A Little Cardinal Conversation

The last week here on the blog was dominated by our annual Twitter project and other things kept me from getting into a real discussion about the beginning of St. Louis’s offseason.  However, I’ve fired up the laptop (as the desktop is still not working) and want to at least make a few notes about the activity of the last week or so.

First off, we got the details on Adam Wainwright‘s incentive-filled contract and, boy, that was much more of a deal for the club than I was expecting.  When we first heard that Uncle Charlie was coming back, I knew it would be at a significant discount, but I had thought that the base salary might be something like $5 million and then some incentives added on to that.  Instead, the base salary is just $2 million and there are various levels of incentives for games started, games finished, and games appeared.  You have to figure that the latter is probably going to the most relevant of the different categories, though if Wainwright is as healthy as he says (which, as you always have to say with the optimistic legend, is a big if), he might get a solid chance to be the fifth starter to start the season.  Even so, it’d be a little surprising to see him start over 20 games.  Even if he was an excellent throw-back, as the linked VEB article notes, he would max out at $10 million.  If he’s good enough that he’s pitching that often, $10 million will be a steal.

Even if he starts the year as a starter, and with all the depth the Cards have that’s no guarantee, odds are he’ll be in the bullpen most of the year.  You wouldn’t expect that he’s got the closer punch to beat out Jordan Hicks or any other option the club may bring in, at least not enough to get that even that first $500K bonus at 25 games finished.  No, the appearances is likely where Wainwright will make most of his money.  Let’s assume he gets five starts and then 30 appearances out of the pen.  That could be pretty valuable and would cost the Cardinals $2.5 million, $3 million if he got to 35 instead.  Thirty-five might be pretty reasonable.  The Cardinals that got over 35 relief appearances last year were Hicks, Bud Norris, Mike Mayers, John Brebbia, and Brett Cecil.  I would think that Wainwright would be more likely to have long appearances (maybe a couple of innings) and not be in that regular 7-8-9 mix, so getting fewer appearances might be more likely.  (Interesting that Wainwright didn’t try to toss in an innings incentive as well.)

There’s really no downside to this deal.  If Wainwright gets hurt, it won’t cost the Cardinals.  If he’s bad enough, they have incentive not to pitch him.  If he’s great, he gets some money but the Cardinals still get a deal.  Even if you still have reservations about how Wainwright is going to be going forward–and I have to say I’m a little optimistic that you’ll see something more in line with those last few starts than over the last few years, though he’s obviously well off his prime–you have to realize that this is basically no harm, no foul and it allows a legend to go out a little more on his own terms.

The Cardinals also started their 40-man cleanup work.  By rule, they had to get those four players that were on the 60-day DL (Alex Reyes, Luke Gregerson, Michael Wacha, and Dexter Fowler) onto the regular 40-man roster because the 60-day isn’t used in the offseason.  With Wainwright returning and not freeing up a spot, St. Louis had a little work to do.  Norris, Tyson Ross, and Matt Adams were free agents but there was still one more spot, at minimum, that had to be cleared.

The Cardinals actually cleared three via the waiver methodFrancisco Pena cleared waivers and elected free agency, but that does not mean that his time with St. Louis is done.  Remember, Pena came into last year’s spring training on a minor league invite and the Cardinals wound up putting Josh Lucas on waivers so that he could make the team over Carson Kelly.  I don’t know that the club would do that again, but I wouldn’t completely pen Pena’s Redbird obituary.  If nothing else, if the Cards wind up moving Kelly this offseason in some sort of deal, Pena would make sense as again the veteran backup while Andrew Knizner would get the full year at Memphis.

The other two players, however, were claimed by other teams off of waivers and, as such, are gone from the Cardinals for the foreseeable future, if not forever.  Greg Garcia was the first to go, winding up being claimed by his hometown Padres.  It sounds like the best possible option for Garcia, who was really being squeezed out in St. Louis.  With Yairo Munoz needing some regular playing time and Jedd Gyorko still able to play many positions, it made Garcia pretty expendable since he was reaching his first shot at arbitration.  Garcia gets to play at home and hopefully can contribute to the Padres in a veteran role.  It’s just a little weird to see the Padres claim a major league Cardinal rather than their continual Rule 5 raiding of the minor league system.

Friday, the Reds took Matthew Bowman off of waivers, closing a significant chapter of the prior regime.  There’s no doubt that Bowman and his usage became almost shorthand as a reference to many of the issues fans had with Mike Matheny.  Even if Bowman was completely healthy and effective, neither of which he has proven yet, bringing back Bowman with those associations could have been problematic.  I think Bowman was better some may give him credit for in St. Louis but it felt like he was trending down, that the Cards had squeezed all they could out of him.  You have to wonder if David Bell called Matheny when Bowman went on waivers, looking for a recommendation.  If Bowman is healthy, he can help a team, but I’m not sure Cincinnati is the best place for him to try to regain his footing.  If nothing else, staying in the NL Central means the Cards will get a chance to see him fairly regularly, for good or ill.

So that’s what the Cardinals did.  The question is, who did they do it for?

The general manager meetings start this week and the rumors are likely to be flying around as the decision makers meet, the agents start to lay out their ideas, and baseball stokes the hot stove.  There’s a lot of talk about this season being different than last, when a slow moving market drug well into January and beyond.  I don’t know how much I completely buy into that, but I do think both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are locked into their new teams in enough time for you to buy jerseys for Christmas.  Whether the market will move around them or they’ll create a bottleneck still remains to be seen.  I think there will still be some folks looking for work after Christmas, though perhaps not at the level that we saw last winter.

I think that I’ve lined out all my reasons for the Cardinals to go get Bryce Harper on the various podcasts and, indeed, my reasons aren’t much different than everyone else’s.  It’s a very, very rare chance to line up one of the best talents in the game so young that a 10 year contract would likely mean he’s still productive at the end of it.  There’s a huge difference between trying to give a 31-year-old first baseman with foot issues a $250 million, 10-year deal and trying to give a 26-year-old outfielder with no significant injury history $350 million over the same span.  Besides the youth and athleticism, the financial landscape is significantly different now.  The FOX Sports Midwest billion-dollar contract has kicked in.  Ballpark Village is up and going.  The young talent is fully implemented.  The money is there and there’s got to be something done with it if only to keep the pitchforks and torches brigade away from the stadium.

I know St. Louis has less of this issue than some places, but you have to continue to excite the next generation, so that they’ll always want to come to the ballpark, especially when they get to the place where they can do it themselves or then start taking their families to the game.  How do you sell baseball to the younger generation?  Oftentimes by having that superstar, that player that transcends the game.  Bryce Harper is the best chance to have that.  Hopefully the front office recognizes that.

We’ll see what else comes out of the meetings, what other rumors might get stirred up this week.  Hopefully we’ll have a reason to get another post out soon!

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