Why the Cardinals could afford Wainwright

A little more than a year ago, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak had a career-defining decision to make, in whether to sign free-agent-to-be and face of the franchise Albert Pujols. But it was another would-be free agent that factored into that decision.

Mozeliak and the Cardinals extended Adam Wainwright's contract Wednesday, reaching a deal for five years and $97.5 million. Yes, relative to the Cardinals' history with long-term contracts for pitchers, it's outsized. But the contract is a smart one given the market, and it makes a lot of sense for the Cardinals in several ways.

By avoiding a $250-million sinkhole in Pujols' contract, Mozeliak kept his team's payroll flexible. That's a necessity for a mid-market team like the Cardinals, who, as Bernie Miklasz observed recently, have to balance annual competitiveness with long-term sustainability and therefore have less room for monolithic contracts.

The contract sets up Wainwright to be one of the longest-tenured starting pitchers in recent Cardinals history. He's currently tied for 31st on the club's all-time list in games started and tied for 10th since Bob Gibson:

1. Bob Gibson, 482

2. Bob Forsch, 481

3. Matt Morris, 206

4. Chris Carpenter, 197

5. Steve Carlton, 172

6. Curt Simmons, 171

7. Ray Sadecki, 165

8. Ray Washburn, 163

9. Joaquin Andujar, 153

10. Adam Wainwright, 151

10. Ernie Broglio, 151

Assuming Wainwright stays relatively healthy for the next six seasons -- more on that in a moment -- and averages 25 starts annually (his average over the past six, including his non-existent 2011 season), he'll reach 300 starts.

In addition to providing the kind of franchise appeal that Pujols would have, Wainwright provides immediate and near-term value for the team. With Chris Carpenter out of the picture, Wainwright inherits the mantle of veteran leadership. That will be vital as the club's stockpile of young pitching talent ascends to the rotation, which began with Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn, continues this season with Shelby Miller and, as the Cardinals hope, gets even better with Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal. Wainwright is a different kind of leader from Carpenter, but he can provide the same mentoring and stability.

That's to say nothing of his on-field performance, the main reason the Cardinals were willing to spend a team record for a pitcher. Since he entered the rotation in 2007, Wainwright has racked up the 16th most Wins Above Replacement among pitchers, and that's absent an entire season. He has a 3.30 Fielding-Independent Pitching mark as a starter, which compares favorably with Justin Verlander's 3.27, Felix Hernandez's 3.25, Cole Hamels' 3.53 and Jered Weaver's 3.63. And Wainwright, 31, is still relatively young.

The contract isn't overly team-friendly, but it's not going to break the bank. In terms of average annual value, it's more than Weaver's ($17 million) but less than recent contracts for Matt Cain ($21.25), Hamels ($24 million), Zack Greinke ($24.5) and Hernandez ($25).

One complicating issue is of course the righty's health. Wainwright had Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow ligament and missed all of 2011. He bounced back to form in his return last year, posting his best strikeout rate (8.34 per nine innings) since becoming a starter. However, the Cardinals undoubtedly recall not only Carpenter and his battles with injuries, but Mark Mulder, who never came back after tearing his rotator cuff. The best recovery example is probably former ace Matt Morris, who posted five respectable years in the rotation after his Tommy John surgery. Fangraphs' Jeff Zimmerman uses his tested formula to estimate that Wainwright has only an average chance for injury in 2013.

Back in December of 2011 when Pujols flew the coop for the Angels, few Cardinals fans were thinking about Wainwright. But Mozeliak and company were. Like a chess player thinking ahead multiple moves, Mozeliak saw into the future, even when others criticized him as being methodical. In spurning Pujols and opting for Wainwright and a more flexible payroll for the next several years, Mozeliak has shown that anything other than methodical would've been madness. Today, the Cardinals are better off for it.

Matt Philip writes for Fungoes.net.