Barring a Spring Training surprise or another terrible injury, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter 2012 with four starters on contracts of at least $8.5 million. With Jaime Garcia's new contract and Chris Carpenter's extension that means every starter in the rotation was put there with some long-term plan in mind.
He and Adam Wainwright are developmental signings, the ideal developmental path for a rotation—starters who look good and might look great signed to deals that are both affordable and remunerative enough to buy some of their young-pitcher risk at a discount price. Carpenter's a restructuring of an existing deal.
The fourth and fifth starters, though, say the most about the Cardinals' win-now plans, which are a strange combination of second-tier free agents and the willingness to pay for mistakes. Kyle Lohse was a free agent gamble that didn't pay off, and rather than let that stand as an expensive mistake they papered over it with another free agent gamble, signing Jake Westbrook to a relatively affordable two year deal that, thus far, hasn't worked out.
That's what the DeWallet seems willing to do—I doubt we'll see another Matt Holliday deal any time soon, or even another Chris Carpenter 2007 deal, but this is a team that's begun spending money on complementary players like a team that wants to win every year and has the means to fill a few holes at the going rate.
So far as I could tell from a glance at Baseball-Reference, here are three teams whose 2011 rotations cost at least $40 million, which is a little less than what the Cardinals will pay for their rotation in 2012. For reference, here's 2011, with Adam Wainwright thrown in—
That's 7.2 WAR for $43.5 million, not counting Jackson, which is—less than ideal.
New York Yankees ($45 million, 15.7 bWAR)
Sabathia's one of the highest-paid players in baseball, and will be indefinitely whether he opts out of this deal or not. A.J. Burnett's been the weirdest kind of replacement-level starter I've ever seen after putting together a good season in the first year of his Yankees contract. For all that, the rest of the Yankees' rotation is incredibly cheap—Colon/Nova/Garcia/Hughes cost a combined $5.8 million or so, and none of them is signed for multiple seasons.
Which is good, I guess, because it's hard to predict continued success from any of them. This is kind of what I was expecting the Cardinals to do, and expect them to do in the future—if the rest of your team is good enough you can fill in the gaps—and there shouldn't be many—with cheap, high-upside options.
Bonus Yankees Mistake: The second-highest-paid starting pitcher on the Yankees' payroll in 2011 is Kei Igawa, who's making $4 million in the last year of his contract. He last pitched in the majors in 2008, and has since made 70 starts in the minor leagues.
Boston Red Sox ($50.3 million, 11.3 bWAR)
Another expensive rotation with lots of cheap pieces; Daisuke Matsuzaka's absence was mitigated by ex-worldbeater Andrew Miller, a free agent in the offseason, and Erik Bedard, who was just coming off a big contract.
And as with the Yankees, their long-term contract for a number-two kind of pitcher has been a disaster; Lackey's pissed off the Fenway faithful (imagine that) and gotten slammed on peripherals that aren't quite that bad.
The Cardinals' advantage against a rotation like this, besides not having $25 million in dead weight on it, is their ability to replace all these guys with players who might not be replacement-level talent. Marc Rzepczynski and Lance Lynn will both likely be in the bullpen should any of the five salaried starters miss significant time.
Chicago White Sox ($49.8 million, 15.2 WAR)
Stealth-expensive. This is closest to the Cardinals in terms of salary distribution, but like the Yankees and the Red Sox the White Sox have made huge, ineffective gambles on very expensive pitchers instead of medium-sized gambles on not-quite-average pitchers.
Given the way all of those ineffective gambles have worked, except Jake Peavy, I can't blame the Cardinals for their current payroll distribution. (Although, given the Cardinals' incoming pitching prospects, I don't think it's a distribution that should go on indefinitely.) But it's strange to note that the Cardinals, unlike most of their $40 million peers, go into 2012 expecting all their expensive pitchers to contribute, even if contributing is something like 1.5 WAR each for Lohse and Westbrook.