The Cardinals need to prioritize a Brendan Donovan extension

It's time to lock up one of the most important members of the Cardinals core long-term.
Jun 22, 2024; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Brendan Donovan (33) reaches first base on his way around the bases after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants  at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Vizer-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 22, 2024; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Brendan Donovan (33) reaches first base on his way around the bases after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Vizer-USA TODAY Sports / Tim Vizer-USA TODAY Sports

For each of the last few seasons, we've periodically had conversations regarding which current members of the St. Louis Cardinals need to be signed to extensions. While manager Oliver Marmol got his extension during Spring Training and Tommy Edman had his remaining arbitration years bought out this winter, it has been a while since we've seen a Cardinal receive a long-term extension before they hit free agency.

The last deal that really fits the bill for that was Paul DeJong, who signed a six-year, $26 million extension after a really impressive rookie year with the club. While the deal ended up not working out in the long run, it was a creative attempt by St. Louis to lock up a young core piece of their club on a team-friendly deal.

While there are a number of players we could talk about who you could argue the Cardinals should extend, Brendan Donovan seems like the clear and obvious candidate for an extension in the near future.

Why the Cardinals need to look to extend Brendan Donovan

I recently wrote about how Brendan Donovan has not only been the club's MVP this season from a position player standpoint but he's proven to be the straw that stirs their drink as an offense ever since he debuted in 2022.

Since Donovan joined the Major League club, he ranks fifth on the team in fWAR (5.6) in just 299 games and third on the team with a 121 wRC+. He already has one utility Gold Glove to his name, and he's making a strong case for another Gold Glove this year with his speculator defense in left field and continued versatility all over the diamond and outfield. Donovan is a great hitter who plays great defense at almost every position, and that is a player you want to have around long-term.

Not only does Donovan provide immense value on the field, but it has become clear that Donovan is a leader in the Cardinals' clubhouse and should be one of the voices leading the team in this next phase of Cardinals' baseball. While there are other players on the Cardinals' roster who have higher ceilings than Donovan as baseball players, Donovan is near the very top of the list when it comes to who is most indispensable to this new core.

Following the conclusion of the 2024 season, Donovan will be arbitration-eligible for the first time and will hit free agency following the 2027 season. Donovan will see his salary bump up incrementally over the next few years and then should receieve a nice contract once he is able to hit free agency after his 30th birthday.

The Cardinals could just play the arbitration game for the next few years with Donovan, but I believe both sides are uniquely positioned to come together on a long-term extension that would give Donovan long-term security and save the Cardinals money down the road.

One player that Donovan has been compared to numerous times over the last few years received a similar extension from the Cardinals early on in his career - Matt Carpenter. While fans tend to remember his second extension that did not age well, Carpenter's first extension was truly a bargain for St. Louis. Prior to the 2014 season, Carpenter signed a six-year, $52 million extension with the club that bought out his remaining team control as well as some of his free agent years.

A more recent example that may give us a better idea of how Donovan's market could look may be Cubs' second baseman Nico Hoerner, who after settling with the Cubs for $2.5 million in his first year of arbitration, signed a three-year, $35 million deal with Chicago prior to the 2023 season. The Cubs were able to buy out the remaining two years of arbitration for Hoerner while also covering a year of his free-agent eligibility as well. This was before Hoerner ever won his first Gold Glove and he had been a mostly league-average hitter to that point.

Donovan will have his first crack at arbitration this offseason, so you could probably get him to a slightly lower AAV because of that, but if he were to have multiple years of free agency bought out, that number probably gets close to the $11.5 million AAV that Hoener received.

I think a deal spanning about six years with an AAV of around $11 million could get the job done for both sides. For St. Louis, they not only lock in the certainty of Donovan's number for the next six seasons, but they are also able to extend Donovan into three of his free agency years, delaying the year he hits the open market from following the 2027 season to after the 2030 season.

Using the Hoerner contract as a comparison, Hoerner only made $2.5 million in his first year of arbitration before seeing his salary jump to $11.5 million in his last two arbitration years and then $12 million in what would have been his first year of free agency. For Donovan, he could get an immediate pay bump in his first season of arbitration in this scenario but do so by giving the Cardinals a discount on two extra free agent years compared to Hoener.

While I won't try and predict the official breakdown of a deal, the Cardinals could look to backload the deal a bit, giving Donovan smaller pay bumps early on in this extension compared to potential arbitration numbers, and then receieve similar discounts on the free agent years. Or they could explore a consistent AAV where Donovan gets a major pay bump early in the deal but the Cardinals pay him significantly less than market value later on.

It's also worth noting that before the season, The Athletic projected a potential Lars Nootbaar extension to be somewhere in the seven-year, $68 million range, so perhaps the Cardinals could get Donovan on a lower AAV, but I personally feel like his play this year has continued to raise his price tag.

Would you sign Donovan to a contract in the ballpark of six years, $66 million? I would. It wouldn't shock me to see St. Louis get that number a bit lower as well, or to see Donovan want more than that. But if I'm the Cardinals, I'm trying my best to get Donovan locked up long-term, rather than having to pay market value when he hits free agency.