Cardinals need to lock up Wainwright soon

ST. LOUIS – The Cardinals need to pony up and pay Adam Wainwright. Soon.

The club made the right decision to let Albert Pujols leave. They also made the right choice by locking up Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina. Now it’s Wainwright’s turn, and the Cardinals need to do whatever it takes to bring him back as well.

Wainwright has one year remaining on his current contract and is set to become a free agent after next season. He went 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA this past season, his first since missing all of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery.

The former 20-game winner proved he was healthy by pitching a full season in 2012. And now the Cardinals need to talk with him about a long-term contract to stay in St. Louis.

There’s plenty of reasons for the Cardinals to get a deal with Wainwright done now. Here’s a few of them:

1. Another Pujols situation could unfold if the club goes into next season without a new deal in place. If Wainwright gets to free agency, teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Rangers and others would be chomping at the bit to get in a bidding war for one of baseball’s best pitchers. And the Cardinals likely wouldn’t be able to compete.

2. Zack Grienke is a free agent this winter and could set the bar for Wainwright negotiations. Yes, Grienke is two years younger and has a Cy Young Award to his credit, but he also has a career ERA more than a half a run higher than Wainwright’s and has never won more than 16 games in a season. Wainwright has won at least 19 twice. Wainwright should command – and receive – a contract worth more than Grienke. But since the free agent pool for pitchers is rather light this winter, teams might overspend for Grienke and shoot the price even higher for Wainwright.

3. Wainwright is the perfect teammate, perfect ambassador for the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals and has proven to be one of the elite starting pitchers in baseball when healthy. And he proved he’s healthy and fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery by making 32 starts in the regular season and surpassing the 200 innings mark during his first of three playoff starts.

4. The Cardinals will likely lose Chris Carpenter after next season and need Wainwright’s experience and leadership both in the starting rotation and in the clubhouse. The Cardinals have several young and talented arms waiting to slide into the rotation, but a guy like Wainwright will be key in helping them learn and adjust to the big league level. With a group of young starters, the Cardinals need a staple like Wainwright to be here for years to come.

Now the obvious question is how much will it cost to keep Wainwright. And it’s a good one. Giants starter Matt Cain signed a six-year, $127.5 million extension back in April, at the time the second largest contract ever for a pitcher who wasn’t a free agent. Phillies lefty Cole Hamels then set the record in late July, signing a six-year, $144 million extension to remain in Philadelphia.

Is Wainwright better than Cain and Hamels? Well Cain was just 27 at the time of the contract, almost a full four years younger than Wainwright. Cain has a similar career ERA to the Cardinals right-hander but has proven to be more durable, throwing at least 200 innings in each of the past six seasons.

Hamels was 28 when he signed his new deal, three years younger than Wainwright His ERA was comparable but the left-hander proved to be more durable, making at least 31 starts in each of the past five seasons.

Wainwright likely won’t be able to get the total dollars that both Cain and Hamels got. But he may come close in AAV (annual average value). A six-year contract would make Wainwright 37 years old at the conclusion of the deal. That could be a bit risky, given most pitchers show some sort of decline once they reach 35-36 years old.

Cain got an average of $21.25 million for each of his six seasons. Would the Cardinals give Wainwright close to that, but just subtract a year from the deal? How about five years, $105 million? That would give Wainwright an average of $21 million a season, making him one of the highest paid players in all of baseball. Wainwright would have to take that, right?

Sure he may want six years, but I have a hard time finding a team willing to give it to him. Plus if Wainwright signs the deal this offseason, he could rip up the final year of his current contract that would have paid him $12 million and instead take a $9 million raise up to somewhere close of the $21 AAV.

The Cardinals saved tons of money by not retaining Pujols and have expiring contracts to Carpenter, Beltran, Furcal and Westbrook coming off the books after next season as well. They have the money to spend on the right player. And Wainwright is that player.

Asked about Wainwright’s situation last week, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said, “If there’s something we can do long term with him, we would certainly like to consider it but were going to need some time to sort things out.

“We’re under no pressure to do anything. Obviously he’s signed for next year and the good news for us is we have a lot of depth and pitching coming, so knowing that, I don’t feel like we have to rush to do anything.”

The Cardinals don’t have to rush into anything. But if they want to ensure Wainwright stays in St. Louis and at a cost they can afford, they’d benefit greatly from opening up talks with his agent and getting something done in the next few weeks.

This team already lost one superstar player. There’s no reason to make it two.