The Cardinals could afford to sign Bryce Harper
After acquiring Paul Goldschmidt in December, St. Louis then inked reliver Andrew Miller to a 2 year, $25 million deal as their other big acquisition of the offseason. These two moves alone added $27 million in payroll for 2019, which is a big jump for the Cardinals traditionally.
But if St. Louis was going to be serious about competing with the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers, they were going to need to spend like it. While their payroll was sitting at $174 million, a simple reallocation of money would have free up enough money to bring in Harper and create a monster lineup for St. Louis.
Aside from saving $11.5 million by not signing Miller (already 45% of Harper’s AAV of $26 million), the Cardinals could have held off on extensions for Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas. Carpenter was signed to a 2 year, $39 million extension in April 2019 and Mikolas got a 4 year, $68 million dollar deal in February. Both players appeared extension worthy at the moment, but the Cardinals should have held off on extending both players, signed Harper, and figured out if they could afford to keep those guys around later. Carpenter was in his age-33 season and Mikolas age-31, and they bet on their future performance rather than a 26-year old superstar.
The Cardinals also had multiple contracts set to expire in the coming seasons outside of Carpenter and Mikolas, including Ozuna, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, and Kolten Wong. Even if they had just let Carpenter, Ozuna, and Wacha walk, that would have freed up $27 million in salary in 2020, slotting Harper’s salary right in there for them.
Signing Harper was not one of those massive $35 million AAV deals that many superstars require now, nor was it the risky investment like Albert Pujols was past the age of 30 back in 2011. This was one of those “once in a decade” opportunities to add a generational bat, with his prime ahead of him, at a discounted rate. The Cardinals simply missed on that, and their prioritization of keeping around some of their core was a mistake.