Ever since he relieved an aging, ailing Jason Isringhausen (and shut down now-teammate Carlos Beltran on a curveball that cast a loop the Apollo 13 astronauts would've been proud of) on the way to the Cardinals first world championship in 24 years, Adam Wainwright has been one of my favorite players. Tall, handsome, humble, Adam is very easy to like.
Supplying 22.9 fWAR in 1000+ innings makes him even easier to like.
Only one pitcher has been worth more fWAR in fewer innings since 2007 - Clayton Kershaw. Even having missed almost a season and a half in that time to the DL, Wainwright is still the 16th best pitcher by fWAR in the 2007-12 period. By ERA, he's the 8th best among qualified starters in that period; by FIP, 14th; by xFIP, 20th. His health setbacks - a torn pulley tendon in 2008 and a snapped UCL that required TJ surgery in 2011 - have been frustrating for a team that sorely needed his arm. Even if that 2011 thing worked out okay in the end. In 2012, his season began with a frustrating string of bad outcome starts, amassing a 7.32 ERA through April.
His starts were marked by an absurd home run rate: more than 2 homers for every nine innings he pitched, with almost 30% of the balls in the air going over the wall. For reference, 37% of the pitches hit in the 2012 Home Run Derby left the park. At the same time, however, his K and BB numbers looked normal, even excellent. He carried an April 2.99 xFIP and was striking out 24% of the batters he faced, all while the balls hit were carrying at a Derbyesque rate.
Let the record reflect that any words starting with the letter "L" and rhyming with "puck" have yet to appear in this article. Suffice to say this home run trend was unsustainable or unlikely to continue. And history bore this out. After April, Wainwright had his share of shaky starts, but his home run rate more or less normalized. He finished the season with peripheral stats - outside the home run rate - very much in line with his career norms, an FIP of 3.10 and an xFIP of 3.23. ERA was less forgiving of his early struggles, an elevated BABIP, and a low left-on-base rate, leaving him with a 3.94 ERA, by far the worst of his career to date.
Wainwright will be entering free agency after the 2013 season. As one of the most talented starters out there, Adam can expect a multiple-year, high-AAV contract. As a starter with multiple serious surgeries in his past, Adam can expect a slightly less enthusiastic response from the open market (assuming he reaches it) than a similar pitcher with a clean health record. What would such a pitcher with a clean health record look like?
Well, Matt Cain - if you believe his continuing defiance of FIP's predictiveness - would be the upside of healthy Adam Wainwright. Cain has a career 3.27 ERA and 3.65 FIP, while Wainwright has a career 3.15 ERA and 3.31 FIP. earlier this year, Cain, who was owed $15m for 2012 on his prior contract, signed a 6 year, $127.5M contract (for a net gain of $112.5M and 5 years). Nobody is going to give Adam 6 years; for one, his surgical history makes it improbable. For another, Cain was entering his age 28 season, while Wainwright will be entering his age 32 season.
At the other end of the spectrum, Jake Peavy just signed a 2 year, $29m extension with the White Sox. Peavy is only 3 months older than Wainwright, but his surgical history is much more fraught. His post-surgical performance - at least by peripherals - looks a lot more troubling too. Peavy put up a 3.37 ERA, but only a 3.73 FIP and a 4.00 xFIP in 2012; in 2011, he had the reverse problem with a terrible ERA (4.92) and much better peripherals (3.21 FIP and 3.52 xFIP).
Clearly, these two cases define the absurd extreme lows and extreme highs of what Wainwright could expect. He'll get more than 2 years, and fewer than 6. He'll get more than a $14.5M AAV and less than $21M. Of course, that range is enormous, but it's a starting point. In the 2011-12 offseason, CJ Wilson got a 5-year, $77.5M deal from the free-spending Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, despite having only 2 (admittedly great) seasons under his belt as a starter. Wilson is a worse pitcher than Adam, but I wonder if GMs will really look at such an outlandish deal as a model.
Also in the 2011-2012 offseason, Mark Buehrle got a 4 year, $58M deal from the Marlins, entering his age 33 season. While he has a great health record and serves as an innings eater, he is a far worse pitcher than Adam, with a career 3.82 ERA and 4.14 FIP. Throw into the mix the fact that Miami's spending was simply crazy this off-season, and I don't know that this example really helps us much. Previously, the Marlins had also given health question mark Josh Johnson a four-year contract, buying out his last two years of arbitration eligibility, and paying him $13.75M for each of his two free agent years.
Josh Beckett scored a deal with the Red Sox in 2011 (his age 31 season) for 4 years, at $15.75M per. For some reason, the same Red Sox one year earlier gave John Lackey a 5 year, $82M deal going into his age 32 season.
That's a smattering of starting pitching contracts spanning a range of ages and health statuses in recent history. I doubt that Mozeliak will let himself be held to the standards of contracts at the more absurd end of that spectrum, like Lackey's contract. I'd be surprised to see Adam get an AAV of less than $15M, and I'd be disappointed to see the club offer him more than 4 years. With the volume of good to really good pitching rising through the system, watching Adam Wainwright in his decline phase - as fond as I am of him - is just not that attractive to me. 3y/$54M, or 4y/$64M seem about right to me.
Only three pitchers listed here got better than $16m in AAV - Wilson, Cain, and Lackey. Of those three, two (Wilson and Cain) were significantly younger than Wainwright, and one (Lackey) was a flagrantly bad overpay. Nevertheless, I think teams will be less concerned about paying Wainwright $17-18M per year, and more concerned about the contract length. In considering his contractual options, remember that we already have Adam on the hook for 2013 for $12M. Much of his surplus value will likely amass next year, when he's ours for far below market value and one year closer to his peak.
Considering the contract as a whole will inflate the apparent value of the contract. A 4 year, $64M extension will really get us 3 more seasons for $52M more. Before he rejects a 4y/$64m offer from the Cardinals, he should ask carefully if he'll get better than a 3y/$52m offer from another club after the 2013 season. I could probably be persuaded to come up on the $64m number for the 4 year contract, but I'd really fight anything longer than four years. Few pitchers age well into their mid-30s. Most of the more generous contracts I've listed here read more like cautionary tales than triumphs.
As we saw this year with Albert Pujols, sometimes the trick is knowing when to let go.