and 221 innings per season. He should have several more seasons like that in his future. He may not be a Cy Young contender in every year of his extension, but he should remain a front-of-the-rotation horse. No matter the level of his performance, at an average annual value of $19.5 million per season, Wainwright should have no reason to complain, but if he fulfills those expectations, he will seem like a bargain relative to the league's highest-paid pitchers.