Less than a week before he takes the opening day mound for the Birdos, Adam Wainwright has signed a five-year extension with a value that sets a record for Cardinals pitchers, but shies away from the stratospheric numbers awarded to other pitchers this off-season, like Zack Greinke.
Adam Wainwright has long been an outstanding pitcher. Though recently the subject of Tommy John surgery (and previously sidelined by a pulley tendon injury), Adam has been a stalwart portion of the St. Louis rotation.
From 2007-2012, Adam put up 21.9 WAR as a pitcher, 16th overall for pitchers in that era. With Adam having missed a full season to TJ surgery, only phenom Clay Kershaw put up more value in fewer innings during those years.
From 2007-2012, Adam had a 3.30 FIP, good for 14th among all qualified starting pitchers in those years (although not as good as rotation-mate Jaime Garcia, who is 11th with a 3.27 FIP in those years: raise your hand if that just blew your mind).
I think the Cardinals' offer is probably in that uncertain space between a fair deal and an amount that makes me uncomfortable. I feared much worse. I was afraid that the Zack Greinke and Matt Cain talk would push the contract beyond five years and far above $100m.
I have a lot of fears about Adam's likelihood of putting up good numbers long into his thirties. If you dial back my inquiry about the top pitchers just two years, here's who comes out as the top 10-20 best pitchers of 2005-2010 by WAR:
Among those guys, Brandon Webb was already out of baseball after 2009. Vasquez pitched in 2011 and may be retired. Beckett and Lincecum both had a solid 2011 and looked lost in 2012. Pettitte only appeared for 75 innings. Buerhle had his worst season ever in 2012. Greinke has been outstanding. Peavy has been very good. Carpenter was excellent in 2011 and was almost totally derailed by injury in 2012. Burnett looked weak in 2011 but had a fine season in Pittsburgh last year. Lowe was barely average in 2011 and below average in 2012.
I cite these cases to show that, especially for pitchers, even multiple seasons of good performance are no assurance of continued good health and performance. As much as I like Adam, long-term bets on continued pitcher health and performance tend to be losers.
Other cautionary tales figuring in the top 20 pitchers by WAR from 2005-2010: Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana, Dan Haren, Roy Halladay (who I am increasingly convinced will continue his decline), and John Lackey.
Now, there are also good stories in that top 20: Greinke, Peavy, Sabathia, Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Cliff Lee. But I think the success stories among that top 20 are surprisingly rare, especially just 2 years on. I would not want to have many of those pitchers under eight-figure-a-year contract for the next three years.
Of the #10-20 pitchers listed above, only Greinke, Peavy, and Beckett were worth 6 WAR or better in 2011 and 2012. Pitchers #1-#9 fared much better, although Santana, Lackey, and Oswalt also failed to amass 6 WAR in 2011 and 2012.
The very youngest in that group - some who are younger than Adam - were the ones most likely to succeed. Few of the older pitchers in that cohort put up 6+ WAR total in 2011-12. As far as I can tell, only Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay were older than 32 (Adam will turn 32 this season) in 2011 and put up 6+ WAR in 2011 and 2012. Otherwise, the successful pitchers were younger than 32 in 2010; top pitchers older than 32 in 2010 have not managed to have consecutive successful seasons.
I hope that Adam hits the upside over the next five years, but I think history shows us that him returning $100m in value over five years is unlikely.