John Mozeliak is a liar. Either that, or he has a sharp sense of humor. According to SI’s Jon Heyman, Mozeliak “hasn’t thought about” whether he’ll pick up Adam Wainwright‘s two-year, $21 million option. Bull. While he does have other things on his mind, including the strength of the 2011 Cardinals and Albert Pujols‘s impending free agency, the future of Adam Wainwright concerns him greatly. The only way his statement makes sense is if he meant that he “hasn’t thought about it” as a play on the term no-brainer. Because, really, the decision of whether to exercise Wainwright’s options takes little thought.
If there is any hesitation on Mozeliak’s part, it is because this situation is unprecedented. We’ve seen instances where a free agent, or impending free agent, is coming off Tommy John or other major surgery. Jon Lieber underwent Tommy John surgery in late 2002, just before he hit free agency. Ben Sheets injured his elbow just as he was about to hit free agency. Wainwright’s teammate Chris Carpenter hit free agency while suffering from a torn labrum. The difference is that none of these guys, not even Carpenter, was close to Wainwright’s level at the time. Lieber came close, but still wasn’t really in Wainwright’s league.
Unless the Cardinals know for certain that Wainwright isn’t progressing well following surgery, they simply have to pick up the options. A look at the 2012 free agent list provides few alternatives for the Cardinals. Furthermore, one of the top potential free agent pitchers, Carpenter, comes from their own ranks. Even if the Cardinals did prefer, say, Roy Oswalt, chances are he won’t come as cheaply as two years and $21 million. If he does, it’s an indication that he himself presents a considerable risk, which puts him on the same ground as Wainwright. For the potential production and the price, the Cardinals aren’t going to find a better deal than Wainwright.
Let’s imagine, just for a second, that ownership demands that Albert Pujols gets a blank check and that it crushes the 2012 payroll, to the point where Mozeliak simply must void Wainwright’s options. (This scenario is probably as absurd as Moz not picking up Wainwright’s options on his own volition.) Chances are he’ll be ready to pitch in early 2012, if not by Opening Day. Clearly he’ll get a guarantee for that season. But what about beyond that? How far would teams go to secure his services in 2012 and beyond?
The first idea I came up with involved a one-year contract for 2012, at something like $15 million guaranteed, plus a club option for another four or five years at between $75 and $100 million. But at that point what’s to stop another team from guaranteeing two years? On and on we go, until the Yankees give him a six-year, $120 million guarantee. We know that Tommy John surgery has a high success rate, and we know that if he hit the market when healthy Wainwright would get a contract along those lines. What’s to stop a big market team from taking that kind of risk.
If there is anything preventing the Yankees, or another big market club, from spending so lavishly on Wainwright it’s that his contract will be difficult and costly to insure. Maybe a team is willing to risk a large spend on Wainwright if it can hedge, but without insurance it’s difficult to imagine. Even the Yankees can’t really afford that kind of sunk cost. That could bring down Wainwright’s cost, and might lead to a one year deal so he can prove his health before he gets his big payday. It might also involve a gigantic team or mutual option.
Any way it plays out, it’s certain that Wainwright would do better financially if he were to hit the free agent market following this season. The Cardinals have a chance at a steal here. If Wainwright fails, they’re out $21 million. That’s a lot for any team, but it’s not insurmountable. If he succeeds, which we see from so many pitchers following Tommy John surgery, they have a pitcher for $21 million who would have been worth double the annual salary and triple the number of years on the open market. The potential value there is astounding. It’s hardly something the Cardinals can afford to pass up.
So maybe John Mozeliak really hasn’t thought about the option to void Wainwright’s two option years. Given the alternatives, it would appear rather foolish to do so.