Wainwright’s Injury: Key to Signing Pujols?

Adam Wainwright’s date with Tommy John surgery certainly hurts the Cardinals’ chances for success in 2011. But there could be an unexpected benefit: signing Albert Pujols.

Two days ago, Wainwright’s contract ranked among the very best in baseball. The Cardinals bought out seasons three through six of his major league career for just $15 million. Though he will now miss all of that fourth season, St. Louis has already booked a gigantic profit. According to FanGraphs’ win valuations, the team’s co-ace has delivered roughly $60 million in value over the past three seasons — four times what the Cards have paid him.

As Dave Cameron wrote when ranking Wainwright as #18 on his annual Trade Value list:

Anyone who wasn’t sure how good Wainwright’s curve was learned during Tuesday’s All-Star Game. His curveball is probably the best in the game, and his fastball, slider, and change-up aren’t bad either. He throws strikes, gets groundballs, and misses bats. There are really no flaws in his game. The Cardinals control him through 2013 at a grand total of $27 million, and the last two years of the deal are team options, limiting the liability if something goes wrong and he ends up hurt. Overall, the combination of excellence, low cost, and minimal risk adds up to a highly valued asset.

Those team options for 2012 and 2013 could prove crucial in finding the last few dollars to sign the team’s franchise player to the biggest contract in major league history.

Wainwright’s $9 million salary in 2012 and $12 million salary in 2013 became conditionally guaranteed when the right-hander finished in the top five of last season’s Cy Young voting. The only stipulation that would make those options not vest was if he finished 2011 on the disabled list. That year-end DL status is now assured.

Put yourself in GM John Mozeliak’s shoes, and you figure the Cardinals spent this winter assuming Wainwright’s 2012 and 2013 salaries were guaranteed. Here was a pitcher who’d topped 200 innings in three of the past four seasons. A catastrophic injury appeared unlikely. Now that it has happened, though, Mozeliak could get creative, if the spirit moved him.

Before we get to Pujols, let’s figure out if picking up Wainwright’s options is, other conditions aside, a smart move. The compounding factor with his options is that both must be picked up at the same time. That means the Cardinals wouldn’t be betting $9 million for one year; they’d be shelling out $21 million over two years. Roughly speaking, that means Wainwright would need to deliver 4 wins over what a replacement player can provide to justify the contract.

While there’s no hard and fast rule for a pitcher’s return after Tommy John surgery, a year or more is typically a safe bet. To get back to full strength, a year and a half or more is a more realistic timetable. If Wainwright returns in the summer of 2012, at less than full strength, it would be tough to project him for more one win next season…maybe two, in an optimistic scenario.

Assuming he has surgery in the next few weeks, he’d be about two years removed from TJ by Opening Day 2013. That could pave the way for a vintage Wainwright performance — he averaged nearly 6 wins per year in the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

Compound these projections with some of the dollars thrown at risky-but-talented pitchers like Ben Sheets and Rich Harden in the past couple years, and guaranteeing Wainwright’s options would seem to make sense. If the Cardinals decline his option and try to bid on him next off-season, Wainwright will have a better recent track record, and potentially less injury risk, than Sheets and Harden had at the time they got their money. The Cardinals could thus face a scenario where they would owe Wainwright more money in 2012 than if they’d just picked the options up.

Pujols is the gigantic wild card. If the Cardinals truly believe they can’t find enough money to meet his demands given their current and projected financial situation, finding another $21 million could provide those final few dollars needed to lock up the best player of this generation.

Wainwright could well offer ample surplus value at $21 million over two years. But if the Cardinals face an either/or situation on a post-TJ Wainwright vs. keeping a player who could go down as one of the 10 best in the game’s history…it’d be tough to bring Wainwright back.

One piece of advice for the Cardinals: If you want to invest Wainwright’s money in Pujols, get the big guy locked up first. Losing a potential 2013 Cy Young candidate and the guy who might one day surpass Stan Musial would mark one of the darkest moments in team history.

Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

newest oldest most voted

So… I was reading Hayhurst’s book “Bullpen Gospels” (which is amazingly good, best book I’ve read in a while), and he tells an anecdote about a guy who had TJ surgery. A week (or something) after going under the knife he walks into the doctor’s office in a sling. He apparently has done all of his homework and knows exactly what’s going on in his elbow. He asks the doctor, “Is there any medical reason why I can’t pitch right now?” and the doctor says “Well… no not really. Just pain”. The guy says, fcuk it, and straightens his arm out violently, passes out because of the pain and slams to the floor. Pretty hilarious, I didn’t do the story justice, but Hayhurst sets it up beautifully. He’s a great writer.

Basically, just curious if Hayhurst was bending the truth. Is pain really the only reason guys can’t come back from TJ sooner?


And what’s best is when he comes to, he has much greater range of motion. Sounds like the beginning stages of a new rehab methodology.

Greg H
Greg H

The rehabilitation process usually begins two weeks after surgery. By then the incisions and new ligament have healed sufficiently. So I assume that’s what the story (however apocryphal it may be) is referring to.

Pain isn’t the reason it takes so long to come back from TJ surgery. Orthopedic surgeons have developed a rehabilitation protocol with the goal that the pitcher resume pitching competitively in 12 months following surgery. My understanding is it takes that long for the pitcher to build up the strength, endurance, and range of motion necessary to pitch competitively again. It also takes a long time for the transplanted tendon to ligamentize, which basically means the tendon has to learn how to act like a ligament before it’s ready to withstand the rigors of pitching competitively.