On July 13, 2011, the Cardinals stood 49-43 in a first place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. the rotation consisted of a 36-year old Chris Carpenter, innings-eaters in Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, Kyle McClellan, and Jaime Garcia, now two years removed from Tommy John surgery. Adam Wainwright was out for the year due to his own Tommy John surgery. Outside of top prospect Shelby Miller, the Cardinals minor leagues was filled with high-end question marks like Tyrell Jenkins, Carlos Martinez, and Trevor Rosenthal as well as potential back-end starters like Lance Lynn, Seth Blair, and Joe Kelly. Jaime Garcia, after earning a year's service time on the disabled list in 2009 was set to become arbitration eligible at the end of the season. As a result, the Cardinals took the prudent course and locked Garcia up long term.
Signing any young pitcher long term is a risk. After signing Garcia, the Cardinals have reaped the rewards and seen the downside of such a contract. At the time of the signing, Garcia looked like a solid number three, perhaps number two pitcher for a playoff contender. After a solid 2010 where he pitched 163 1/3 innings with a 2.70 ERA, 3.41 FIP, and 2.7 fWAR, he pitched well again in the first half of 2011. At the All-Star Break, Garcia had pitched 117 1/3 innings, struck out three times as many batters as he walked, posted a 3.22 ERA, and a FIP of 3.05. Garcia, making less than $500,000 at the time, gave up one, and potentially three free agent years in exchange for a guaranteed $27 million.
Many other pitchers were in the same boat as Garcia near that time. Some, like Trevor Cahill and Clay Buchholz, had already signed extensions. Others, like Clayton Kershaw, waited and cashed in this offseason, while Max Scherzer and Justin Masterson are potential free agents. As all these pitchers head into what would have been their walk years we can take a look back and see how much teams paid for their young pitchers, how much they received in return, and how much they are still on the hook for in future years.
To find the appropriate group of players, I used the baseball-reference.com play-index and found pitchers with at least 40 starts in their first five years from 2008-2013. I eliminated all those whose careers started before 2008 and after the beginning of 2009. I then cross-referenced this group with Cots Contracts to make sure service time was at least five and less than six years making them free agents at the end of 2014 if they had not already signed a deal. Here is the group with their statistics through 2011, sorted by fWAR.
The top three pitchers did not sign extensions, while six of the middle eight players all reached agreement with their teams. Fast forward two years, and we can see how these players performed during their arbitration years.
Kershaw, Scherzer, and Masterson continued to perform well heading to free agency and Homer Bailey has made himself some money over the past few years. Buchholz pitched reasonably well, and Cahill, Harrison, and Garcia provided some return on their extensions while Anderson and Romero had to be happy they signed long term deals. Here is a chart with fWAR and $/fWAR for 2012-13, money paid for those years as well as 2014, money owed after 2014, and years of control after 2014. Both team and player figures are listed for 2014 if arbitration has not yet been decided.
Teams sign extensions to get cost-certainty, avoid arbitration, and receive free agent years for cheaper than they could on the free agent market. Despite Garcia's injuries, his deal still looks like a decent one from the Cardinals perspective. It has not been a disaster like Romero's. They do not owe a significant amount of money after this year like Texas does with Matt Harrison. They paid slightly more than they would have if they went to arbitration, but they have still received some value from the contract.
Predicting the Cardinals' perfect storm of pitching depth would have been impossible. Given free agent prices for starting pitchers and the Cardinals two team options for 2016 and 2017, the contract could still become a valuable commodity to trade if Garcia recovers over the next two seasons. If injuries continue to haunt him, the Cardinals are only responsible for one more year after this one at a modest price. There is one other alternative. Garcia may just pitch well enough that the Cardinals will not want to see him in another uniform over the next three years.