Wainwright first made his national reputation with a single pitch, a devastating strike three-looking curveball thrown to Carlos Beltran to end the 2006 National League Championship Series. The right-hander was then the Cardinals rookie closer, but made the final step into MLB's pitching elite as a starter in 2009.
When considering the top starting pitching duos on any National League club, the discussion almost always begins with Wainwright and teammate Chris Carpenter and ends with the San Francisco Giants' duo of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain – or the other way around.
For much of last summer, the four were considered primary candidates for the NL Cy Young Award. Though Cain ultimately fell back slightly and did not place in the voting as did the other three, his "decline" meant he finished with a 14-8 record and an ERA of 2.89, results a vast majority of pitchers would die for.
As the Cardinals head into the Bay Area for a weekend series beginning Friday, they draw both home aces. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Lincecum, 25, will take the hill on Friday and Cain, also age 25, is scheduled to start on Sunday. Wainwright's turn will be in between, on Saturday. Carpenter, who pitched Wednesday, will not appear.
Though neither young San Francisco star is signed for as many seasons into the future as Wainwright, each inked high-profile multi-year deals recently. As such, they offer great contrast, reinforcing how favorable Wainwright's contract is for St. Louis.
Facing an arbitration panel's decision in February of either $13 million or $8 million for Lincecum's salary this season, the Giants instead came to terms with him on a two-year deal worth $23 million, covering this year and next. Because of his service time, Lincecum actually has four seasons of arbitration eligibility prior to free agency instead of the usual three. That means the Giants have the potential for two more such years ahead before "The Freak" can test free agency prior to the 2014 season.
Less than one month ago, on March 28, Cain signed an extension which replaced the final guaranteed year and an option year in his previous contract. The new deal basically commits the two parties for one additional year, through 2012. The contract buys out Cain's first free agency-eligible season and in total will cost the Giants at least $27.25 million. (I should note that the figures quoted here are guaranteed values, which include salary, signing bonuses and option buyouts, but not potential performance bonuses that could increase total contract value.)
Cain's MLB experience level lines up exactly with Wainwright's in terms of arbitration eligibility and free agency. Lincecum is two years behind the others. In the table below, I lined the pitchers up, not by calendar year, but by experience level. That allows us to see what each will make when a four-year player, at five years, etc.
|3 yrs svc||4 yrs svc||5 yrs svc||FA|
|Wainwright||$2.6M||$4.65M||$6.5M||$9M opt||$12M opt|
|2 yrs svc||3 yrs svc||4 yrs svc||5 yrs svc||FA|
While the salaries of Cain and Wainwright track closely last season and this, Wainwright's deal is clearly the better one in 2011 and 2012. In addition, the Cardinals hold an option for Wainwright's services in 2013 while Cain currently would be eligible to test the open market at that time.
Lincecum's annual pay dwarfs the other two. He developed more quickly and reached the brink of arbitration before signing his multi-year deal, so his salary accelerated more rapidly than the others. In addition, as noted above, "The Freak" has two more arbitration-eligible seasons ahead in 2012 and 2013, which I estimated in the above table at $17 million and $20 million, respectively.
Lincecum can become a free agent prior to the 2014 season, which is most likely the earliest that Wainwright could also hit free agency. The difference is that to get there, the Cardinals will have spent approximately $36 million for five years of Wainwright's services, while the Giants could pay $60 million or more for one fewer year of Lincecum.
Finally, as Beltran and his disappointed 2006 Mets mates know all too well, Wainwright went on to earn the ultimate piece of hardware - one that Lincecum and Cain also still covet – a World Series ring.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Brian pens a column each Wednesday at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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