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Wainwright: What’s Taking So Long?

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Wainwright has never been a free agent for longer than a few days. What’s taking so long this year?

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It’s Thanksgiving weekend. It’s been over a month since the end of the World Series. This offseason, the Cardinals have only dropped salary – and good players.

There’s a growing sense of nervousness from fans. Will Yadi and Wainwright return? What’s taking so long?

While it’s still relatively early in the offseason, it is a fair question. Particularly when it comes to Wainwright, who will be the subject of today’s post.

Before this season, Wainwright has faced free agency two times in the past. He lasted on the market for mere days both times.

In October of 2018, Adam Wainwright was coming off a lost season. He had only 40 innings and 8 starts. He showed just enough that September to believe his career wasn’t quite over yet.

Waino became a free agent on Oct. 30th. He re-signed with the Cardinals the next day, Oct. 31st. Yes, he signed on the first day of free agency! The deal was extremely team-friendly. He was guaranteed just $2M. Bonuses were included for games started, relief appearances, and games finished. The deal was designed to allow Wainwright to attempt to renew his career in any role.

It was a great signing for the Cardinals. In ’19 the 37-year-old started 31 games with a 4.19 ERA and 171.2 innings pitched. According to Spotrac, Wainwright’s performance earned him $10M.

After re-establishing himself as a viable starter, Wainwright was able to demand a bit more in guaranteed money heading into 2020. That caused a slightly longer wait on the free agent market.

Wainwright became a free agent on Oct. 31, 2019. He would sign a deal with the Cardinals with a $5M base and another $5M in incentives as a starter on Nov. 12th.

13 days. That’s the longest time that Wainwright has spent on the free agent market in his entire career. Until now.

This offseason began on Oct. 28th. It’s Nov. 28th. A full month has passed and Wainwright remains unsigned. Not only is he unsigned, but every indication is that the Cardinals have not even made a contract offer.

So, what’s taking so long?

The easy answer is uncertainty and that’s likely the biggest part of the issue. The Cardinals still can’t project normal revenue streams in 2020. COVID is surging. If the season started today, it’s doubtful the Cardinals would have any fans in the stands. There is hope that a vaccine will be in place before April, but there are still many unknowns.

This paralyzing financial uncertainty is the reason why the club has not made a contract offer to Yadier Molina or pursued any other significant acquisitions.

It doesn’t adequately explain the situation with Wainwright, though.

One of the reasons that Wainwright has signed so early in previous offseasons is his willingness to accept extremely team-friendly deals. Wainwright isn’t playing to maximize his market value. He’s playing because he loves to pitch. He’s playing for the Cardinals because he loves the franchise.

The Cardinals could probably offer Waino the same $5M + incentives deal as last year and he would sign it before the print toner dried. Considering the financial uncertainty around baseball, the club could probably offer him his ’19 salary – $2M guaranteed and $8M in additional incentives – and he would likely accept it.

Is the club so concerned about their fiscal solvency that they are afraid to guarantee even $2-5M to a future Cardinals Hall of Famer?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. If the Cardinals were in that much financial trouble, the language coming from the front office would be different. The club has consistently said – themselves and through their media mouthpieces – that they hope to bring Wainwright back. Molina, too. They’ve talked about the two as a “package deal”. The Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold recently mentioned that the Cardinals would be willing to bring both players back on a deal that considered both production and sentimentality.

That type of language would be different if the team was so cash-strapped that they couldn’t even offer Wainwright an incentive-laden deal.

Typically speaking, Mozeliak and the front office don’t try to mislead fans. They try to set realistic expectations through the media that fit with their likely path of action – good or bad.

Wong’s situation this offseason was a classic example. There was chatter among team reporters before the season ended that Wong could be a release candidate. Fans – including myself – didn’t really believe the reports because Wong’s deal was so reasonable, but they were out there. Once the Cardinals’ post-season ended, team-trusted beat writers reported that the team was trying to avoid releasing Wong by converting his option year into a two-year extension. This didn’t pan out. Wong was released. Recent reports confirm that Wong did turn down a multi-year offer from the Cardinals.

When the club and their media mouthpieces say they want to bring back Wainwright, I believe them. They wouldn’t say this if they believed they couldn’t pay him.

Financial uncertainty, then, is part of the delay, but it doesn’t fully answer the question.

Another possible problem is the other half of the “package deal”. There’s a reason that the club keeps tying Wainwright and Molina together in their offseason communications. The two players seem intrinsically linked by the front office.

The problem might not be Wainwright’s financials, but Yadi’s. While Waino is likely willing to play in 2021 for whatever number the Cardinals throw out, that won’t be true for his battery mate.

The future Hall of Fame catcher is seeking a two-year deal. He’s also been vocal – both through his own social media account and through close friends and family – about his desire to secure his legacy and get the respect he feels he has earned.

When Goold offered that the Cardinals’ would be willing to pay Molina and Wainwright for production and sentiment, this “respect” is at least part of what he’s referring to. Molina’s contract demands go beyond getting equal value for his on-the-field performance. Molina sees himself as the team leader, a winner, an all-time great, and an attraction for fans. He expects a legacy contract as one of the best catchers in the game’s history.

The self-perceived best catcher in the game doesn’t take an incentive-laden deal late in November. He might not demand $20M again, but he will see only disrespect in a Wainwright-like offer.

Part of the reason Wainwright is not a Cardinal is that the front office has to wait Molina’s market out. Molina recently claimed that five teams are interested in his services – the Cardinals, Yankees, Mets, Padres, and Angels. There is a great deal of skepticism league-wide that any of these other clubs will offer Molina more than one year. Yadi still publicly maintains his desire to return to St. Louis. It’s obvious that his agent’s strategy is to generate competition and public pressure to get Molina every penny they can from the Cardinals.

You can’t really blame a player for trying to earn as much as he can.

The Cardinals released Wong and allowed their free agents to walk with no offers because they wanted financial flexibility. To bring back Wainwright now, even on a team-friendly, incentive-laden deal would steal from the flexibility they might need for Molina. Since Wainwright is almost certainly not signing elsewhere (especially with the Braves now out of the picture), the team can afford to let him sit on the market.

So, everyone waits.

The club waits on good financial news for the 2021 season and the slow-developing market for their Hall of Fame catcher, trusting that Wainwright will still be there in the end.

Wainwright waits on his battery mate and on the Cardinals to move off dead-center.

Molina waits for a team to show him the respect he feels he deserves.

Fans are just waiting for their favorite players to return.

(Writers are waiting for some news — any news! — to give them fuel for this winter.)

Eventually, I think this gets done. The desperate financial situation in the game is going to determine Molina’s market value. There won’t be much sentiment-money outside of St. Louis. Once that becomes clear to Molina, he will return – likely for the two years he wants but at a lower price than he’s currently demanding. Let’s say 2/$22M. Wong’s 2021 salary becomes Molina’s 2021 salary and the team is worse for it.

The moment that happens the Cards will sign Wainwright to the same deal he signed in 2020, plus or minus a few million. There will be a big, celebratory press conference, with much rejoicing.

In the end, the celebrations and back-slapping will hide the fact that the Cardinals won’t be a better team than they were last year.

Sure, the team needs to solidify the catcher position and fill a gap in their rotation, but they have to do more if they plan to compete in 2021. Hopefully waiting out Molina and Wainwright doesn’t keep them from pursuing real improvements in the free agent and trade markets.

The contract tender deadline is this week. Keep your eye on who gets cut. It will flood the market with some very interesting players who could be available for discounted deals.

I hope you and your family had a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving. Enjoy your Saturday!