It is probably best to start this article with three declarations.
I cannot fully express my admiration and respect for what Chris Carpenter has accomplished for the St. Louis Cardinals over the last decade. That was most recently the case in 2011, when the right-hander made what appears to be his last stand – pitching over 270 innings at age 36 despite an injury-checkered past. Carp led the staff to the World Series title, with his NLDS Game 5 duel with Roy Halladay being one of the best-pitched games I have ever seen.
I believe any playoff-contending staff – the Cardinals included – needs a veteran take-the-mound-every-fifth-day leader. That stopper who can be counted upon to neutralize a batting slump and snap a losing streak as well as serve as a mentor for the younger pitchers. Of course, the Cardinals currently have an abundance of the latter while some are concerned about the former.
I believe that the Cardinals’ staff leader should continue to be Adam Wainwright – for the foreseeable future, but within financial reason. In 2013, that is clearly the case, but with Wainwright’s contract coming due following the season, 2014 and beyond is in doubt.
Now that we have that out of the way, here is my beef.
Those who have been shocked that Carpenter will not pitch in 2013 and likely never again have reacted – or should I say overreacted – in ways that do not make good sense.
Out-there examples include immediately retiring Carpenter’s number (even though he has not yet even officially retired) and making him the major league pitching coach. I am not even going to take time and effort debunking them. If you are in the camp of supporters of either of those thoughts, please just move on without comment. Thanks.
Other reactions, not just from some fans, but also media, include the perceived need to re-sign free agent Kyle Lohse and/or for the Cardinals to increase their urgency to lock up Wainwright in a long-term deal. The key in the latter statement is the word, “increase.”
Let’s take these individually.
Those who think Lohse and agent Scott Boras are desperate enough to settle for a one-year contract – spiced with a promise from his club to not make a qualifying offer next fall to help ease Lohse’s 2014 re-entry into the free agent market – are living in a dream world. Any club could make such an offer – not that it would be accepted.
Lohse had a spectacular 2012 for the Cardinals. At age 33, the right-hander probably experienced his career year. In other words, Lohse is not a younger player coming off a down season, looking to increase his future marketability via a short-term, prove-yourself deal.
For Lohse, the time is now to score what could be his last big contract. I hope he gets his multi-year commitment, but I cannot see how it is going to be with St. Louis.
The Cardinals organization made its tradeoff when deciding to offer another veteran, Jake Westbrook, a two-year extension last August. That deal gives the Cardinals flexibility – an easy exit after one season if they so choose.
The club already fully understood the injury risks with Carpenter and Jaime Garcia last fall. That is a key reason they did not trade any of their coveted young pitching over the winter. The latter point is not my speculation – it came directly from the mouth of general manager John Mozeliak.
Without Lohse and Carpenter, the Cardinals still report to spring camp with seven legitimate starting pitchers competing for five rotation spots – holdovers Wainwright, Westbrook, Garcia and Lance Lynn – plus Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal. Even if Garcia cannot go, one of these talented pitchers would still have to either open the season in the pen or go down to the minor leagues.
Without any of the above names, the relief corps already has six of its seven spots virtually locked up in Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas plus lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Randy Choate. As such, the pen should not be compromised by Garcia’s situation. In summary, the Cardinals’ pitching appears to be in good shape.
The need for veteran leadership brings me to my second point.
Those who have tied Carpenter’s news to an increased need to sign Wainwright are off base, in my opinion. Implicit in such a view was an expectation that a 39-year-old Carpenter would still be around in 2014 – to pitch every fifth day as the staff ace and serve as its veteran leader.
I never assumed that for a minute.
In my book, the Cardinals would never let Wainwright walk because of a feeling that Carpenter next year and beyond could be enough. That would be amazingly short-sighted. Simply put, the urgency of keeping Wainwright for 2014 and beyond is the same this week as last.
I have a bonus point to make about Wainwright’s contract itself. On Thursday, the Seattle Mariners and Felix Hernandez reportedly agreed to a seven-year extension for $175 million that would be one of the richest contracts in MLB history.
King Felix is at a very different point age-wise than Wainwright. Hernandez’ deal would cover ages 27 through 33, while Wainwright’s next contract will begin at age 32. Yet, those who suggest there is no relevance between the two have blinders on, in my view.
Through deals like Hernandez’ and Zack Greinke’s (six years, $147 million), the free-market price for a prime-season of a top major league starting pitcher continues to increase. That may not change the number of years the Cardinals want to go for Wainwright, but it certainly could affect the money needed to keep him, especially in the early years.
Finally, anyone who might suggest that the Cards use an immediate threat of a multi-year deal with Lohse as a wedge to try to push Wainwright into a long-term commitment would have the team engage in a game of chicken in which one alternative is far less desirable than the other. In other words, be very careful what you ask for.
The Cardinals and Wainwright have time. While most interested observers would prefer they get an extension done this spring, it would not be the end of the world for negotiations to drag into the fall.
In conclusion, remember Carp fondly, wish Lohse the best of luck, cross your fingers that Garcia can be healthy, anticipate the young pitchers stepping up and hope that the Cardinals and Wainwright can find contractual agreement.
In the meantime, please try to keep your feet on the ground.