An Extension for El Piñata?

Sep 16, 2009 at 2:31 pm
click to enlarge Sure, he hasn't actually pitched like a piñata this year, but it's just too good a nickname to stop now.
Sure, he hasn't actually pitched like a piñata this year, but it's just too good a nickname to stop now.
Apparently, Joel Piñeiro really wants to stick around with the Cardinals a while longer. He has reportedly told his agent to get a deal done that will keep him here if at all possible. 

Seems like a nice story, right? Piñeiro reinvents himself as a pitcher, becoming one of the top sinker-ballers in the league, then signs a nice deal to stay with the team -- and coaching staff -- who helped get him over the hump. 

There's really only one problem. I don't think there's any chance it happens. 
The problem with trying to sign Jo-El to an extension has absolutely nothing to do with him or his performance. Piñeiro has been outstanding this year, and it isn't a mirage. His Fielding Independent Percentage has been right around in line with his ERA all season, indicating he hasn't been getting unusually lucky. (Author coughs, sounding suspiciously as if he's saying Ryan Franklin while doing so.) More importantly, there's really nothing in Joel's statistical profile to suggest he shouldn't be able to roughly approximate this performance going forward. He'll obviously be in for some regression, most likely, as it's extremely difficult to be this good for very long, but there's no reason to believe he's going to drop off a cliff. 

So if Joel is as good a bet as any to continue forward with this solid performance of his, and he obviously wants to continue wearing the Birds on the Bat, then what's the problem? 

The problem, as it so often seems to be, is money. Plain and simple. 

The issue at hand is this: the Cardinals, even after shedding quite a few big money contracts the past couple season, still have a lot of money tied up in just a few players. Whether or not that's a good way to construct a roster is up for debate, but what isn't is the fact you have to be able to save money around the margins of the team if you're going to have such a top-heavy club. 

For 2010, the Cards already have the following salaries on the books (all figures courtesy of Cot's Contracts): 

Albert Pujols -- $16 million
Chris Carpenter -- $14.5 million
Kyle Lohse -- $8.875 million
Adam Wainwright -- $4.65 million

Now, that doesn't really look so bad. Wainwright's well-below market value salary helps to balance these out a bit, but the fact is, there's approximately $44 million already devoted to four players on this roster. Still, for a team with a payroll which should approach $100 million, there's still plenty of wiggle room, right? 

Hang on a sec. Ryan Ludwick, who made $3.7 this year, is likely going to get a pretty fair raise, either through arbitration or just a straight contract. You can probably pencil him in for ~$5-6 million. Mark DeRosa is a free agent after the season, and even with his wrist issues, it'll cost you to keep him. I can't imagine his base salary next season would be anything less than, say, $5 million also. 

Then, of course, there's the elephant in the room: Matt Holliday. Or should I say, the twin elephants, because if you sign Holliday, you likely need to rework Albert's contract as well. (Albert needs to get a new deal soon anyway, but if Holliday walks, I think it waits another year. Just a guess.) 

The Cardinals have all but publicly stated they're looking at resigning Holliday as priority #1 this offseason, and probably with good reason. You have the best player at his position smack dab in the middle of his prime years; letting him walk away is a very tough pill to swallow. But between Holliday's numbers, his age, and his agent, signing him is going to be very, very expensive. I would be shocked if the Cards could get a deal with Holliday done for less than $17 million a year. (It will probably be higher still, but it works for the purpose of this exercise.) 

So if the Cards choose to retain Ludwick -- and all indications are they plan to, and should -- and if they do get a deal done with Holliday, you can add another $22 million to that payroll figure. You don't want Pujols to be paid less than someone else on his own team, so his extension gets done at nearly the same time as Holliday's deal. Pujols will get at least $20 million annually, and maybe closer to 25. We'll just call it $22 million, shall we? 

At that point, the salary commitments for 2010 look more like this: 

Albert Pujols -- $22 million
Matt Holliday -- $17 million
Chris Carpenter -- $14.5 million 
Kyle Lohse -- $8.875 million
Ryan Ludwick -- $5 million
Mark DeRosa(?) -- $5 million
Adam Wainwright -- $4.65 million

Now do you see the real problem? Under a scenario like this one (and this is probably what the Cardinals would really like to see happen, to be honest), you're now looking at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 75-77 million dollars committed to just seven players. That's not even counting what Ryan Franklin is going to make, or the $4.25 Yadier Molina is due. 

The thing is, Joel Piñeiro would probably be a pretty good sign for this club, I think, but let's face it: in free agency, Jo-El should get every bit what Kyle Lohse got this offseason based on merit. He'll probably come up a bit short of Lohse's deal, largely because of the economic situation, but the two pitchers are startlingly similar. Both are known for their durability, have track records of inconsistent performance, are right around 30 years old, and took big steps forward upon coming to St. Louis. If Piñeiro signs for anything less than $7 million a year, 3 years minimum, he should fire his agent on the spot. 

But there's the rub. Piñeiro is too good to take a contract cheap enough for the Cardinals to afford him. He's less of a priority than Matt Holliday, and rightly so, seeing as how the Cards already have three pitchers under contract at big dollars for the next couple seasons. If the Cards fail to sign Holliday, sure, Piñeiro becomes an option, but at that point, the team may need more extensive retooling. Maybe if DeRosa walks and the Cardinals are willing to go with a David Freese or Allen Craig at third base, the money gets close for Piñeiro. 

In the end, I just don't see Piñeiro getting an extension with the Cardinals, and I can't say I would blame the team for staying away. It's disappointing, yes, but John Mozeliak and Company have carefully navigated the Cardinals back to a place where they have some real financial flexibility, a strong change from the last days of Walt Jocketty's tenure. I'm not so sure the front office is all that willing to immediately mortgage this thing to the hilt so soon after they finally got out from under the previous contracts. 

It's a little funny, really. I said from the beginning I thought the Kyle Lohse deal was going to bite the Cardinals in the ass, but I thought it would be due to poor performance in the latter years of the contract. I didn't think it would prove an issue so quickly, and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the reason Kyle Lohse's deal hurt so much is because it might very well prevent the Cardinals from signing Joel Piñeiro.