The spring before a key player’s contract year is prime time for long-term negotiations, and the Hot Stove’s extension burner is predictably heating up. Last April, the Giants came to terms on a six-year, $127.5 million pact with their ace, Matt Cain. Now, their National League Championship Series foes, the Cardinals, are hoping to do the same with theirs.

Cardinals working on long-term deal for Adam Wainwright
According to Joe Strauss, who covers the Redbirds for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wainwright and general manager John Mozeliak are holding discussions about the right-hander’s future, even though the sides have publicly said that they are currently in a “pause” period. Strauss believes that the “pause” is meant simply to divert attention from any talks between Mozeliak and agent Steve Hammond, who crafted Andrew McCutchen’s six-year, $51.5 million extension with the Pirates last March.

The 31-year-old Wainwright, who had been worth at least 4.0 WARP in three of the four seasons preceding his February 2011 Tommy John surgery, bounced back to deliver 198 2/3 innings of 2.4-win work last year. With Kyle Lohse expected to sign elsewhere, Chris Carpenter’s future looking increasingly cloudy, and Jake Westbrook entering the only guaranteed year of a $9.75 million extension that he signed last August, the Cardinals rotation could look entirely different at this time next spring, with a sweeping youth movement potentially in store if Wainwright does not return.

Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow, who is now general manager of the Astros, assembled perhaps the only farm system in the league with the depth and talent to withstand that sort of overhaul. Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal all flashed considerable promise in 2012 and could become rotation fixtures before this season is out. Last year’s first-round pick, Michael Wacha, and 2010 international signee Carlos Martinez are not far behind. And, if all breaks right, as it has with so many of the Cardinals’ other arms, Tyrell Jenkins could be knocking on the door the following year.

Then again, while there might seem to be a force field preventing the TINSTAAPP patrol from penetrating the Gateway Arch, the Cardinals would do well to put a veteran or two around their collection of prospects. Ideally, one of those veterans would be Wainwright, but a couple of significant hurdles must be cleared for the talks between Hammond and Mozeliak to progress.

Strauss noted that Wainwright is angling for a “deal guaranteed for more than five years,” a frightening thought for the Cardinals, who have witnessed firsthand the pitfalls of lucrative commitments to pitchers with Carpenter and Mark Mulder. Although Wainwright’s Tommy John surgery on February 28, 2011, marked the first time that he had gone under the knife, he has a history of elbow trouble that dates back to 2004. The northpaw missed three months in the minors that year while rehabbing a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, and he handled a partial tear of the UCL the same way in 2010, before finally needing surgery to repair it.

Wainwright struggled throughout the first month and a half of the 2012 season, logging a 5.77 ERA and serving up seven home runs over his first eight starts, but he tossed a complete-game shutout in his ninth assignment and amassed a 3.43 ERA, while allowing only eight more big flies, the rest of the way. The only observable differences between the pre- and post-surgery Wainwright, based on his PITCHf/x data from Brooks Baseball, are a one-mph dip in sinker velocity (from 91.81 to 90.69) and a rather steep decay in his ability to generate whiffs with the cutter, down to 10.16 percent in 2012 from 14.96 percent in 2010.

Both of those declines are notable, because they contributed to Wainwright’s occasional stumbles last year. Twelve of the 15 home runs that he surrendered came on the hard stuff, and, more generally, after getting away with a good deal of the middle-middle location mistakes that he made in 2010, Wainwright paid the price for missing his spots in 2012. If the Cardinals are going to lock up their number-one starter through his age-37 season, or to pay a premium in the near term for a shorter commitment, they must be confident, internally, that another offseason of rest will fully restore his arsenal. 

For that reason, Wainwright’s willingness to allow negotiations to continue behind closed doors after Opening Day could be critical to bridging any gap between his asking price and Mozeliak’s current ceiling. Strauss emphasized the righty’s affable makeup—“Waino has tendered no deadline”— in his article, suggesting that he may afford the Cardinals the opportunity to evaluate him for as long as is necessary to make Mozeliak comfortable with a long-term pact. The lure of free agency, especially in the wake of an extremely team-friendly contract, could shut down the talks at any point, but if Strauss’ evaluation is accurate, that extra flexibility could go a long way.

With Mat Gamel out for the year, Brewers face a quandary at first base
While the Cardinals may have plenty of time to decide whether to roll out the green carpet for their ace, the Brewers have a much more immediate problem on their hands. For the second consecutive year, they will need to find a new Opening Day first baseman. And, after watching Gamel endure a rough first month, and then suffer a season-ending injury, last year, Milwaukee learned on Monday that its 2005 fourth-rounder’s second chance has been derailed before it even hit the tracks.

Gamel hit just .246/.293/.348 over 75 plate appearances last April, and then, on May 1, he tore the ACL in his right knee while chasing a foul ball at Petco Park, crashing into the wall along the first-base stands and going down in a heap. He returned to Arizona this spring, eager to redeem himself and armed with the opportunity to do just that. Corey Hart, who took over for Gamel in 2012 and enabled the Brewers to reap the rewards of Norichika Aoki’s surprisingly productive rookie year, underwent surgery on his own right knee in late January to repair a torn meniscus, and was expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the regular season. But, instead of showcasing his skills for general manager Doug Melvin with the long-term first-base job wide open, Gamel will spend another year nursing a re-torn ACL, with Hart lending a helping hand.

As beat writer Adam McCalvy wrote in his blog on Monday, it’s “on to Plan C” for Melvin and the Brewers. Given the timing of the setback, which comes days after pitchers and catchers reported to the team’s facility in Phoenix and with most of the veteran free-agent choices—such as Casey Kotchman and former Brewer Lyle Overbay—already off the market, Melvin’s options are limited. That’s why, as team officials told reporters in the wake of manager Ron Roenicke’s announcement, unless Melvin acquires Mike Carp from the Mariners and his former assistant, Jack Zduriencik, the solution is likely to come from within.

Five days before the mood turned sour, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt brought good news to Brewers fans, with a report that Hart’s original recovery timeline, which would have put him back on the field toward the end of May, had been shifted up by about three weeks. As McCalvy explained, however, the accelerated rehab plan is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the Brewers now only need an emergency replacement for the first three or four weeks; on the other, few players outside of those already in the organization would be willing to tackle a short-term assignment, knowing that playing time will be hard to come by once Hart returns.

The next man up appears to be Hunter Morris, a 24-year-old who spent most of the 2012 season at the Double-A level, but made Jason Parks’ list of Factors on the Farm. The professor’s take on Morris:

“This guy can hit a baseball and will eventually find a home at the major-league level performing that trick. He is very limited on defense, and he’s always going to have some swing-and-miss in his game, which could limit his overall effectiveness, but the thump in his bat could push him to the majors at some point in ’13.”

Barring another sting from the injury bug, that point may well be the Brewers’ home opener against the Rockies on April 1. Morris’ .303/.357/.563 triple-slash line in Huntsville last year suggests that he has the talent to match whatever contributions Gamel might have offered at the plate, though the extent to which he will be a liability in the field remains to be seen. With Hart set to become a free agent after the 2013 season, the Brewers were hoping for a look at one of their internal candidates to take over in 2014 and beyond. That spotlight was supposed to be on Gamel, but if the Auburn University product can hold off Bobby Crosby, Taylor Green, and Alex Gonzalez, it might turn to Morris instead.