Going beyond three years just feels wrong

At the end of September, negotiations between the St. Louis Cardinals and right-handed pitcher Kyle Lohse culminated in an announcement that the then-29-year-old would remain a member of the club for four more seasons. The price, negotiated by agent Scott Boras, was $41 million.

The player wanted the security of a multiyear contract and the opportunity to remain in St. Louis. As a result, Lohse pressured Boras to deviate from the agent’s standard operating procedure and close a deal prior to the pitcher re-entering the free agent market.

I am amused when I read some revisionist views of these events, crediting Boras for outsmarting the Cardinals in getting the deal done early, before the market softened. Truth is that Boras made it very clear at the signing press conference that he was not in favor of it, but deferred to the pitcher’s demands. Dumb luck is sometimes better than no luck at all.

At the time of the announcement, many of us had at least mild concern over the deal for several reasons. First, the price felt like no bargain for a middle-of-the-rotation starter with a solid, but unspectacular record. Now with the full benefit of hindsight, the market decline has exposed the Cardinals as having paid more than they should have due to their haste.

The second area of general discomfort is the no-trade clause present for the entire term of the deal and finally, the fourth season just feels like one too many years.

I know. The use of the term “feeling” is about as subjective as any comment can be.

Here’s why. Let’s look at the other most recent contracts for a period of over three years initiated by the Cardinals with players that would have been free agent eligible.

Chris Carpenter, December 2006

Their ace was coming off his most two recent seasons in which he won one Cy Young Award and placed third in the other year to go along with a World Series victory. The Cardinals were trying to sign one of the top free agent starting pitchers, Jason Schmidt, so the club negotiated a massive extension with Chris Carpenter as well.

The Cardinals did this despite the fact they had one year plus a club option remaining on Carpenter’s then-current contract. The amounts due the pitcher for the 2007 and 2008 seasons would have been $15 million under that pre-empted deal.

Instead, the Cardinals paid $19 million over the last two years as part of their renewed five-year, $63.5 million commitment to Carpenter, plus they also hold a 2012 club option. That leaves just $44.5 million of guaranteed money to go.

An unstated reason to do the deal when they did was to maintain the salary structure of the club as Schmidt was in line to fetch almost $16 million per year. The Cardinals wanted to ensure Carpenter’s compensation was in line with the highest-paid pitcher on the team. They and the Dodgers reportedly offered Schmidt comparable contracts, but the free agent opted for the West Coast. Whew!

In the two years since, Carpenter and Schmidt between them have earned about $1 million per inning pitched – a total of 47 innings while drawing over $44 million and counting.

Scott Rolen – September 2002

Shortly after coming to the Cardinals from the Philadelphia Phillies that July, new third baseman Scott Rolen received an offer he couldn’t refuse, eight years and $90 million. (Rolen and CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. are shown on signing day.) After productive early years, including a run for the top as part of the 2004 MV3 and a 2006 World Series crown, the relationship ended prematurely last January.

Upset with Cardinals management over his treatment and with his shoulder weakened by multiple surgeries, Rolen wanted out of Dodge. Amazingly, then-new sheriff John Mozeliak found a taker in the Toronto Blue Jays.

Troy Glaus moved to St. Louis as the unhappy Rolen headed to the Land of the Great White North, where his offensive struggles continued. The Cardinals-Glaus marriage, while solid in its first year, will end after the 2009 season, while the Jays will still be bound to pay a declining Rolen $11 million in 2010.

When considering the Carpenter and Rolen deals along with what might have been with Schmidt, is there any reason the Cardinals shouldn’t be concerned about making a long-term commitment to any player?

It just so happened that Kyle Lohse was next in line.

: Not included here are three long-term deals put in place under different circumstances – to buy out young players’ arbitration-eligible years and beyond.

These contracts were given to Albert Pujols in 2004 (seven years, $100 million plus a team option for year eight), Yadier Molina in 2008 (four years, $15.5 million plus a team option for year five) and Adam Wainwright (four years, $15 million plus team options for years five and six).

Pujols’ deal is clearly a bargain but external pressure is already mounting to extend his current contract – despite the fact its final three seasons still remain – two contract years plus the club option.

While year one of both Molina’s and Wainwright’s contracts have been favorable for both sides, good player health for each is key to the club getting full value for the risk taken in issuing the long-term deals earlier than required.