Adam Wainwright is fixing to get paid. He’s under contract for $12 million in 2013, but he likes St. Louis enough that he’ll give them a chance to sign him this offseason, according to Derrick Goold’s Monday piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Finding a comp for his contract talks depends heavily on how you weight his different defining characteristics. Is he just a great pitcher worthy of a contract that should fit in with the current top 25 highest-paid starters? Is he a 31-year-old starting pitcher — is his age most important? Is he a right-hander first and foremost? Is his ground-ball rate more relevant than his pitching mix? Or is it most important that he is signing an extension with his team and not hitting the open market?
Since 2009, Wainwright has accrued the 15th-most wins above replacement among qualified starters. Adding to the accomplishment is that he took a year off in the middle of that stretch. Put Waino among the top 25 starters by salary, and his 16.2 WAR places ninth, so calling for a contract that pays him like C.J. Wilson (tenth on that high-money list by WAR), that seems reasonable. Five years and $78 million?
That seems like a pretty terrible comp on at least one level. Wilson was 32 when he began pitching for the Angels, and the Cardinals’ starter would be the same age in 2014, so the age part holds. But Wilson also threw with his left hand, which sometimes produces a premium in contract talks. Scarcity and all that. He was also a free agent and had all the leverage that comes from talking to anyone that’s interested in your services. Mark Buehrle, sitting just below Wilson on the same list, got four years and $58 million last year before his age-33 season, so he was a year too old and a free agent left-hander to boot.
Move on down the list to a righty and you get Ryan Dempster. He was 32 when his four-year, $52 million extension with the Cubs in 2009. With inflation, that’s not too far from four and 58, or even five and $78. But Dempster was a rare case — he had just one year back in the rotation after four years in the Chicago bullpen. Wainwright’s years in the pen are well behind him. If you get too hung up on comping Wainwright to right-handers, you might fall into the Dempster trap.
Let’s focus on full-time starters that recently signed extensions with their teams, irregardless of handedness. We actually have a decent list of comps in the top 25 salaries at the position if this is our approach: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain have all recently signed extensions while still under contract. Roy Oswalt did too, a few years back with Houston. Jake Peavy could join the list — it’s not like Wainwright doesn’t have an injury asterisk of his own — but his surgery was so unique that it seems iffy to include him. This is a decent list, and we can even separate the lefty from the righties in case that shows us something.
Cole Hamels (lhp)
Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander serve to set the talent ceiling, but their contracts don’t actually help a ton. They both had arbitration years remaining that were factored in, and those served to deflate the overall value of their extensions. Since Cole Hamels blew away his comps, let’s ostracize the lefty.
That leaves us with Jered Weaver, Roy Oswalt, and Matt Cain as Wainwright’s best comps. In today’s money, Oswalt’s extension still comes up short of Weaver’s $86 million, so let’s focus on the more recent extensions which more accurately reflect the state of the baseball market today. Given his Tommy John history, let’s assume the deal doesn’t go six years. Wainwright is probably looking at something short of five years and $86 million — Weaver had him beat in both four-year and two-year WAR totals when he signed his deal before this season began.
It is interesting to see that Adam Wainwright has bested Matt Cain in both four-year and two-year* WAR totals. But Cain has shown a consistent ability to post better results on batted balls than the league does, and if you add in his six wins from balls in play, he zooms to the top of the list in that category. Wainwriht hasn’t really shown that ability so far in his career, despite calling a power-suppressing park home like the Giants’ ace.
Adam Wainwright is a righty who throws a slider, curve and change to complement his 90-ish mph fastball. Jered Weaver is a righty who throws a slider, curve and change to complement his 89-ish mph fastball. While one is more of a ground-ball guy that loves his curve, and the other is more of a fly-ball guy that features his change, both pitch in home parks that suppress offense, to some extent. If Wainwright extends with the Cardinals, they’ll both have signed with their teams before hitting the open market. With Wainwright’s Tommy John surgery as an asterisk, we may have found a match for their upcoming negotiations.