Is Any Player Indispensable?
I’ve been somewhat surprised (also frustrated) by the tone of Cardinal fans this offseason. The repeated demands (still ongoing at this late date) to re-sign Kyle Lohse were wrong-headed and tiresome. Now the team’s increasing pessimism about the Adam Wainwright negotiations have been met with screams of ”PAY HIM” from the fans.
Did we learn nothing from the Albert Pujols situation after the 2011 season?
I seem to remember a conservative fan base supporting the fiscal responsibility of the club after a bold stare-down led Pujols to choose a larger contract elsewhere. Despite Pujols being one of the greatest players in a generation and leading the franchise to two World Championships in five years, the fans were willing to let him go because he wanted a ten year contract and more than $25M a season. That price is just too high they correctly told themselves, even though Pujols would impact roughly 150+ games per season.
As last year’s near miss demonstrated, the Cardinals could get by just fine without Pujols.
So why MUST the Cardinals now pay a surgically-repaired Wainwright (31 years old) more than $20M a year to appear in 30 games per season? Why should the Cardinals pay Lohse (34 years old) more than $15M a season for the same number of appearances? And why would the Cardinals invest long-term money on pitchers in their thirties?
Outside of catching, no position on a baseball team carries more risk of injury than a starting pitcher. Throwing one pitch exerts tremendous stress on the delicate structures of the arm; imagine what throwing 100 pitches every fifth day can do. Some pitchers have freak genetics that allow them to pitch at a high caliber for decades without injury, but most starters have a relatively small window of greatness. And, typically, that window of opportunity occurs in their twenties, not their thirties.
When the fans demand that the Cardinals pay Wainwright (31 years old) and Lohse (34 years old) team-leading sums of money to influence one-fifth of a season, they aren’t thinking about how much risk that involves. It’s easy to look at past successes or ill-defined qualities like “leadership” or “clubhouse presence” and justify the cost. However, whatever money the Cardinals might give to these pitchers is GUARANTEED money; they can’t recoup the costs if something goes horribly wrong after the ink has dried on the contract.
The Cardinals have taken risks on starters before, and they’ve been burned on occasion. For instance, we can think back just a few years to the ill-fated Mark Mulder contract, a two-year, $13M deal finalized in 2007 as Mulder was rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. It was a huge risk, but one the Cardinals felt they needed to take given their lack of pitching prospects. As you might remember, Mulder never recovered from his shoulder injury. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ended up paying for a large portion of that worthless contract.
Even well-regarded contracts for starters can quickly fail. For instance, the Cardinals rightfully gave Chris Carpenter a two-year, $21M contract after his magnificent 2011 campaign. There were factors weighing against such a contract: Carpenter was entering his age 37 season and had endured multiple surgeries on his pitching arm. The Cardinals made the deal anyway because it was the correct thing to do. As we know now, the Cardinals will be on the hook for most of that $21M, and they received a total of five appearances for it.
Unlike the situation surrounding the 2007-2008 teams, the Cardinals are now in a position where they have young, talented arms looking for a place in this rotation. Their time is now, not later. They are like newborn puppies that have grown to the point where it’s time to leave the box and explore the world around them. They do not need to sign a Mulder-like contract for an aging pitcher, regardless of the former quality of that pitcher.
Wainwright and Lohse have been excellent pitchers and proven winners. They both have the right mix of talent and leadership. However, the Cardinals do not NEED either one of them to compete and possibly succeed.
If the Cardinals re-sign Wainwright, he will give them 30 starts and probably somewhere between 13 and 18 wins. If they don’t re-sign Wainwright, I guarantee that there will a starter pitching in his spot in 2014. I also guarantee that whoever takes that spot (Shelby Miller? Trevor Rosenthal? Joe Kelly?) will give us 30 starts as well. Given their talent level, any of those three pitchers could probably produce 13-18 wins just like Wainwright. If not, we have more horses in our stable ready to step in.
The fans need to understand that guaranteeing $15-20M a season for six or seven years to one player at such high risk of injury who only influences one-fifth of a season is incredibly dangerous and foolhardy. It’s especially so when there are younger, healthier, and promising options readily available.
I love Wainwright. I appreciate Lohse. However, this is a business, one governed by projections and costs and bottom-line figures. As the Pujols negotiations showed, Bill DeWitt and John Mozeliak are loyal to a point, but ultimately pragmatic and unsympathetic about the bottom-line. I expect them to do the same in regards to Wainwright. They are not playing the fantasy baseball game fans expect from them.
It’s time for the fans to adjust their thinking. At a certain price point, every player – even the GREATEST player – is dispensable.