Any time the St. Louis Cardinals extend a player who is already under contract with the Cardinals, there is an inevitable chorus of clamoring that such an extension could have waited. The most recent example of this came with the extension of Miles Mikolas, due to become a free agent after the 2023 season, through 2025 via a two-year, $40 million contract. The answer to why the Cardinals extended Miles Mikolas in March 2023 as opposed to November 2023 is pretty simple–they wanted to lock in his $20 million salary immediately, and Mikolas wanted to do the same. If Miles Mikolas finishes 2023 with the 9.64 ERA he currently has, the player will be delighted to have secured his bag early. If he finishes 2023 with an ERA in line with his current FIP of 2.87, the Cardinals will be elated to have such a pitcher at such a reasonable price tag.
Extensions can go in all sorts of different directions. The Cardinals were relatively quick to extend shortstop Paul DeJong, and while the back years of that extensions are looking a bit grisly, he would have also been more costly after his productive 2018 or 2019 seasons, rather than following his surprise rookie campaign of 2017. The Paul Goldschmidt extension is looking like a relative bargain for the Cardinals, but had the Cardinals waited until after the 2019 season, Goldschmidt’s relatively pedestrian debut season in St. Louis, he probably could have been had cheaper than he was following his more productive 2018 season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the incentives for both parties remain largely the same–the team wants to put a hard upper limit on the salary which they will pay a player, and the player wants to make life-altering money.
Aside from the $2.9 million that Jordan Walker earned as a signing bonus in 2020 from the St. Louis Cardinals to sway him from his previous commitment to play college baseball at Duke University, the Cardinals right fielder has not made significant money as a professional baseball player–minor leaguers are famously underpaid, and while he has made a Major League salary for nine games, his lifetime earnings only come out to around $40,000–great money for a week and a half’s worth of work, but not exactly laying the foundation for a lifetime of wealth. If Jordan Walker matches the sky-high expectations of his prospect pedigree, he should be in line to make a small fortune in a few years, but this also assumes everything, or at least most things, go right for him. Even if Walker remains on the Cardinals’ active roster without a single dip down to the minor leagues, which is not assured, Walker would not reach a salary of over one million dollars until 2026 and he would not earn a salary commensurate with his market value until 2029.
All signs so far for Jordan Walker indicate a burgeoning superstar. Walker has notched a hit in each of his first nine games as a Major Leaguer, including two home runs. His .400 batting average on balls in play does suggest some luck, but his expected weighted on-base average, while lower than his conventional weighted on-base average (accounting for his total production at the plate, as opposed to his expected production based on quality of contact), is still elite. Only Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, two famously quite trusted Major League players, have more plate appearances in 2023 for the Cardinals than the rookie Walker, suggesting that the Cardinals are true believers in the youngster. And if the Cardinals believe in Jordan Walker to this extent, then they should realistically know what is coming down the road–a potentially significant financial obligation to pay the man what he’s worth.
Walker and the Cardinals need not necessarily have an adversarial relationship in the conventional sense of the term–both sides, after all, seem perfectly happy with the other at the moment–but both sides ought to be, and are almost certainly reasonable enough to be, realistic about the situation. If Jordan Walker were somehow, magically a free agent, even with relatively little demonstrative evidence (yet) of his abilities at the top level of professional baseball, he could secure a huge contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, one based on his current abilities as well as the reasonable assumption that a 20 year-old who is already raking in his first plate appearances above AA will continue to improve. But because of the nature of team control over young players, he would have to wait to make what he’s worth. In the meantime, the Cardinals have to know that while they hold this leverage over Walker, they cannot just assume that their young right fielder will not have an expanding price tag as he continues to produce at the big-league level.
The closest recent comparison for Jordan Walker to have received an extension with an MLB club is Corbin Carroll of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who parlayed 115 successful plate appearances as a just-turned-22 year-old in the big leagues into an eight-year, $111 million contract which also includes a 2031 team option for $28 million (with a $5 million buy-out factored into the $111 million guaranteed figure). Like Walker, Carroll was and is a top outfield prospect (Carroll ranked 2nd, 2nd, and 6th entering 2023 per Baseball America, MLB, and Baseball Prospectus; Walker ranked 4th, 4th, and 2nd, respectively, thus giving the two exactly the same average ranking among the trio). Carroll, who is twenty-one months older than Walker, could be reasonably dubbed the safer prospect–besides more demonstrated minor league success, he was also drafted as an outfielder, whereas Walker was semi-recently converted to the position–but by the same token, that Walker has been this productive at a younger age and while covering less familiar territory is a reasonable point in favor of Walker’s upside.
Would an eight-year, $111 million contract for Walker starting in the 2024 season be enough? I suspect probably not, simply because unlike Carroll, Walker will have (likely) accrued a full year of MLB service time and thus be closer to arbitration and free agency than Carroll was. But I suspect the dollar amount wouldn’t be dramatically higher, so let’s just say eight years and $120 million, hypothetically. The motivation for Jordan Walker should be self-explanatory for anybody reading this who does not have nine-figure wealth (and if anyone with nine-figure wealth is reading this, we should talk, johnjf125 at gmail dot com)–he would get $120 million, and that’s a whole lot of money. Maybe he could get more by betting on himself and reaching free agency, which he would do earlier if he didn’t sign such a contract, but the additional dollars past 120 million of them aren’t as meaningful as the first 120 million. For the Cardinals, they would have a potential superstar entering the prime of his career. The $15 million average annual value is more than Walker would be paid for the next few years, sure, but if he is what we think he will be (and even if he’s merely an average player), it’s quite a bit less than he would be slated to make in 2032. The Cardinals would have an exact figure to pencil into their budgets for nearly a decade and they would have a presumptive right fielder of the future, a player who has been as excellent and in as repeatable of ways as any Cardinals rookie since Albert Pujols, secured. And Jordan Walker would have, and I cannot stress this enough, $120 million.
If Jordan Walker is what Jordan Walker looks like he’s going to be, the Cardinals could still extend him at a later date, but for every day that he seems to be healthy and awesome at baseball, the price tag goes up. By the same token, every time Jordan Walker plays in a baseball game, there is some built-in risk of injury or ineffectiveness. At the end of the day, though, there is certainly a price that the Cardinals could pay which, while material, is hardly going to bankrupt the organization if it spirals out of control, and which would set Jordan Walker up financially for life. Because of the risk involved for both sides, it makes sense for both parties to reach an agreement sooner rather than later.