The Cardinal Nation blog

Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Cardinals fans – Watch the World Series and be thankful

As I read all the articles building up the World Series Game 1 match up between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, I cannot help but think about how smartly the St. Louis Cardinals are run.

On Wednesday night, each league champion is sending their respective ace to the mound in the hopes of establishing an early lead in the 2009 version of the Fall Classic. A pair of former Cy Young Award winners will toe the rubber at the new Yankee Stadium, C.C. Sabathia for the home team and Cliff Lee for the visitors.

The two lefties share one distinction in that they are only the second pair of Cy Young Award winners to ever face off in Game 1, the others having been back in 1995.

For Cardinals fans however, the even more notable common thread that binds the 29-year-old Sabathia and the 31-year-old Lee is a career fate the Cardinals have avoided.

Cleveland fans must watch the pair on the world stage wearing other uniforms, despite the two having experienced their majority of their career success with a mid-market club that could no longer afford them – their own Indians.

The formula followed for each was precisely the same, just one year apart.

Sabathia took the 2007 American League Cy Young Award, but with free agency looming at the end of the 2008 season, the Tribe made Sabathia an offer that they knew would not be good enough. They had little choice but to send him off to Milwaukee for a package of prospects. He then moved to the Yankees over the winter for $161 million over seven years.

During that 2008 season, Lee exceeded his own strong past form, storming to the AL Cy Young Award. A club option for 2010 meant Lee was probably one season away from free agency. The Indians knew they had no better chance of keeping him beyond next year than they did Sabathia, so they swapped Lee to Philadelphia this July. Things had fallen apart quickly as the 97-loss Indians fully committed to a rebuilding process, just two years removed from a 96-win season.

The Cardinals don’t yet have a pair of Cy Young Award winners in their rotation, but they are very close. If Adam Wainwright edges out top contender and 2005 selection Chris Carpenter when the 2009 National League winner is announced next month, they will.

As the 2009 season began, the Cardinals had a payroll in the $88 million range, while the Tribe was at around $81 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Yet one huge difference between the two is the Cardinals having locked up their co-aces several years back on multi-year deals that will keep them in the Birds on the Bat well into the future.

Carpenter, 34, signed a five-year, $63.5 million deal in December, 2006. Having been injured much of the first two years put the club’s decision into question by some in hindsight, yet those tears evaporated as Carp put together a spectacular comeback campaign in 2009. The Cardinals also hold a 2012 option on Carpenter’s services that will surely be picked up if he remains healthy and productive.

During last year’s spring training, then-new general manager John Mozeliak executed a masterful move, one for which he does not receive nearly enough credit. It followed an approach ironically pioneered in the 1990s by then-Cleveland GM John Hart to lock up budding stars on multi-year deals before their salaries escalate first via arbitration, then free agency. Of course, the player has to be willing.

Wainwright agreed to terms on a deal covering 2008, his three arbitration-eligible seasons, 2009, 2010 and 2011, along with a pair of team options that preclude his first two years of free agency. As a result, the now-28-year-old will likely remain in a Cardinals uniform through his best seasons, concluding with the 2013 campaign. Those six years will cost the club just $36 million in total.

As a result of this wise planning by the Cardinals front office, they can keep their co-aces pitching together for at least three more seasons, something Cleveland fans can only wish had been accomplished with their former mound stars.

So as Cardinals backers watch Wednesday night’s game, say a small thanks for the club having avoided what could have been, but will not be.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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