St. Louis Cardinals: Rings aren’t handed out in January
If recent history serves as any indication, missing out in 2016 free agency could be the best thing to happen in St. Louis
It started with the Albert Pujols saga back in December of 2011. The Cardinals had just won their second World Series in five seasons. Sure Albert was a free agent, technically. But he wasn’t going anywhere, right?
We all know how that story turned out. Pujols chased the money, and there was definitely a lot of it thrown at him. He went for the Southern California lifestyle and all the lavishness that it provides. In a way, you can certainly empathize with Albert’s decision. That contract, life in Orange County, I mean the Angels set Albert up for a life in paradise.
And yet, the Angels have made one playoff appearance since picking up Albert after the 2011 season. The result of LA’s 98-win 2014 campaign was a 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Royals in the ALDS. From 2002 through 2009, the Angels made the playoffs six times, including their 2002 World Series title. After making the mega-splash that was supposed to be the Albert signing, they’ve barely sniffed postseason baseball.
Sure, they have an absolute first ballot Hall-of-Famer. The Angels had the opportunity to watch him hit his 500th home run, and they are probably going to get to see number 600 in the next couple of years as well. That does not sit well with me. They will probably retire Albert’s number one day, even though his true Hall of Fame caliber days were spent in St. Louis. I don’t like that much either.
But as a St. Louis Cardinals fan you have to wonder, had Albert re-signed with the Cardinals, would they have near the roster depth that they have now? No shot. Would they have made NLCS appearances from 2012-2014 and have won 100 games in 2015? I seriously doubt it. Sure we would still have Stan the Man’s predecessor, but what would it have cost the organization in terms of pursuing titles?
I was as emotional as any Cardinal fan when Albert took off in 2011. However, it didn’t take me long to figure out that moving on from Albert and that contract was going to be the best option for the Cardinals as an organization.
Fast-forward to December 2015, and the Jason Heyward situation. Similarly, Heyward seemed like a lock to re-sign with St. Louis after a very productive season that was great for both Jason and the Cardinals. St. Louis was willing and able to give Heyward the money he wanted, but he decided that Chicago was a better place for him.
That decision was frustrating and disappointing at first, but, as time goes on you can see the potential benefits to missing out on a deal like that. Eight years is a long time to commit to a guy, even when that guy is 26-years-old and seems to be in the prime of his career. So many things can happen that are outside of a team’s control, think Ryan Howard in Philadelphia. Last year the Phillies were willing to pay somebody else $50 million to take him off of their hands.
A no-trade clause in Howard’s contract, similar to the one in Heyward’s contract, makes it very difficult to move him since he can block trades to some 20 different clubs.
It should be noted that when Howard first inked his deal with Philadelphia, he was coming off of back-to-back all-star game appearances. Howard had finished in the top-five of the NL MVP voting for four years in a row while winning the award in 2006. Now, the Phillies are absolutely hamstrung by Howard’s contract and have considered just releasing him and moving on.
There is absolutely no indication that Heyward is anywhere near the same path as Howard, but you cannot count out that possibility when thinking about investing the better part of a decade and close to $200 million dollars on one guy.
Heyward has never been, and very likely never will be an elite offensive talent. Last year was a career year offensively for Heyward. Had the elite offensive outfield talents in baseball put up Heyward’s numbers in 2016, it would have been a disappointment of a season.
Heyward’s strongest assets are his speed and defensive ability. There is no doubt that he is the best defensive outfielder in the game today. My question is, how do those skills translate to 30-plus year old body? When Heyward loses a step on the ball in the gap or doesn’t quite have the arm strength he used to have when gunning out rogue baserunners, is he going to have the bat to justify $25 million a year?
While Heyward has never had extended Disabled List stints, he did spend time there for parts of the 2010, 2011 and 2013 seasons. Prior to his achilles injury in 2011, Howard had endured just two DL stints that lasted the minimum fifteen days. He hasn’t been close to the same player since. The point is that you just never know.
But what about David Price? He would have been fun to watch in a Cardinal jersey. Again, though, I’m not sure that giving seven or eight years and something like $200 million to a 30-year-old pitcher with a 2-7 career postseason record and a 5.12 ERA is the smartest long-term investment.
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Are the Cardinals the most talented team in baseball heading into 2016. No they are not. Do the Cubs have the most talent, at least on paper, as we look forward to 2016? Probably.
Does recent history tell us that free agency winners go into the following season and dominate? Absolutely not. Think about the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers recently. I don’t know how many years those two have been National League favorites after big free agency periods, only to fall short of expectations the following season.
Simply put, General Manager John Mozeliak has a plan, both for 2016 and beyond. He is still going to field a very competitive team in 2016 and he is also giving himself a ton of options when the super-class of free agents hit the market in 2018. He has made it clear how reluctant he is to give out long-term deals, and he definitely isn’t going to overpay if he does dip his toes into those waters.
Some fans may call him and ownership cheap for talking about the increase in payroll, only to do nothing in free agency this year. I believe that that is smart business and smart baseball, knowing that he has pieces in place to be competitive and not over-reaching to get a guy that he doesn’t truly need.
Let the Cubbies celebrate their December victory, Cardinal fans. Going down to them in the NLDS hit me as hard as anybody else, believe me. However, the time is now, more than ever, to have faith in Mo and know that he has a plan for this club that accounts for 2016 as much as it does for 2026.
Personally, I’m ecstatic to see what full seasons of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty end up looking like. I think that if Tommy Pham stays healthy, he could turn in the best season of the three of them. I’m excited to see how Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday come back in 2016. I am cautiously optimistic about Yadier Molina in 2016, and at the same time I know that we have the best backup catcher in baseball in Brayan Pena ready to help him out.
Next: Cardinals looking to hold off reloaded Cubs in 2016
As far as certainties in 2016 go, I know of only two. I know that Mike Matheny is going to have his guys ready to give 100% from game 1 through 162, and I know that his guys aren’t going to give up the National League Central crown to the Cubbies (or anyone else) without a serious fight in the process.