Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Cardinals can’t wait to pick up Westbrook’s option

The Cardinals “extended” Jake Westbrook‘s contract Tuesday by replacing his 2013 option and tacking on another one for 2014. It’s more accurate and simpler to merely say that they proactively picked up his option and paid $1.25 million for the privilege.

That’s because, with Westbrook set to make $8.5 million with his 2013 option, the Cardinals replaced it with a $8.75 million one-year contract (so +.25 million there) and tacked on a $9.5 option for 2014, which they’ll almost certainly buy out (+1 million there). It’s really more of a formality than anything, a warm-and-fuzzy for the player and one less thing John Mozeliak has to do this winter.

In any case, the only material concern of the contract is the potential for Westbrook playing for the team in 2014 at that salary of $9.5 million. As we wrote the other day, he has pitched this season as well as anyone could’ve hoped, contributing to the NL’s second-best rotation (14.1 WAR) with 154 innings of 3.60-FIP ball.

It’s possible that the Cardinals were more impressed than they should have been by his nifty 3.50 ERA (which we would gladly bet will tick upward by year-end), which makes him appear to be having a better campaign than Adam Wainwright (3.87 ERA entering Tuesday’s game), when the reverse is actually the case (Wainwright has a 3.06 FIP and 3.06 xFIP). But as Westbrook’s FIP and 3.75 xFIP attest, it’s not wildly misleading. Those fielding-independent numbers are the best of his career.

And that’s really the point. Has the soon-to-be-35-year-old Westbrook found some late-career magic that he can sustain for multiple years? Or is 2012 an aberration that will set fans — and Cardinal management — up for falsely elevated expectations next year and possibly the next? Considering that his FIP numbers in the previous four seasons have been, starting with most recent, 4.25, 4.22, 4.60 and 4.33, we’re inclined to believe the latter.

Again, Westbrook has turned in some useful innings for the Cardinals in the almost two and a half seasons in which they’ve had him. His near-career year in 2012 means that he’ll have provided roughly break-even value for his $16.5, two-year contract. The team doesn’t really have a solid plan for its 2013 rotation, so he’s a safe name to throw into the hopper, even if he falls short of his contract value; after all, the team figures on Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn returning, but Chris Carpenter, though under contract, is anyone’s guess. And that still leaves at least one slot, since top prospect Shelby Miller isn’t yet ready for prime time.

Speaking of at least one slot remaining, the unspoken implication in Westbrook’s “extension” is that it likely means the end of the Kyle Lohse era. Lohse’s contract ends after this season, and he has no option, so the path of least resistance to a deal was Westbrook’s. And Lohse, who is a year younger and is repeating his strong 2011, will almost surely command more of both dollars and years in his next contract in the free-agent marketplace.

One thing is more certain: That if the Cardinals expect to have more of the same from the hyper pitch-to-contact (77% of his batters faced put the ball in play) Westbrook in 2013, they’ll need to put a strong defense on the field in front of him. Is buying out Daniel Descalso‘s arbitration years next on the agenda?

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