The St. Louis Cardinals declined to make a big splash at baseball’s Winter Meetings last week, instead opting to fill one of the team’s few needs for 2013 by signing lefty specialist Randy Choate. But over the weekend, another team struck a deal that may have serious impact on the Cards’ future plans to retain one of the most important players on the team: the ace of the rotation.

The Los Angeles Dodgers threw ridiculous money at starting pitcher Zack Greinke, inking the righty to a deal worth $147 million over six years. For those keeping score, that’s an average annual value of $24.5 million. Here’s a sentence no one ever thought would be true: Zack Greinke is the highest-paid right hander in the history of Major League Baseball. Let that sink in for a second.

Now come back to reality, and chew on this: the Cardinals may be completely priced out of the market for Adam Wainwright’s services beyond 2013 because of what happened this weekend. Talk of extending Wainwright has started, but no details of actual negotiations have emerged. Of course, since there is no deal in place, as soon as the Greinke signing was announced I’m sure it was back to the drawing board for both sides in any Wainwright talks. Everyone thought Greinke would be the market-setter for this offseason; instead he became the high-water mark for every pitcher everywhere, including Wainwright. So while the Dodgers and Angels fight over who can become “Yankees West,” teams like the Cardinals are left reeling and wondering what their pending free agents must be thinking.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the first time this kind of thing happened to the Cards. Back in 2010, they were just starting to wade into the “What will it take to keep Albert Pujols here forever” waters when the Philadelphia Phillies gave Ryan Howard $25 million per year for five years. Maybe that deal had a direct influence on Pujols’ decision to test free agency, maybe it didn’t. But the fact remains that he did get to free agency and was ultimately given a contract by the LA Angels that dwarfs Howard’s. The Cardinals never stood a chance.

And they may not stand a chance again, this time with Wainwright. It’s easy to speculate that both the total value and the AAV of the Greinke deal far exceeded what most sane people thought he was worth. Relatively speaking, some team was going to overpay for him regardless. That was simply a function of being a free agent in a down year for free agents at your position. But the offseason markets are never some big, secret unknown that general managers enter blindly. John Mozeliak had to know whatever Greinke got would affect Wainwright’s next deal, even though he isn’t a free agent for another year. Did Mo make a mistake by not pushing the envelope to get a Wainwright deal done before or immediately after the Winter Meetings?

I hate to say it, but the Adam Wainwright Era may be coming to a close sooner than we thought because of the Zack Greinke deal. Waino can easily command $22 million or more per year based on the Greinke scale; will the Cardinals cough up that kind of money for a starting pitcher? Some may believe Wainright will give the Cards a hometown discount. What would that be, $21 million per year?

Another question that will be posed, of course, is whether the Cardinals should even bother paying Wainwright that kind of money because of his injury history. But Tommy John surgery has a long enough track record of success that there’s no reason to believe Waino won’t return to top-of-rotation form, and as early as next year. The chances of that are at least as good as him repeating his 2012 performance or worse. Make no mistake about it, Wainwright is an ace. And he will expect to be paid like one.

The Cardinals are lucky to have pitching depth in their farm system, but they need that #1 at the top of the rotation. Greinke got ridiculous money. Wainwright could—or maybe should—get more. To gauge that market, just look at the salaries, stats, history, etc. and then ask yourself who you would rather have taking the ball in Game 7 of the World Series—Zack Greinke or Adam Wainwright?

Chris Reed is a freelance writer who also blogs at Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter @birdbrained.

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# brockohol
Monday, December 10, 2012 3:29 PM
I also think this is a big reason none of our young arms were moved for some "pop off the bench" (which is the dumbest fucking saying in baseball). We may need Rosenthal, Kelly, Miller, etc...in a couple of years.

The bigger question is...do we even need to throw our names in the hat of Wainright or play the whole thing the same way we did Albert? Meaning, just make an offer now that is respectable/realistic, but obviously not the best he can get and hope he takes it. If not, hope he gets some astronomical deal that any logical Cards fan knows is not only not possible for the Cardinals but is also just a stupid deal (for example Albert getting paid 30mil when hes in his 40s) that way we can say "we tried."

I say dont get to tied up with him. For very huge free agent pitching deal you can name that has been a success, I can name 10 that has been a nightmare.

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