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Friday, March 21, 2008

Wainwright signs new deal with Cardinals

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals confirmed this morning that they have signed starting pitcher Adam Wainwright to a long-term contract, as first reported by the Post-Dispatch.

Wainwright signed a four-year contract that guarantees him $15 million, and it includes an option for two more years. (See contract highlights in box at top right on this page.)

The option is a team option, but Wainwright can trigger the two-year option by reaching specific innings-pitched and games-started incentives over the final two years of the new contract.

The option was a key to completing the deal, general manager John Mozeliak said, because it gave the Cardinals protection against injury and it gave them control over Wainwright's first two years as a free agent.

Before the deal, Wainwright would be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season.

"He embodies everything we look for in a player," Mozeliak said.

The club announced the deal Thursday at their offices in Jupiter, Fla. Wainwright's agent, Steve Hammond, attended the press conference.

The discussion on the contract began in January and continued through the Cardinals renewing Wainwright for the 2008 season a couple weeks ago. Hammond said a critical portion of the negotiations was agreeing to the Cardinals' wish for a two-year option, instead of the one-year options attached to similar deals like those done for San Diego's Chris Young or Colorado's Jeff Francis in recent seasons.

Exact finacial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Wainwright will receive a significant raise from the $448,000 he was set to make in 2008, and the contract will climb throughout its term. The guaranteed portion of the contract buys out all three of his arbitration years.

"Hopefully I go out there and make myself the most underpaid player in the game for the next four years," Wainwright said.

* * *

Our earlier story on Wainwright getting a new contract, posted at 11 p.m. Wednesday:

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. • The Cardinals’ opening day starter and present-day ace Adam Wainwright is expected to sign a long-term contract today with the club that assures his place in its future.

The Cardinals plan to finalize and announce a multiple-year deal for Wainwright that could make him a fixture in the rotation through 2013.

The contract is pending the results of a physical Wainwright had Wednesday. Multiple sources said that an agreement had been reached. The club declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing contract negotiations. Wainwright and his agent have also declined to comment.

For several weeks the Cardinals and Wainwright’s representative have been discussing the framework of a multiple-year deal, and they continued to negotiate after the team unilaterally renewed his contract for the 2008 season. The guaranteed part of the new contract is four years and expected to be worth around $15 million, and it will buy out Wainwright’s arbitration years, through 2011. The deal has an option that would cover the first two years of his free agency, sources said.

Previously, only Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina have had contracts with the club that can extend through 2012.

The Cardinals have yet to publicly confirm Wainwright as the opening day starter for March 31 at Busch Stadium — they may in a news conference today — yet there is little doubt who will get the honor. Wainwright is coming off his first season as a major-league starter, and with Carpenter and Mark Mulder rehabbing from surgery, Wainwright is the staff’s budding star.

A year after serving as the Cardinals’ World Series-winning closer, Wainwright won 14 games, the most in club history by a first-year starter. He went 14-12 with a rotation-best 3.70 ERA, and after the All-Star break his 2.71 ERA was the fourth-lowest in all of baseball. Ten of his final 12 starts were quality starts.

The exact financial structure of the deal was not disclosed by sources Wednesday, though pitchers with similar service time offer blueprints. Last April, San Diego’s Chris Young agreed to a four-year deal worth $14.5 million that escalates from $750,000 in its first year to $6.25 million in its final year, with an $8.5 million option.

Colorado ace Jeff Francis, who will pitch opposite Wainwright on opening day at Busch, agreed to a four-year, $13.25 million deal in November 2006 that also climbs toward a $7 million option for 2011.

Wainwright’s guaranteed deal surpasses both, and its length speaks to his value to the Cardinals. It was only two winters ago that the club flinched at the requested five-year deal by free agent starter A.J. Burnett. The Cardinals had preferred to avoid deals of that length with pitchers.

An exercised option would put Wainwright’s at six years.

When the Wainwright contract is completed, new general manager John Mozeliak will have secured a battery of cornerstone players to multiple-year deals before the team plays its first regular-season game under his tenure. Mozeliak signed Molina to a four-year, $15.5 million contract in January.

As a third-year player, Wainwright did not have arbitration rights this winter. And because the team and his agent could not initially come to an agreement, the team renewed his contract. Wainwright sought around $550,000; the club employed a scale to set players’ values this season and Wainwright was pegged at about $448,000. Among the players with less than three years of service time, he was the highest-paid.

Internally, the club recognized how clinical the move was, especially for one of the faces of the franchise’s new, younger look.

Since striking out the New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran with a curveball for the final out of the National League Championship Series in 2006, Wainwright has been part of the club’s fabric — and its advertising. Earlier this spring, Wainwright volunteered to appear in a commercial for the club, hamming it up with closer Jason Isringhausen.

The Cardinals acquired the righthander from Atlanta in December 2003. The Cardinals also got Jason Marquis and Ray King in a deal that sent J.D. Drew south. Braves pitcher John Smoltz recently called it "one of the more regrettable trades we’ve ever done."

After a 10-10 season with Class AAA Memphis in 2005, Wainwright was uneasy and unsure as a September call-up. The next spring, he was everything but. The righthander forced his way into the bullpen, and by the end of the season, with Isringhausen injured, Wainwright had a 3.12 ERA in 61 appearances and was the playoff closer. His title-clinching strikeout of Detroit’s Brandon Inge in Game 5 of the 2006 World Series was the first strikeout to close a championship since 1988.

He struck out 15 and did not allow a run in 92⁄3 innings that October.

Wainwright went to the rotation last season, and this year the Cardinals have delicately, though clearly, hoisted the ace mantle onto him while the other starters mend.

"He has a lot to learn as far as from start to start what you’re working with," manager Tony La Russa said earlier this spring. "He’s a bright guy. You could see him start to put it together last year. He’s still innings away from being as great as he could be."

Wainwright will make his penultimate spring start Friday at Roger Dean Stadium. In his previous two starts, Wainwright has gone 10 innings, allowed three earned runs and struck out four. Pitching coach Dave Duncan has called him impressive. He was the first pitcher in the Grapefruit League this season to pitch five innings in a start, and he held the New York Mets to two hits in five innings Saturday.

In the second inning of that exhibition game, Wainwright faced Beltran for the first time since the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Wainwright threw him a curve.

Beltran popped out.

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