With Michael Wacha injured and Adam Wainwright at less than his best during portions of 2014, Lance Lynn performed the same way he had over the previous three years. He was the Cardinals most consistent pitcher in 2014 and heading into his first year of arbitration, Lynn is due for a big raise. The Cardinals and Lynn could come to terms on a contract extension, but both parties have reasons to avoid an extension. Reaching an agreement is certainly possible this winter, but extensions for pitchers heading into their first season of arbitration are rare.
Very little needs to be said about Lynn's contribution to the team. As I wrote after his second start in the NLCS, Lynn is eighth in the National League in innings pitched, seventh in strikeouts, and ninth in fWAR since the beginning of 2013. He also had two solid starts in the playoffs, as he "pitched 11 2/3 innings, struck out eleven and walked three for an ERA of 3.09 and a FIP of 2.02." Lynn's accomplishments and steady play is no longer a secret, and there does appear to be some interest in an extension. After the season ended, Derrick Goold wrote about the parties' interest.
General manager John Mozeliak and DeWitt both talk about viewing the payroll and roster in three-year and five-year frames. The growth in the coming years was planned based on the talents the Cardinals expected to graduate into the majors and blossom there as longterm building blocks. Lynn, the team's No. 2 starter coming out of the 2014 season, is about to reach arbitration for the first time, and he will be due the largest raise, percentage-wise, on the team. Both sides have said they would be open to discussing an extension.
However, being open to discussing an extension is just the first step. After being open to discussing an extension, then Lynn and the Cardinals need to actually discuss the extension, and then the parties need to come to terms. At the beginning of the season, I wrote about the Cardinals' young pitchers lacking contract extensions. At the time, there were ten pre-arbitration deals. I wrote the following about Lynn:
Lance Lynn caught a tough break this offseason, coming just shy of Super-Two status and the higher salaries that come with arbitration. Lynn is likely to play his way out of an extension by the end of the year no matter how he performs this season. If he performs as he has in the past or breaks out and does better, he will likely price himself out of an extension given impending arbitration and the Cardinals' rotation options around him.
Lynn did pitch very well and may have played his way out of an extension. Lynn now has more than three years of service time, more than any of the players who signed extensions referenced in the previous post. Contract extensions for players with Lynn's service time are not common. Using the Extension Tracker at MLB Trade Rumors, just one contract comes up in the last five years for players with Lynn's service time that lasted longer than two years. In January 2011, Johnny Cueto signed a four-year contract worth $27 million and included a $10 million option for 2015 that the Reds have already happily exercised. The market has changed considerably since then.
Even putting reasonable increases on Cueto's deal ($5, $7, $9, $12, and option for $15 million) gets Lynn just $33 million over the next four years and potentially delays his free agency by two years. The guaranteed money is nice for Lynn given the potential injuries for pitchers, but for a player about to increase his salary by tenfold, Lynn might not want to forego multiple years of free agency. After seeing the paychecks given to Max Scherzer, James Shields, and Jon Lester in the coming months, he will have even more incentive to resist an extension.
From the Cardinals perspective, they will not likely want to commit major money to a player they have cost-controlled for the next three years. The Cardinals have seen with Jaime Garcia the risk of signing pitchers to long-term deals. The Garcia deal was calculated risk, and given the relatively small amount of money guaranteed, a good risk for the Cardinals. To sign Lynn, the Cardinals would likely have to guarantee a 50% (or more) hike over the $27 million that Jaime Garcia received.
If Lynn and the Cardinals cannot reach an agreement on a long-term deal, a shorter deal may be possible to avoid arbitration over the next 2-3 years. Using the same MLB Trade Rumors Extension Tracker, but allowing for contracts under three years, we find five two-year contracts signed by starters since Cueto signed his deal. Jason Hammel (2/7.5), Clayton Kershaw (2/19), Kyle Kendrick (2/7.5), Jhoulys Chacin (2/6.5), Mat Latos (2/11.5) all signed contracts buying out a couple years of arbitration but left free agency intact.
A contract extension between the Cardinals and Lance Lynn is certainly possible, but Lynn will have to give up more than he wants in terms of free agent years and the Cardinals will have to guarantee more money than they have in the past on pre-free-agency extensions. Such extensions have been rare over the past five years. A smaller deal is more likely and would help both sides avoid arbitration, but given the Cardinals increased commitment to payroll, the Cardinals are in position to lock Lynn up should they wish to add to the team's core.