Why a long-term contract for a pitcher actually gives the Cardinals more flexibility

While handing out long-term contracts is a risky business, the potential salary relief on the front end of the deal should be appealing to the Cardinals.
Championship Series - Arizona Diamondbacks v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Two
Championship Series - Arizona Diamondbacks v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Two / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

If the St. Louis Cardinals are going to transform their rotation over the offseason, they'll likely have to do something they've been hesitant to do before - offer a long-term deal to a starting pitcher.

In general, the Cardinals avoid long-term deals, especially for starting pitchers. Mike Leake got a five-year contract from the Cardinals before the 2016 season, but they've never been willing to go in the six to eight-year range for a starting pitcher.

In general, there's some wisdom in not going into super long-term deals with starting pitchers. Most pitchers are hitting free agency in their late 20s or early 30s, so going up to eight years gets you into some murky territory toward the end of that contract. But there are also some really helpful benefits to that kind of contract as well.

Reportedly, Aaron Nola was hoping for an eight-year, $200 million deal from the Phillies during extension talks, something they were unwilling to do so far. That eight-year number feels like a daunting one, and so does that $200 million figure, but that kind of contract can actually buy a team like the Cardinals flexibility in the near term.

How so? Handing out a huge contract kind of feels like the opposite of flexibility. That may be true of the back end of the contract, but in the early years of the contract, it makes the dollar value more favorable for the team. An eight-year, $200 million deal averages out to $25 million per season, which is among the higher-paid starters in baseball, but still a major step down from guys like Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, and Stephen Strasburg on a per year basis, who make between $35 million and $44 million a year.

If Nola signed a contract in the five-year or less range, that number would likely fall above that $30 million mark. That may not seem all that significant, but it really is. Saving $5 million or more per year in the early years of a contract helps create financial flexibility, and could be the difference in the quality of starters they are able to acquire to fill out the rest of their rotation.

Of course, it creates potential issues on the back end of the contract, and that's the downside and risk of such a contract. You do this deal knowing it may present challenges later, but with how badly this 2024 club needs pitching, it seems worth the risk. In most long-term contracts you're paying them hoping they produce in a big way during the first half of the deal, knowing that production may taper off some towards the end.

It remains to be seen if the Cardinals will actually offer a contract like this, but indications so far from ownership are they are ready to spend. They should not allow themselves to be scared off by the number of years or the total number on a contract. Sure, if a guy like Nola asks for 10+ years or wants a higher AAV along with those years, that may change the conversation. But in general, the Cardinals need to be willing to take risks, especially when it comes to the amount of years they hand out, in order to maximize the current club.