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Spending Big on Free Agents Doesn’t Guarantee World Series Rings

We are three weeks away from the start of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, and Cardinal Nation is unanimous in the belief that they need to get a big, middle of the lineup bat, but split on which bat that should be.

Should it be The Face of Baseball, Bryce Harper, with the biggest, splashiest contract in history?  The Scott Boras client is likely to command $400 million over at least ten years.  Should it be Cleveland’s left handed hitting free agent Michael Brantley, who had a rare healthy year last season and would leave funds for other free agents?  Or should it be a trade for Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, who is one of the great players in baseball but would cost prospects, and has one year left on his deal?

I believe my approach would be similar to what the Cardinals approach has been, which is to lean toward the conservative.  Last week ,  Phillies owner John Middleton told USA Today that the Phils are ready to spend, and maybe “be a little stupid” in doing so.  For a decade in charge of Cardinal baseball operations ,  John Mozeliak has talked about the need to be smart, and that won’t change now.  I know and understand that despite their massive profits, they do work within the confines of a budget, and a conservative approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In a recent piece at The Athletic, Bernie Miklasz noted the largest position player contracts in baseball history, courtesy of Cots contracts.  Breaking that list down to position players that changed teams to get a $150 million or larger contract, here’s what you get:

Alex Rodriguez, $252M (2001-10, to Rangers)

Albert Pujols, $240M (2012-21, to Angels)

Robinson Cano, $240M (2014-23, to Mariners)

Prince Fielder, $214M (2012-20, to Tigers)

Jason Heyward, $184M (2016-23, to Cubs)

Mark Teixeira, $180M (2009-16, to Yankees)

Manny Ramirez, $160M (2001-08, to Red Sox)

Adrian Gonzalez, $154M (2012-18, to Red Sox)

Jacoby Ellsbury, $153M (2014-20, to Yankees)

ARod never made the playoffs with the Rangers and was traded to the Yankees after three years with Texas.  In seven years, the Angels have made the playoffs once with Pujols, and have watched his production diminish with age.  Cano has yet to take a postseason at bat with the Mariners, and there’s a belief that he’s a cancerous force.  Fielder helped the Tigers to the World Series in his first year there, and the playoffs his second before he was traded to the Rangers.  The Rangers will wind up paying him $36 million over six years to NOT play for them.  The Cubs won a World Series with Heyward, but not because of his production.  Texeira’s contract turned out well for the Yankees, and Manny’s did with Boston.  But Gonzalez with the Red Sox and Ellsbury with the Yankees have been unmitigated disasters.  Two of the nine biggest deals position players have signed with teams that don’t know them have been bad or disasters.

Yes, Harper and Manny Machado are young and productive.  But don’t believe for a second that the Cardinals are going to change their budget conscious approach to add one of those guys.  There will still be a budget, with less to pay the rest of the roster.  Additionally, Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is one of the most prominent and powerful among all MLB owners.  He’s probably not going to be the one to blow up baseball’s salary structure.  He knows that if his team is the one to break the $350-$400 million contract barrier, that becomes the standard…at least in terms of AAV…when Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Nolan Arenado, Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Xander Bogaerts become free agents a year from now.

The approach for years with the Cardinals has been to trade for players, get to know them, and try to keep them.  Under DeWitt, that started with Mark McGwire and extended to Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Larry Walker and Matt Holliday.  Holliday was almost a decade ago.  Can the Cardinals still get players to stay here?  And would they be able to keep both Goldschmidt and Ozuna after good seasons in 2019?  I would take my chances.

Back to the questions at the top.  There are obviously more than four names available, but I’m going to talk about Harper, Machado, Brantley and Goldschmidt.

In addition to a bat, the Cardinals still need to improve their defense.  Harper was one of the worst outfielders in the majors last year, with a lower dWAR (if you’re into that kind of thing) than Jose Martinez of the Cardinals.

Machado turned off a lot of baseball people…and Cardinal fans…when he admitted during the World Series that hustling all the time isn’t really his “cup of tea.”  Add in the fact that Machado is demanding to play shortstop and we don’t know how good he is there, and a regression of middle infield defense could be a concern.  Finally, Machado’s career splits were dramatically enhanced by his great numbers at Camden Yards.  Spending that kind of money on such a big question mark would be too much of a gamble for the Cardinals.

Brantley is a gamble, too.  Although he’s performed reasonably well when he’s been healthy, he hasn’t been healthy much.  Before this season, Brantley played in only 101 games combined in 2016 and 2017.  At his best, Brantley isn’t much better than what the Cardinals have.  He has a career slugging percentage of .430, and his 162-game average of just thirteen homers isn’t what the Cardinals should be looking for.  He’s easy to rule out.

That leads us to Goldschmidt.  He has a career OPS of .930 (to Harper’s .900).  Even though he’s played at a good hitter’s park, Goldschmidt’s career OPS is .933 at home and .926 on the road.  His road slugging percentage is actually better than at Chase Field.  Even though he’s a right-handed hitter, he has a career .890 OPS vs. right-handed pitching.  He’s a three-time gold glove award winner that automatically would make Cardinal infielders Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong and third baseman Matt Carpenter better because of his agility around the bag.  And the Diamondbacks need what the Cardinals have.  With the expected departure of free agents-outfielder A.J. Pollack and starters Patrick Corbin and Clay Buchholz, Arizona would be in the market for major league ready outfielders such as Randy Arozarena or Adolis Garcia, and a couple of young Cardinal starting pitchers.  The Diamondbacks catchers, Alex Avila and John Ryan Murphy, had OPS percentages of .603 and .619, respectively.  With both Carson Kelly and Andrew Knizner, the Cardinals have depth at catcher, too.

If the Cardinals operated like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers-if they were willing to make a mistake, I’d be on board with Harper or Machado.  But as we’ve seen with Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil, the Cardinals don’t like to admit mistakes.  If Harper or Machado wind up performing like most of the position players that have switched teams for big money, the Cardinals are going to keep trotting them out there.  I’d rather see them trade for Goldschmidt, get to know him, and THEN overwhelm him with the contract.  The team needs more, of course, but for the big bad, my choice would be Goldy.

–Randy

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