Financial terms of Adam Wainwright's one-year contract for 2019 have not been disclosed, but it's probably safe to assume that it's for a much more conservative amount than his last deal. As fond as the organization is of repeated strolls down memory lane, it seems unlikely that they would overpay for more live-action nostalgia with Wainwright.
It's not that they've been burned by bad deals lately (they have) or that they can't afford to spend an extra buck or two (they can); it's that they have no reason to spend an inordinate amount. They need or don't need Wainwright roughly as much as he needs or doesn't need them, and that makes for a really great pairing.
The combination of zero leverage and "want" replacing the "need" variable in the calculus of it all results in one of those really great low risk deals with a potentially solid upside. At worst, the Cardinals pay Wainwright a couple million to try and contribute in 2019. At best, they get a motivated pitcher who can eat innings and only gets paid for productivity thanks to an incentive-laden contract.
It's a gamble, but it's a smart one. As the saying goes, "don't bet more than you are prepared to lose". In terms of financial parameters for the deal, the base salary probably says a lot about what the Cardinals feel they can afford to lose should everything go south here. The incentives and ease of reaching those incentives likely say everything about what they could hope to pay should Wainwright show up next year spewing forth unicorns and rainbows from his backside.
I'm actually thankful that terms were not disclosed initially, because the rush to judgement will be both fierce and ludicrously silly once they become public. At one end of the spectrum will be those who think it's sheer folly to bring him back. The other end is mostly populated by people who would bring him back just because he's Adam Wainwright. Collectively, the range of opinions will probably form a Broxton-shaped curve with emotional attachment playing a significant role. That's unfortunate, because it's difficult to attach a monetary value to emotion.
If we were talking about some other 37 year-old starting pitcher with Wainwright's pitching and health track records, the discussion would probably take on the form of a "cheap flyer with potential upside" debate. Detachment would make it much easier to weigh risk and reward. Disinterested parties could more easily assign a realistic value to projected productivity and more objectively put the numbers into perspective.
Sounds ideal, but it's not feasible. This discussion is more academic than productive, and it's really just to amuse ourselves while waiting for the next sportsball event to occur. Reality and a sensible perspective need not apply. If time is merely the space between two distinct events, then talking about Wainwright's deal is the "space" part which makes pulling a set of numbers ostensibly from within a certain body cavity seem way more fun.
So, let's talk about Randy Choate.
Will the Cardinals learn from their past mistakes, or will they just recycle a contract template for a bad idea and modify it to suit their purposes? As you've probably tried to repress from your memory, I'll remind you that Choate's deal was a 3-year contract with $7.5M guaranteed. The deal included a bonus structure based on appearances made, and one would hope that you've repressed memory of those appearances as well.
Choate was guaranteed $1.5M for the first year of the deal, and that seems to be at the bottom end of the "low base, reachable incentives" contract style that many teams opt for with older players. Now, add some money simply because Wainwright isn't Randy Choate, but subtract a few dollars for the DeWallet narrative that persists in spite of rational human beings.
Add for inflation, and back the number down to account for the present day economic climate. Modify for payroll considerations and tack on some more for inflation. Adjust for 2013 dollars, carry the 2, and include the multiplier for Wainwright not being Greg Holland. Reduce that value by some constant multiplied by Avogadro's number divided by the Rydberg constant, and then round up to the nearest even multiple of your birthday expressed as a Julian day.
Then toss the results out the window.
In a pragmatic sense, it doesn't really matter what the base salary is, unless you think the team would just hand Wainwright another $19.5M to potentially be the best cheerleader the dugout has ever seen. The base salary could be $2M or $7M, and the difference between the two wouldn't be enough to change the way the team does business. If signing Wainwright to a bonus year cost enough to actually place meaningful constraints on how active the team can be this off-season, then they probably wouldn't have committed the money. In other words, it would be silly to sign up for self-imposed limitations resulting from a Wainwright deal if doing so impacts competitiveness.
Stranger things have happened though. Looking at you, Greg Holland and Brett Cecil (not at the same time, because that would take a really wide angle view). It's just doubtful that they've handcuffed themselves in the figurative sense. That doesn't preclude the possibility that they handcuff themselves in the literal sense, but that's a topic best left to Kyle in Prospects After Dark.
Basically, if they thought that they could sign a "big bat in the middle of the lineup" for several truckloads of cash, then Wainwright's deal must not be a real hindrance. The other side of that particular coin is that they signed Wainwright BECAUSE they don't anticipate signing a franchise player from the short list of Manny and Machado. The edge of this fictitious coin represents door number three behind which is a magical land where one of Machado/Donaldson/Harper lands in their lap. The Cardinals must then scrounge under couch cushions and displace Clark St panhandlers to pay the piper, because they've spent their leftover allowance on Wainwright already. Granted, the odds of this happening are astronomically worse than the odds of flipping a coin and having it land upright on its edge, but whatever.
Perhaps the coin analogy is the product of reading too much into a deal which is essentially just a roll of the dice on a guy who may be as likely to throw 15 innings as he is to throw 150. The point is that it's probably not a particularly expensive roll of those dice, and the floor is probably set by what the Cardinals are prepared to burn combined with the minimum wage Wainwright is willing to accept for his services. The team's payroll for 2019 projects to be well under the Opening Day payroll from 2018, so they could very well have money to spend and nowhere truly pressing to spend it. Why not spend it on Uncle Charlie and simultaneously battle the DeWallet narrative while also getting some PR love from fans not ready to see him go?
On the other side of the table, Wainwright has made roughly $137M during his career just from baseball contracts alone. That doesn't include endorsement deals or any other revenue streams. He probably doesn't need an 8-figure deal for next season to keep the lights turned on at his home, and he doesn't come across as the guy who needs the spotlight or the big paycheck to feed his ego.
For the sake of simple math, let's say the base runs around $4M. I'd actually expect it to be far less, but they are the ones printing the Monopoly money and not me.
It's a heavily incentivized deal, and those tend to max out at or above what teams expect to pay for the best case scenario. If the most optimistic best case is 150 innings of anything close to a quality start every 5th day, then a max of $10M would probably be a bargain.
You could push the estimate higher based on WAR-dollar values, but let's be reasonable here. Most people really don't do that when looking forward, and WAR-dollar valuation makes a lot more sense in hindsight. The reality is that if players got paid for their actual production based on what a single win above replacement is worth, then Ballpark Village Phase 3 would be scheduled to break ground circa 2053.
So, returning to the baseless, uneducated assumption that the ceiling is worth $10M (or more), the contract would have to contain incentives structured to cover at least $6M of bonus money. If you know the "How much?', then the fun is guessing the exact nature of the incentives.
Obviously, that's not going to be based on wins, because this isn't the 1930's, Al Hrabosky didn't handle the negotiations, and players don't get paid with bales of hay. Starts? Maybe, but he could make 20 starts averaging less than 5 innings per start, and that wouldn't really merit regular opportunities to bathe in monies. Innings? Maybe. The more innings he throws, the more he's likely contributing to the team. Even if he's not tossing up zeros constantly, he's creating an opportunity cost scenario. By using Wainwright to eat innings, the Cardinals are saving someone else or potentially several others from having to expend energy filling the innings void. Appearances? Again, maybe, but all these are oversimplified and flawed simply because his role isn't guaranteed at this point, and it could change one or more times during the season.
What about a combination of starts and innings with the bonuses kicking in after a certain point? Maybe start the extra payments after he reaches 6 starts AND 40 innings. He gets $500K for that plateau and another $500K for every 10 innings after that. If he gets to 150 innings, he'll earn $6M in bonuses on top of a $4M base. Voila. $10M or at least I hope so, because my 6th grade math teacher would be really disappointed in me if it's not.
That also leaves a little extra room for growth should he happen to catch lightning in a half-empty bottle and go beyond 150 innings. He reached 123.1 in 24 games (23 starts) in 2017, so that takes 150 innings out of the "probable" domain while leaving it on firmly a full step inside the "possible" realm.
Would $10M for 150 innings of Wainwright be worth it?
Yes. Hell yes. In order to pitch 150 innings, Wainwright would have to be both healthy and effective for much of the season. Given the way the starters ran out of gas last season, I'd say that $10M for 150 innings from a starter would be a bargain, and it doesn't cost $10M unless he's effective. It's a good kind of catch-22 as opposed to the other Catch-22 who is basically Voldemort (and his name is taboo).
Look at this another way. The starters threw 889.2 innings last season and combined for a .238/.310/.361 line with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.252 WHIP. The bullpen guys threw 565.2 innings with a line of .259/.344/.404, 4.38 ERA, and 1.473 WHIP.
The average starter lasted less than 5.2 IP. If Wainwright can help push the average start to 6.0 IP without a significant drop in the overall starters' line, then that's 54 additional innings of .238/.310/.361 instead of .259/.344/.404. Actually, it's probably closer to the .263/.343/.410 line that represents Wainwright's 2018 season, but that would still take a lot of pressure off the bullpen.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what Wainwright costs. If he ends up on the low end, then the cost of his floor is just water under the bridge. If he earns that base salary, then it's a push in better terms. But if he can get into the bonus territory, he could lift the Cardinals or at least keep them afloat while reducing reliance on guys pushing their innings maximums for the season. When you think of it that way, the deal makes a little more sense.