Signing Harper? Trading for Arenado? Those moves could have sunk the St. Louis Cardinals. Why were the Cards smart to pass on certain stars?
“Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.”
Hall of Fame baseball maverick Bill Veeck made the above comment in 1948. These days, the adage applies to desperate free-agent signings as well as short-sided trades.
St. Louis Cardinals president John Mozeliak gets a lot of heat, and rightfully so, for poor trades and signings, but Mo and Cards chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. deserve a teaspoon of credit for resisting some of the big-splash moves that fans and bloggers often demand. Yeah, it would’ve been beautiful if they’d gone all-in on St. Louis native Max Scherzer after the 2014 season, but in most cases, their restraint — including backing off a big Nolan Arenado trade package this off-season — has proved to be prudent.
Here are some of the Mozeliak era’s best non-deals:
No. 1: Not signing Albert Pujols after 2011
Nine years after signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels, Pujols is still baseball’s 14th-highest-paid player, according to spotrac.com. The first baseman enjoyed a glorious 11-year run with St. Louis, winning three MVPs and finishing in the top five seven other times, but has been so-so (.258 BA, .314 OPS, .764 OPS) as an Angel.
Losing Pujols, the Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran for far less — $32 million over two years — and received equal play, with the outfielder generating a 6.1 WAR over two years compared to Pujols’ 6.3 over the same span. The Angels with Pujols (and Mike Trout) have made the playoffs just once in nine years.
The Cardinals tried to keep Pujols, offering him a nine-year deal for just under $200 million to as much as $220 million, depending on what sources you believe. But the player wanted the extra money the Angels offered, and Cardinals fans, for the most part, believed that management had made its best effort to re-sign the superstar. “I think (fans) realize you can only do so much for a given player and compete year in and year out,” DeWitt said in January, quoted by Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Sports economist Stephen Walters panned the Pujols signing at the time, telling Schuyler Velasco of the Christian Science Monitor on the day of the deal, “The ultimate rate of return here is likely to be very low, even negative, as Albert ages.”
Walters compared it to the huge, cumbersome contracts Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, deals that both teams came to regret. “There’s euphoria in Anaheim right now, and may be for a couple of years, but I suspect this contract eventually will be talked about in the same way A-Rod’s deals are today,” Walters said. He was right about that.
No. 2: Not trading for Troy Tulowitzki after 2013
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports! reported on the Tulo-to-St. Louis rumor in November of 2013, suggesting the Cards might deal a young pitcher (Shelby Miller or Carlos Martinez), first baseman Matt Adams, and a reliever (Kevin Siegrist or Seth Maness) for the three-time All-Star shortstop.
Some were thrilled at the prospect of Tulowitzki, a two-time Gold Glover, taking over for Pete Kozma, who had hit an anemic .217 with a .548 OPS the previous year. Others — and I was one — thought Tulo’s injury history made him too much of a risk. He missed 172 games from 2010 to ’13, and it wasn’t just one kind of wound that laid him low.
At various times, he suffered a torn tendon in his left quadriceps, a right-hand laceration, a fractured left wrist, a strained left groin muscle, a fractured right rib, a cracked left shoulder blade … the list goes on. Who knows how close the Cardinals came to finalizing a deal. The trade rumors supposedly resumed in the summer of 2014 when Tulowitzki, 29, was having a monster season, hitting .340 with a gaudy 1.035 OPS through July 19th.
Then he injured his left leg and was lost for the season. Although he performed well enough for the Rockies and Blue Jays in 2015 and ’16, Tulowitzki wasn’t the player he’d been at his peak. Dealing a trio of promising Cards for the slugging shortstop would’ve hurt the team’s talent pool and cost too much — Tulo had signed a Rockies contract in 2010 that paid him made $20 million a year from 2015 to 2019.
No. 3: Not Signing Bryce Harper after 2018
This would have been an awesome acquisition … if the Cards spent (and continued to spend) like the Dodgers and Yankees. News flash: they don’t. If the Birds had gone all-in on Harper, matching or exceeding the 13-year, $330 million deal he received from Philly, it would have pushed the budget far past DeWitt’s mythical breaking point and resulted, eventually, in the loss of some key core players.
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In a perfect world, the Cards could pay Harper and extend or re-sign Kolten Wong, Jack Flaherty, and others when their current contracts played out, but that’s not the way it works in DeWitt’s world. Paying Harper beaucoup bucks would have been akin to paying an NFL free agent $50 million a year. It would have busted the Cardinals’ self-imposed salary cap and eventually resulted in a trickle, if not a gush, of players leaving town.
If St. Louis had to shoot for the moon, Harper wasn’t the safest constellation to aim for. He had his greatest season, by far, at age 22, winning the NL MVP. In four seasons since, he’s received MVP votes just once, finishing 12th in 2017.
Harper’s had injury issues as well, playing in just 100 games in 2014 due to a torn ligament in his left thumb and making just 111 appearances in 2017 due to a hyperextended knee. Harper would have helped the Cards, who had spotty play from their right fielders in 2019, but the long-term ramifications of a 13-year deal would have been too much for this penurious franchise.
No. 4: Not trading for Nolan Arenado 2020
One prominent rumor had the Redbirds sending pitchers Carlos Martinez, Dakota Hudson and Matthew Liberatore, plus outfielder Tyler O’Neill, to Colorado for Arenado, which most would agree is too much to surrender for a player who can opt-out of his contract after the 2021 season.
Arenado has been phenomenal, averaging 40 homers and 124 RBI over the last five years and winning seven Gold Gloves (and three Platinum Gloves) in his seven-year career, but he’ll turn 29 next month and his contact, barring a 2021 opt-out, will pay him $35 million a year plus incentive bonuses through his age 33 season, plus $32 mil at age 34 and $27 mil at age 35 — plus the bonuses.
While he may prove to be worth every penny, most players decline through their 30s, and Arenado will no longer benefit from a Coors Field bump — he has a career .995 OPS in Denver and a .799 OPS on the road. That said, if the Rockies made a palatable trade offer, settling for Martinez, O’Neill and a competent prospect, the Cards might be advised to make that deal.
No. 5: Not signing Jason Heyward after 2015
This was more luck than foresight. St. Louis made every effort to keep Heyward, who may have had his best year as a 25-year-old Cardinal in 2015, but the Gold Glove outfielder preferred the Cubs, signing an eight-year, $184 million contract that was less than what the Cardinals and Washington Nationals offered him.
Heyward said he was attracted to Chicago’s “winning attitude and culture” and “would rather grow up with a bunch of guys and make them family and be able to cherish that for the rest of the day without feeling like I had to restart.” Jumping from the Cardinals to the Cards’ greatest rival, and suggesting it was some kind of promotion, infuriated Redbird fans, who vigorously booed the right-fielder when he returned to Busch Stadium as a Cub.
The media expressed widely different views of Heyward’s new contract, with FOX Sports analyst Joe Buck and Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck in disbelief over the lavish terms of the deal, while Ben Berkon of Forbes took the other tack, penning a story titled, “Why Jason Heyward’s New $184 Million Contract Is A Steal.”
Buck tweeted, “What am I missing with Heyward? Good player … But for 20 mill per? 10yrs??” Schmuck believed the Hayward contract would “turn out to be a fool’s errand.” Berkon, on the other hand, cited a performance projection formula that predicted the new Cub would produce WAR numbers of 4.7, 4.38, 4.15, 4.12, 4.11, 4.10, 4.09 and 4.07 from 2016 to 2023. That never happened. With the Cubs, Heyward has generated WAR scores of 1.3, 2.2, 1.6 and 2.0 so far.
When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Heyward, the team’s second-highest-paid player (behind Jon Lester), was their 14th-best player (according to WAR). He’s a terrific fielder and an OK hitter, but he’s been grossly overpaid, making $21.6 million in 2016, $28-plus million in ’17 and ’18, and $20 million last year. Heyward’s contract will pay him $21 million for ’20 and ’21, and $22 mil for ’22 and ’23.
No wonder The Ringer in 2018 called him “a once-in-a-lifetime disappointment” and mlbtraderumors.com last month wrote that “Heyward has failed to live up to his contract on the field, and … he’s a large part of the payroll crunch that has kept the Cubs from improving the team the past two winters.”
Heyward’s decision to jilt St. Louis for Chicago has proved to be a blessing for the Redbirds.
Occasionally, long-term, mega-money contracts are worth it — look at the Nationals’ Scherzer, who made a staggering $37.5 million last year but finished top-five in Cy Young Award voting for the seventh straight time and led the Nats to their first World Series championship.
Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million deal would be ridiculous for anyone other than Trout, baseball’s finest player by a wide margin. He might get hurt one day, he might taper off, but if you’re going to spend a bundle, spend it on the best. In Milwaukee, the Brewers are looking to ink Christian Yelich to a nine-year, $215 million deal, which is rich and scary but a reasonable gamble considering the right fielder’s still-young age — he just turned 28 — and back-to-back monster seasons.
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The Cards needn’t balk at overpaying if the ideal player hits the trade- or free-agent market, but “ideal” means a still-youngish player with no injury history at the peak or upswing of his career. If that player makes the Cardinals significantly better — and brings in even more revenue — maybe DeWitt and Co. will pay to keep the team’s core players. Otherwise, acquiring an overpriced player is, as Peter Schmuck wrote, “a fool’s errand.”