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The Meaning of Wainwright’s Option

St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak recently told a reporter that the team has “unofficially” decided to pick up Adam Wainwright‘s team option. That might have seemed like a foregone conclusion before the season, but Wainwright has missed the entire 2011 season with Tommy John surgery. The option isn’t just a one-year option, either. It is an option for both 2012 and 2013 worth a total of $21 million. Wainwright has been an outstanding pitcher in the past, and we’ve seen pitchers come back from Tommy John successfully before. Assuming the Cardinals make the decision “official,” it is interesting to speculate not only on what Wainwright has to do to make the contract “worth it,” but also on what it means for how the Cardinals perceive their near future.

Wainwright pitched well during his first two full seasons in the majors in 2007 and 2008. In 2009 and 2010, he took things to a new level by improving on his previous strikeout rates by about two per nine innings, enabling him to put up about six wins in each of those seasons, making him one of the four most valuable pitchers in the National League during that time.

What we really want to know is how good he might be in 2012 after missing all of 2011 recovering from surgery. That is a bit more complicated, but we can use some simple tools at our disposal. Prior to the 2011 season, Marcel projected Carpenter for a 2.98 ERA and 3.15 FIP. That is about what the Fan Projections came up with as well, seeing Carpenter as a 4.8 WAR pitcher for 2011. [Gotta love the Cardinals fans seeing him putting up a career-high seven wins in 2011. I can just see the Best Fans in Baseball filling out their projections, peering at their laptop, thinking about all the morans who don’t know how to project players.] If we assume that was correct about his true talent level and apply the standard aging curve of -0.5 wins a season for a veteran like Wainwright, we get something like four to 4.5 wins for 2012. Over two seasons, $21 million would be a steal for that kind of pitcher, even in the event that the average prince of a win drops a bit.

Let’s not get ahead of our selves. While Wainwright’s recovery is reportedly going well so far and he is saying he’ll be ready for Spring Training 2012, there might always be setbacks that keep him out longer. Moreover, while we’re used to Tommy John success, it doesn’t always work out that way. Francisco Liriano dazzled baseball over 121 innings in 2006, then had Tommy John. When he did come back in 2008, he wasn’t the same, and wasn’t really back to his old self until 2010. Despite flashes of brilliance this season, he’s struggled. This isn’t meant say that Wainwright and Liriano make for a good comparison. Rather, it is just to point out that immediate success upon return isn’t a sure thing. Perhaps he’ll struggle, perhaps he’ll take longer to come back, or both. I won’t pretend to be a doctor, but let’s pick an in-between point of good and bad probabilities and say that Wainwright only projects to be two-win pitcher next season, and comes back to be a three-win pitcher in 2013. The $21 million isn’t a great deal in that case, but it still isn’t horrible. It doesn’t add value if Wainwright is really struggling to return to form, but it doesn’t kill the Cardinals either. There’s some risk to the Cardinals decision, but it makes sense to do what they are doing.

While picking up Wainwright’s contract is a sensible decision, much rests on what St. Louis thinks they are doing the next couple of years. By itself, picking up Wainwright’s option can even make sense if the Cardinals are going to rebuild: if he comes back and can be a four-win pitcher, he would have enough surplus value over his contract to bring back decent younger players in a trade. However, if they aren’t planning on rebuilding, things get pretty interesting. Assuming they make it “official” the Cardinals would project to be at about $60 and $50 million dollars of committed payroll for 2012 and 2013 before arbitration raises.

The Cardinals had about a $110 million payroll on Opening Day 2011. If they want to contend in 2012, can they do so without Chris Carpenter? If he comes back at the beginning of next season and pitches to the basic projection discussed that the beginning, Wainwright would basically replace Carpenter’s 2011 production (four wins so far this season), but are they going to need both? Lance Berkman was a great signing by the Cardinals, but he’s a free agent after this season. If they need to bring him back, it’s probably going to cost more than the $8 million they are paying him this season. Let’s say they somehow get Berkman back for just $10 million next season (He says he wants to stay. That means he’s definitely coming back at a discount, right?) and also pick up Carpenter’s option. Adding that to the the Wainwright option, that would bring the Cardinals 2012 payroll to roughly around $85 million dollars before arbitration raises and any other holes they need to fill in free agency. If payroll stays around $110 million, they should have plenty of room.

Oh yeah, about one of those holes. You know, the one at first base? After his “down” 2011 (only four wins so far), will Albert accept $25 million or less a year (or at least that amountin 2012)? If not Albert, how about Prince Fielder?

Things are just heating up, morans.