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Cards and Giants play Game 4 at Busch

Cardinals Adam Wainwright pitches in NLCS Game 4 against the Giants. (Photo by J.B. Forbes / jforbes@post-dispatch.com)

If the feeling is familiar, it should be.

Once again the Cardinals and a team pillar are on the clock regarding the player’s future. Reluctance to publicly address the matter confirms its magnitude. Two years after the club and Albert Pujols engaged in an awkward and ultimately contentious negotiation, Adam Wainwright has reached the fog of looming free agency.

Wainwright is entering the walk year of a six-year, $36 million extension that ranks arguably as the shrewdest contract chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak have cut during Mo’s five-year run in office.

The Cardinals get one more season of Wainwright for $12 million and have yet to initiate talks on an extension that would fold 2013 into an extension pre-empting free agency.

Welcome to big boy poker.

The final season of any star player’s contract invites speculation and parsing of even the most minor events. Wainwright next month may attend his final winter warm-up with the club before arriving in Jupiter, Fla. for perhaps his final spring training. April may represent his final Opening Day here. The rubric changes. To say, “It is what it is” no longer applies. It is what it could be.

Does a lackluster spring training influence the club’s posture given Wainwright’s diminished velocity last September and October?

Once he reaches Florida would Wainwright adopt a hard-line stance toward a matter that has existed since the club assumed his two-year, $21 million option without broaching a longer-term alternative?

The narrative is ingrained upon the fan base:

Responsible for throwing the final pitch of the 2006 World Series, Wainwright has twice rated a podium finish in balloting for the National League Cy Young Award. He is an innings monster who has consumed more than 200 innings four of the past five seasons. He led the league with 19 wins in 2009 then used 2010 to become the organization’s first 20-game winner in nine years.

Wainwright threw 238 innings in ’09, worked a league-most 233 during the ’10 regular season, then blew out his right elbow in February 2011. Counting playoffs, he added 213 innings last season. Waino has been bueno.

Wainwright now reaches a pivotal juncture after agreeing to postpone free agency for two years in return for the security of the extension ready to mature.

It’s time for Wainwright to get paid within an environment that saw the cash-drunk Los Angeles Dodgers shower six years and $147 million on a pitcher yet to win 17 games in a season. The Detroit Tigers then awarded $80 million over five years to retain another 20-something righthander who has only once managed more than 10 wins within a seven-year career missing a 200-inning regular season.

Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez can either be blamed or credited for helping create the Cardinals’ delicious dilemma. Should DeWitt pay market value and guarantee more than four years to a 31-year-old pitcher two years removed from elbow ligament replacement? Should the Cardinals allow salaries driven by exploding local rights fees to determine their posture even though their current deal with Fox Sports doesn’t expire until 2017?

Given his current team-friendly deal, does Wainwright need to give another so-called home team discount to an organization that waited for Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Greinke and Sanchez to shape his market?

Whatever the club’s stance, lines will be drawn.

One take:

By waiting to engage Wainwright in talks, the Cardinals are prudent rather than participating in the salary madness that has afflicted the industry this off-season. Wainwright will be 32 in the first season of his next contract, an advanced age for a club that has only offered a four-year deal to a pitcher (Chris Carpenter) older than 30.

This is after all the organization that repeatedly insisted it would not base negotiations with Pujols on irresponsible contracts such as the five-year, $125 million extension the Philadelphia Phillies lavished upon Ryan Howard. (The Cardinals later offered Pujols a $27 million AAV for five years. Team Pujols interpreted the bid as an insult.)

Mozeliak negotiated a below-market, two-year extension with Chris Carpenter in September 2011. Does he now concede market value to Wainwright in a longer-term deal?

A second take:

The Cardinals again exhibit organizational arrogance that maintains playing in St. Louis for a perennial contender carries intrinsic value.

By waiting to negotiate, the club has only diminished its ability to approach Wainwright for more flexible terms given the windfalls Greinke, Sanchez and eventually Kyle Lohse will realize. The Cardinals will find it extremely difficult to rationalize a shorter offer should a team offer Lohse a five-year guarantee.

There is no assurance that the Cardinals’ projected strength won’t become a trap door. Carpenter, Jake Westbrook and Wainwright could all reach free agency after next season, leaving a mix of sore-shouldered Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and probably a veteran mercenary to flesh out the rotation. The absence of an established veteran mentor would be obvious within a clubhouse steered by Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Carpenter and Wainwright for the past 13 seasons. Honest while able to avoid controversy, Wainwright has been a model player due to performance, clubhouse relationships and dealing with media.

Just as Wainwright must place a value on remaining in St. Louis, the club must weigh his intangibles along with metrics that paint him as a $20 million pitcher.

The Cardinals are no strangers to this fog. They grappled with the sensitive Pujols for two years as the relationship eroded. At the end Pujols barely spoke to Mozeliak and insisted DeWitt be present for all negotiations. However, when DeWitt spoke up, Pujols cringed at the owner’s lack of inflection. Pujols asserted in January 2003 that “this is business.” Almost nine years late the Cardinals had called him on that point.

Next in line: Adam Wainwright. This is business.

Joe Strauss is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.