The Cardinals control Adam Wainwright for the next two seasons at the comparatively modest price of $21 million.
His free agency is well off on the horizon: November 2013. Wainwright is locked in for the prime years of his pitching career.
But it is not too early for Cardinals management to begin formulating a contract extension for this cornerstone hurler. Once Wainwright demonstrates he is fully recovered from Tommy John Surgery, Cards general manager John Mozeliak should start crunching some numbers.
Friday was the first test of that, and he passed with ease by pitching two hitless innings against the Minnesota Twins, striking out Joe Mauer in the process. Wainwright might need more innings to regain his old command, but his rehab work to this point suggests he is poised for a big season.
This franchise hopes to parlay strong pitching into perennial contention. Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, Mitchell Boggs, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Tyrell Jenkins, Trevor Rosenthal, Jordan Swagerty . . . the Cardinals are starting to accumulate quality and depth.
This is the organization’s strength. After years of patching their pitching staffs together with more reclamation projects than blue-chip prospects, the Cards possess an army of power arms in development.
This is why locking in catcher Yadier Molina to a "Cardinal for Life" contract made perfect sense. Even as Molina’s physical skills erode with age, his leadership will be invaluable to a pitching-driven franchise.
Wainwright offers similar value. He leads by example. He cheerfully mentors developing pitchers. He will be the staff for years to come.
While he won’t be immune to future injuries, his work ethic offers some promise of success as he pitches deep into his 30s. He can follow the example of Chris Carpenter, the bulldog’s bulldog.
With Wainwright and Garcia atop the rotation for years to come, developing pitchers can more easily find their niche.
Molina, Garcia and Holliday are the only Cardinals with contracts extending beyond 2013, so Mozeliak has ample room to work. Had the Cardinals retained Albert Pujols, payroll flexibility would have been a serious concern.
Now it is not. The Cards can lock up their nucleus players one by one.
The price for free agents will only go up. More teams are able to spend more money, due to significant increases in shared Major League Baseball revenues.
Elite players can expect outlandish offers if they reach free agency. Proven winners and leaders like Wainwright have great appeal.
Whenever possible, teams should keep their very best players out of this marketplace. The closer those players get to free agency, the harder it becomes to keep them.
Successful drafting has positioned the Cardinals to absorb several eight-digit salaries without taking payroll beyond Bill DeWitt Jr.’s comfort level. This team appears likely to fill numerous lineup spots internally during the next several years.
Just as David Freese and Jon Jay provided low-cost productivity the past two seasons, the Cards could get the same value from Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene, Matt Adams, Zack Cox, Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras in seasons to come. If that happens, then the Cards will be able to afford to pay several high-end players in any given season.
Mozeliak has moved preemptively when possible. He took care of Carpenter last summer and he settled the Molina matter this spring before it became a bigger issue.
(He tried to resolve the Pujols matter preemptively, but DeWitt wasn't going to give Albert "A-Rod money" two years ago, last year or this winter. That was never going to happen.)
At some point this season, he should address Wainwright's future. That would set the course for long-term pitching continuity, a prospect that current and future Cards would find most reassuring.