VIERA, Fla. -- Once a hitter without an obvious fit in the field, Allen Craig is now cemented into the Cardinals' long-term plans.
The Cardinals announced on Friday that they had reached a five-year, $31 million contract agreement with Craig that buys out the first baseman's three upcoming arbitration years and his first year of free agency. The deal also includes a $13 million club option for the 2018 season, with a $1 million buyout.
"I just think it made sense for both sides and that's how an agreement is made," Craig said. "It was something where I wanted security for my family and the team thought it was a good idea, too, so it's a tremendous opportunity, and I'm incredibly humbled by it. It's something I can't really fathom at this moment, but I'm just excited to be a part of this team going forward."
Though Craig was already guaranteed to be under team control through 2016, the Cardinals gain financial security by locking in his yearly salaries now. Craig's salary would have started to escalate quickly next winter when he began the arbitration process.
"I do think it was a deal that worked well for both sides," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We look at his career path and it certainly gives him some security that he hadn't had up until this point. He wasn't an extremely high Draft pick where he had a high signing bonus. This, for him, is a very big deal. For us, it gives us some protection in the middle of the lineup for a long time."
Craig, who is represented by Sam and Seth Levinson of ACES, asked the agency to reach out to the Cardinals in late October and let the organization know of his interest in negotiating a multiyear deal. Talks continued casually while the club worked through other offseason priorities and then picked up momentum during Spring Training.
"I just think it made sense for both sides and that's how an agreement is made. "It was something where I wanted security for my family and the team thought it was a good idea, too, so it's a tremendous opportunity, and I'm incredibly humbled by it. It's something I can't really fathom at this moment, but I'm just excited to be a part of this team going forward."
|-- Allen Craig|
As it turned out, the announcement ended up falling on the same day Craig made his spring debut at first base. He had been on a slowed spring program due to some earlier soreness in his right shoulder.
This spring marked the first time that Craig, 28, arrived at camp knowing that the Cardinals had blocked out a position for him. He made his Major League debut in 2010, but didn't find a consistent home in the field. By the end of '11, he had already appeared at five different positions.
Craig's defensive assignment was fluid even as he entered 2012. Though the Cardinals wanted Craig's bat in the lineup, he entered spring seemingly blocked by Carlos Beltran in right and Lance Berkman at first. But Berkman's injury-plagued year cleared the way for Craig to become the team's starting first baseman, and Craig thrived when given everyday playing time.
In 119 games, he hit .307 with 35 doubles, 22 home runs and 92 RBIs. The start of Craig's season was delayed a month as he wrapped up his recovery from knee surgery, but it could be argued that there was no better first baseman in the league once Craig entered the picture.
For the last five months of the season, Craig led all NL first basemen in RBIs and batting average. He became the team's cleanup hitter in mid-August and is expected to retain that spot in the batting order this year.
"I'm excited for him," manager Mike Matheny said. "I'm excited for all our guys when they get the opportunity to move forward and be acknowledged for what they've accomplished and for what we foresee them doing in the future."
The Cardinals' plans for the immediate are to keep Craig as the starting first baseman. But his ability to also handle the corner outfield spots makes Craig a flexible defensive option in the coming years.
"It's been a tough road to get to the big leagues and stick and get playing time and what not," Craig said. "But along the road, I've had a tremendous opportunity to play for Tony La Russa and play with Albert [Pujols] and Lance [Berkman] and Carlos [Beltran] and Yadi [Molina] and Matt [Holliday] and the list goes on and on. I've been extremely blessed to put the Cardinal uniform on, and I'm just glad that it's going to continue."
The length of Craig's contract mirrors that of Molina, who is also signed through 2017 with a club option that could extend the contract one year further. Holliday's seven-year deal ends one season earlier. Craig, a former eighth-round Draft pick, will turn 33 during the final guaranteed year of his deal.
"We have a great team, a lot of great veterans and young players and guys in the middle," Craig said. "I just think the future is so bright here that I'm just honored that they wanted me to be a part of it."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.