The Cardinals moves prior to 2019 unnecessarily complicated this move
Even after proving that the Cardinals could have made a Harper move work under their 2019 salary constraints, the greater sin may be the moves they had made prior to Harper’s free agency that made the decision more complicated than it needed to be.
After Giancarlo Stanton vetoed a trade to St. Louis prior to the 2018 season, the Cardinals turned around and offered the same package to Miami for Marcell Ozuna, losing future aces Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen in the process (a terrible mistake detailed out in this story). This was a move made just one year after signing Dexter Fowler to a 5 year, $82.5 million contract, and that was even a headscratcher at the time. Two poor investments in the outfield surely weighed into their decision not to hand out another $26 million annually for Harper.
The Cardinals have rebounded really well, even with some really poor decisions from 2016-2018, but the real travesty here is that in the moment, you could see how big of a miss this was. At the time, people were linking the Cardinals to Harper for similar reasons, so this is not as much revisionist history as it is a difference in opinion that won out for those who were pro-signing Harper.
Betting on the core that they did was not the mistake. Making bad moves in the past was not the reason this did not happen. The issue here was not being unable to afford Harper’s contract (see Stanton’s contract, which is almost the exact same, that they were willing to trade prospects for). The issue here was the front office and/or ownership’s unwillingness to take two major swings to vault this team into true contention.
The Cardinals should have bet on the MVP talent of Harper like they did with Goldschmidt, and who knows where this team would be. It is not out of the question that they end up with Nolan Arenado as well and are the class of the National League. Watching Harper tear through the National League playoffs is a blast, but it hurts when you remember that he could be doing this for the Birds on the Bat.