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DeJong’s Contract Symbolizes the Changing Times in MLB

Really, the Cardinals’ early-bird, six-year contract with shortstop Paul DeJong doesn’t warrant a single gasp. If you’ve bothered to pay any attention to the changes in baseball’s economy, then the DeJong deal fits the new paradigm.

The Cardinals have done these things before. Buying young players out of their arbitration years or early free agency is a Cardinal tradition.

Jaime Garcia  6 years, $51 million.  (Meh.) 

Allen Craig  5 years, $31 million. (Made out well by trading Craig and his contract to Boston in a great trade for starting pitcher John Lackey.) 

Kolten Wong 5 years, $51 million with a 2021 team option for $12.5 mill. (Early returns were sporadic, but Wong has improved, and had his best season last year.) 

Matt Carpenter  6 years for $52 million through 2019 with a team option of $18.5 mill for 2020. (Even if the Cardinals decline the option for 2020, the contract has provided excellent value.) 

Carlos Martinez  5 years for $51 million, with team options of $17 mill in 2022, and $18 mill in 2023. (If Martinez continues to build on the strong start to his career, the deal is a steal.) 

Lance Lynn  3 years, $23.5 million. (He missed a season with an elbow injury;  the other two years were good. It was a fine contract for the cost.) 

Stephen Piscotty 6 years, $33.5 million. He was traded to Oakland after one season. The Cardinals paid him $1 million for that season. (Piscotty’s contract belongs to the A’s now; the Cards received two viable prospects in exchange.) 

DeJong’s deal goes six years for $26 million with two team options of $12.5 mill in 2024 and $15 million in 2025. If the contract runs the full eight seasons the Cardinals will pay cDeJong  $51.5 million. That’s an average of $6.4 million per season.

The DeJong signing  stands out because of the timing; he’s played less than a full season in the majors.

But for those whining about paying DeJong bigger money before he’s fully proven himself over several major-league seasons. Hey, welcome to 2018. You may want to take a look around at the landscape. It’s doesn’t resemble the old world.

Have we not learned  anything about this winter’s free-agent market?

MLB franchises have adapted to a different model,  relying on analytics as an effective tool for assessing player value.

Baseball front offices are increasingly reluctant to hand bloated long-term contracts to players in their late 20s or into 30s based on past performance. Why pay aging stars a sequence of huge annual salaries and clog the payroll? What is the point of paying a premium price for the diminishing returns of a player in decline?

As a consumer, would you buy a brand new car for $25,000 … or spend $75,000 on a vehicle that has too many miles, is starting to break down with more frequency and doesn’t run well as it used to?  This makes absolutely no sense … though I suppose we could find at least  a few  imbeciles to walk into a dealership. fall for the shrewd sales pitch, and do something dumb by purchasing the $75,000 vehicle that soon will be on the way to the junkyard.

Smart people would take their chances withe brand new car … understanding of course that even new cars break down, or don’t perform on the road with the anticipated excellence. Either way you were taking a risk …  but purchasing the new car was the significantly lower risk. And you can always get a relatively new, low-mileage vehicle fixed.

Any contract is a risk, OK?

Once we accept the reality that all long-term deals are a gamble, then it comes down to calculating the risk factor. And the buy-in on a moderate (at most) DeJong contract is less hazardous than flushing away your money on enormous, extreme-risk contracts … examples of mindless spending include the contracts for Albert Pujols, Barry Zito, Carl Crawford, Mo Vaughn, Pablo Sandoval, Josh Hamilton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Vernon Wells, Melvin Upton Jr. and Mike Hampton  … and that’s just a partial listing.

The combined total of the 10 “bust” contracts comes to just under $1.3  billion.

All 10 players were 28 or older when signing the mega deals. Congrats to those front offices for going loony tunes and buying up a lot of sad, ugly, regrettable, depressing, painful decline years.

But we aren’t talking about big money  for DeJong.

We aren’t talking about his decline years.

We aren’t talking about an agreement that will cause years of damage and grief if it doesn’t pan out as much as hoped. But the Cardinals are paying for the best seasons of DeJong’s career. That’s their belief, anyway.  And if this contract plays out over the full eight seasons, the Cardinals will benefit from DeJong’s peak seasons. The Cardinals will be paying DeJong for his age 24 through 31 seasons … and if he plays well, this is an outstanding bargain for the team. If DeJong is only average, the franchise will survive…

This risk is a helluva lot smarter than burning dollars on players who arebecoming fossils.

Annoying side note: despite some of the advanced analysis -ahem- you may have seen on the Twitter machine, the DeJong contract has ABSOLUTELY  NOTHING  TO  DO with the state of the Cardinals’ starting rotation. If you’re like me, then you believe the Cardinals have a vulnerable rotation and would be wise to reinforce it. But signing DeJong doesn’t preclude that from happening. If Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch wanted to acquire or sign a starting pitcher who commands a large contract … they can still do that. They have the money to do that. Given the tremendous size of the Cardinals’ revenue pool, the DeJong deal is a cup of soup, all right?  It does not matter. 

The DeJong deal did not push the franchise into bankruptcy. Before this contract, and after this contract, the truth remains the same: The Cardinals can afford ANY PLAYER at ANY PRICE. It’s a matter of judgment. I’m starting to believe there’s a percentage of the fan base that won’t be satisfied until DeWitt hands out a remarkably stupid free-agent contract and wastes a massive amount of money  … a contract that is doomed to failure  … a contract that’s a terrible value… Let’s all shout it out … Hey DeWitt, do something really, really, really dumb to PROVE that you are committed to winning?! DeWitt  YOU HAVE TO SHOW ME  you’re a hopeless moron or I’ll never buy another ticket!!!

Finally …

The Cardinals have been investing in young core players for a while now, and I think we’ll see other teams do this on a more frequent basis. Draft and develop your own players, and if you think they are worthy of additional investment, then extend the relationship by pay them a lot more than you are required to … before they grow older and are eligible for arbitration then free agency. Invest in their upside. Spend a moderate amount of money on their peak seasons instead of  paying mammoth salaries to fund their decline phase.

As analysts make smarter choices to ensure reasonable payroll efficiency, it makes more sense to invest in young MLB players that are on the way up. And it makes little sense to overpay for players that are past their prime.

Paul DeJong is a better bet than Paul DeOld.

This is the new paradigm, like it or not.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: After A Parade of Shortstops, the Cards Have Their Guy in Paul DeJong