Adam Wainwright delivers a pitch during his first start of the spring on Monday. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)

By Rob Rains

JUPITER, Fla. -- There is an axiom which is truer now in baseball than it has ever been. Teams can pay their superstar players now, or they can pay them later. And later always costs more than now.

As Adam Wainwright took the mound for the first time this spring on Monday, the Cardinals clearly found themselves parked at the intersection of now or later. They are in the midst of negotiations regarding an extension of Wainwright’s contract, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this season, and so far the request from Wainwright’s agent is more than the team is willing to pay.

Wainwright understands his contract will pay him a lot of money. He understands the Cardinals have a budget, and a limit to what they can spend. He knows he will be 32 before this season ends, and he can’t expect to get a deal in terms of both dollars and years that a team would be willing to give to a pitcher five years younger.

What the Cardinals need to understand, however, is that the longer they go without getting Wainwright’s signature on the dotted line, his price is only going to go up. Barring a serious injury, there is no way it is going to go down. The closer he gets to free agency, the more tempting it will be to see what other teams are willing to offer.

This could turn into a high stakes game of poker, extending the negotiations into the season, and if that happens, the Cardinals will lose – no matter what the final outcome turns out to be.

They will either have to pay Wainwright more than they wanted to keep him, or run the risk of a colossal public relations nightmare if he were to become a free agent and sign with another team.

Over the last two years, the Cardinals have faced this situation twice. Albert Pujols became a free agent and left. Last year the team got Yadier Molina to agree to a contract extension during spring training, before he could hit the open market, and he turned in the best season of his career and finished third in voting for the NL MVP award.

Anybody who looks at the Pujols example and tries to apply it to Wainwright, with the attitude that no player is worth that kind of money, is woefully misguided. The Cardinals could afford to let Pujols leave for a couple of reasons, the length of his contract request -- 10 years – and the fact that they had a more than capable replacement, Allen Craig, waiting to play first base.

Neither was the case with Molina, and neither is the case with Wainwright. He wants a five-year deal, and the asking price is said to be somewhere around $22 million a year. The club is said to have more of a problem with the length of the request than the dollar amount. They would prefer a four-year agreement, citing his age and the fact he is only two years removed from Tommy John surgery.

Really, is the difference between four years and five big enough to hold up this deal? That’s especially true when it applies to a player who has no ready replacement waiting in reserve.

Wainwright wants to remain a Cardinal, and the team needs him to remain a Cardinal. Owner Bill DeWitt has talked often about how much the team values Wainwright’s leadership, character and ability. With Chris Carpenter gone, no other pitcher on this team is ready or able to accept the responsibility of being the team’s ace. Wainwright welcomes that challenge and wants that label placed squarely on his broad shoulders.

He understands the team’s reluctance to sign him to a contract which almost certainly will become the richest in franchise history, both in terms of annual salary and total value. Wainwright also has said this spring that if the Cardinals decide to wait, he has no problem going out this season and showing them, and 29 other teams, that he is worth the money.

That is the dilemma currently facing DeWitt and the Cardinals. They want Wainwright to go out and have a terrific season. They want him to win 20 games and contend for the Cy Young Award, because both of those developments would most likely be accompanied by the team making a return trip to the playoffs.

Letting him have that kind of success before getting an extension signed, however, could be an act of financial suicide. As much as Wainwright likes the Cardinals and St. Louis, and wants to stay, if he hits free agency he might, as the saying goes, receive an offer that he simply cannot refuse.

The Cardinals can afford to sign Wainwright. With Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal and probably Jake Westbrook coming off the payroll after this season, that represents a savings of more than $40 million. The team currently is obligated to pay about $54 million to seven players in 2014. One other player, reliever Edward Mujica, can become a free agent. David Freese and Mitchell Boggs will be eligible for arbitration again. For the first time, so too will Jon Jay, Allen Craig and Daniel Descalso.

Factoring in raises for all still leaves more than enough money to give Wainwright what he wants and keep the team payroll relatively flat, at a total of about $115 million.

This organization brags about having the best fans in baseball. Lately it has earned accolades for having the best farm system in baseball, and has some of the top prospects in the game. All that is well and good, and both are positives that the Cardinals cannot take lightly. So too are the obligations this organization owes to those fans.

General Manager John Mozeliak has talked in the past about how the organization understands there is a responsibility that comes with being a Cardinal, where the expectations are high. The team’s fans expect Wainwright to stay with the team for the rest of his career, and there can be no excuse for failing to make that happen.

Wainwright’s agent, Steve Hammond, is on a 10-day trip to Israel, a trip which had been in the planning for some time. He will be back in the U.S. next week and is expected to arrive in Jupiter shortly after his return for face-to-face negotiations with the Cardinals.

Hammond will give DeWitt and the team two choices – pay Wainwright now, or pay him later. If the Cardinals won’t do it, he knows somebody else will. For so many reasons, the team simply cannot let that happen.