The lanky righty knows it, too. So getting a deal done is probably going to cost the Redbirds dearly.
Wainwright, 31, has an 80-48 record with a 3.15 ERA to his credit. Zack Greinke, who has slightly less impressive statistics with a 91-78 record and a 3.77 ERA, landed a free-agent contract this offseason with the Los Angeles Dodgers that will pay him $147 million over the next six years. That's an average of $25.5 million a season. Yikes.
But what choice do the Redbirds have other than to write a very big check?
While the Cardinals have tons of young pitching talent, there is no one besides Wainwright currently on the roster capable of being the team ace in 2014. Someone has to mentor the green pitchers just like Chris Carpenter took a young Wainwright under his wing in 2006.
Veteran Jake Westbrook is a relatively durable guy capable of giving a team a chance to win just about every time he pitches. But he's not exactly the sort of guy who can end a losing streak by throwing a complete-game shutout. Westbrook isn't the leader sort. He's a pitcher who takes the ball every fifth day and pitches five or six innings with a middle-of-the-road ERA. What you see is what you get.
Lance Lynn had a great season in 2012. But it was his first year as a starter, and he hit the wall down the stretch. Before the All-Star break, Lynn held batters to a .235 batting average and had a 3.41 ERA. Afterward, he allowed batters to hit .279 and had a 4.32 ERA. Just because he won 18 games in 2012, it's not fair to count on Lynn to be a leader when he's in his second year as a starter and only 25 years old. Lynn might be a reliable No. 2 or 3 pitcher in the rotation a couple of years from now. But I wouldn't be surprised to see some inconsistency between now and then. Lynn, who is prone to losing his composure to the annoyance of his teammates, needs to learn to keep himself on an even keel before he can be pressed into service as a leader of younger players.
While he has some of the filthiest "stuff" I have ever seen, Jaime Garcia had a huge career setback last year when he hurt his shoulder. Garcia opted for rest instead of surgery, so a lot of folks inside and outside of the Cardinals organization aren't confident he's going to be healthy this season. Garcia did nothing to decrease the level of concern when he refused to make any bold statements about his confidence in the health of his shoulder last month at the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up. The fact that he dropped out of the World Baseball Classic only raises more eyebrows. He seemed to have lost confidence in his abilities last year as he pitched hurt. Garcia, as we stand four days before pitchers an catchers report to spring training, is a complete question mark for 2013 and beyond.
That leaves the kids: Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal. They all got a taste of major-league play in 2012, and they seem like they should all be able to contribute to the big-league club on some level in 2013. But it's important not to put too much pressure on them too soon. Somebody needs to take the heat at the front end of the rotation while the young guys are allowed to grow in the back end or even in the bullpen.
As much as the Redbirds need Wainwright to take on opposing aces, they need him to help guide the club's young hurlers to become quality major-league pitchers. While some guys on every roster are replaceable spare parts, someone has to carry the institutional knowledge of an organization and pass down what he knows to the next generation of star players.
Darryl Kile played that role and passed the torch to Woody Williams. Williams helped develop Carpenter from a prospect when they were teammates with the Toronto Blue Jays into a Cy Young winner with the Cardinals. Carpenter helped to groom Wainwright. Now it's Wainwright's turn.
Even if you threw out the intangibles, the Cardinals aren't likely to be able to replace their best starter from outside the organization. When a sub-.500 pitcher like Anibal Sanchez can command $80 million over five years, what are the odds St. Louis could find an ace for significantly cheaper than what it would cost to retain Wainwright?
Hopefully, Wainwright will be merciful to the only team for which he has played in the majors. Since he's past 30, it's going to be tough for the team to sign him to a six-year deal like that of Grienke, who is two years younger. But Wainwright, who has stated publicly that he broke off negotiations with St. Louis last season because he didn't want the distraction of negotiating a contract while trying to make the playoffs, knows he holds all the cards. He could try to push St. Louis to overpay.
The Cardinals have a potent offense, the top ranked farm system in baseball and an excellent supporting cast. They simply can't allow their keystone player to walk out the door and make a bright future seem suddenly uncertain.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.