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Wainwright sees himself staying here
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Wainwright sees himself staying here

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Adam Wainwright will be a free agent after next season if he and the Cardinals don’t agree on a contract extension.

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright left St. Louis for his home in Georgia after the season certain any concerns about his elbow are behind him, confident next season will be better than last, and convinced his best seasons are still ahead of him.

He even has an idea of where he’d like to spend them.

In what promises to otherwise be a normal offseason — so long rehab, hello regular preparation — Wainwright could face a pivotal decision for his long-term career. The righthander is entering the final year of his contract with the Cardinals and both sides have expressed an interest in discussing an extension. When it comes to their future together, there’s no time like the present.

“In brief talks with (Cardinals executives) they feel real good about me coming back for a long time, and I want to make that happen,” Wainwright said. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t make that happen. ... It’s not like I have one foot out the door (to free agency). If I’m being honest, they have to show they respect what I’ve done and what I will do. And they have. They have. So I don’t think it will be a problem.”

Wainwright, 31, is now 213 2/3 innings and 34 starts removed from the elbow surgery that erased his 2011 season. The righty did not miss a scheduled start until the final day of the regular season when he was skipped to rest for the playoffs. He pitched through early struggles and a late hiccup to finish 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA in the regular season, and then punctuated his playoff turn with seven strong innings against San Francisco in Game 5 of the National League championship series.

In the two seasons before needing Tommy John surgery to rebuild his right elbow, Wainwright finished third (2009) and second (2010) in the voting for the Cy Young Award voting. The top-five finish in 2010 triggered a two-year, $21 million option on his contract that he is about to finish. He’ll receive $12 million in 2013 and then, if unsigned, become a free agent a year from now.

General manager John Mozeliak declined to discuss the team’s approach with Wainwright when asked this week. In the past, he’s described how his “door is always open” to potential discussions. Mozeliak did approach Wainwright about his contract in August. During the postseason, he described how Wainwright is an “elite” starter and a person the Cardinals would like to have around for a “long time, if possible.”

Such negotiations do not happen in a vacuum.

With each extension signed elsewhere, Wainwright’s extension gains additional or different clarity. Matt Cain signed a six-year, $127.5 million extension earlier this year, and that made the Giants ace the highest-paid righty in the game. It established the bar for an annual-average salary of more than $20 million for top-shelf righthanded starters. Cain, however, is 28, and the potential seven-year length of the contract reflects his youth. Jake Peavy, who at 31 is the same age as Wainwright, signed a two-year, $29 million extension with the Chicago White Sox this week.

Pending free agents such as Zack Greinke (age 29), when it comes to salary, and Cardinals righty Kyle Lohse (age 34), when it comes to contract length, could further describe the market that will greet Wainwright as a free agent after 2013 — and the outline of an extension.

“From the business side, you do look to see what other guys sign for,” Wainwright said. “My time in St. Louis has been real special. ... But we have talent coming up and it will be a business decision. It’s fine (to reach 2013 without an extension). As I pitch in 2013 if there’s still a question about what I can do, then those questions will all fade by the wayside. My confidence about 2013 is at an all-time high regardless of what happens.”

Wainwright agreed to his current deal during spring training of 2008, the spring after his first full season in the rotation.

The righty said at the time that he didn’t want negotiations to leak into the season and that even during spring they proved be a distraction for him. That’s not a concern this time.

“I don’t think I could have pitched like I did without that deal,” Wainwright said of what turned out to be a six-year, $36 million contract. “I know that deal settled me, calmed me down, gave me confidence that the Cardinals believed in me, gave me assurances that if things didn’t work out that I was going to be OK.”

Wainwright told the Cardinals that he didn’t want to discuss an extension during August of this past season because he was in the midst of his best stretch of the season. Last year of his current deal or first year of his next deal, he sees 2012 as a harbinger of 2013.

“I didn’t do what I know I can do, but I did better than what most people thought I could do,” Wainwright said. “I know how I expect myself to pitch next year. I’m going to be who I was. And I’ll be ready to pitch that way.”

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