St. Louis Cardinals

The ones that got away: The Cardinals are better off without them

David Price this winter opted to wear the Red Sox uniform instead of the Birds on the Bat.
David Price this winter opted to wear the Red Sox uniform instead of the Birds on the Bat. AP

“Sometimes,” Bill Veeck once said, “the best trades are the ones you don’t make.”

Swap out the word “trades” for the word “deals,” and you have some idea of how a number of off-season non-deals have worked for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Remember the gnashing of teeth when David Price found the price more to his liking in Boston than St. Louis?

Remember the sackcloth-and-ashes routine when Jason Heyword decided he’d look better in Cubs blue than Cardinals red?

Remember the snarls and snorts when John Lackey wiggled his way to Wrigley?

Maybe – maybe more than maybe – the Cardinals are better off without all three.

Consider: Through a third of the season, none of the three have been worth the $433 million thrown at them by their new employers, with Price and Heyward commanding the biggest off-season contracts in baseball last winter.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals employed to take their place are doing just fine, thank you. At far less cost – both on the payroll and in the flexibility the team will have for years to come.

A little math will illuminate:

Price, for the $30 million he’s getting this year from Boston, is 7-2 with a 4.88 ERA for the Red Sox. Despite that larger-than-life ERA, Price has been winning because the Red Sox have averaged nearly 8  1/2 runs in his victories this year. But even with seven wins a third of the way through the season, Price is earning about $1.4 million per win.

Contrast that with the Cardinals ace, Adam Wainwright, who hasn’t gotten the same run support as Price but still has five wins and a 5.40 ERA. He’s making $19.5 million this year, in 2017 and 2018 – while Price’s annual pay will be $30 million in each of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons; $31 million in 2019; and $32 million each in 2020, 2021, and 2022.

Think of that: Most starting pitchers, if healthy, make 32-34 starts a season. That means Price for the next seven years will be paid nearly $1 million per start, win or lose.

And anyone want to bet me that the win totals for Wainwright and Price this year will be far closer than their $10.5 million salary gap?

Heyward’s production-vs.-price is even more egregious, two months into his first year on the North Side of Chicago.

The right fielder is hitting .223 with three home runs and 21 RBIs, with 42 hits and 44 strikeouts in 188 at-bats. Yes, you read that right: He has struck out more times than he’s had basehits for the Cubs.

And that offense comes at considerable expense; Heyward is in the first year of an eight-year contract that will pay him $184 million through 2023 – unless he opts out of the deal as a free agent in quest of more riches in 2018 or 2019.

Contrast that with the player manning right field in his absence for the Cardinals, Stephen Piscotty. Playing for $512,500 this year, he is hitting .311 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs, with 65 hits – 23 more than Heyward has. So a fraction of the expense has brought the Cardinals more than twice as many home runs, 50 percent more RBIs, and 50 percent more hits.

And factor in these numbers: Piscotty’s on-base percentage is .387, Heyward’s is .318; Piscotty’s slugging percentage – the measure of a player’s power production – is .488, Heyward’s is .314; Piscotty’s combined on-base and slugging percentage is .875; Heyward’s is .632. By every measure – batting average, power, RBIs, getting on base, overall offensive performance – Piscotty has been superior to Heyward.

What’s more: While Heyward is checking his automated payroll deposits in Chicago the next seven years, Piscotty isn’t even arbitration-eligible until 2019, and can’t be a free agent until 2022 – when Heyward will have one year left on his gargantuan Cubs contract.

The financial numbers also play into the Cardinals’ favor when the Lackey deal comes to mind: Two years with the Cubs, at $16 million a year, pitching as a 37-year-old this year, 38 next year.

Compare that to his replacement in the Cardinals’ rotation, Mike Leake. At 28, he is making $12 million this year, $15 million next year, with an average of $16 million coming to him each of the last four years of his Cardinals contract.

Lackey is 6-2 with a 2.88 ERA this year, his 14th season in the majors; Leake, in his seventh season, is 3-4 with a 3.90 ERA. Nine years younger than Lackey, Leake will be a stalwart in the Redbirds rotation through the 2021 season, sure to be contributing to the Redbirds long after Lackey is done pitching for the Cubs or any other major-league team.

All of this begs the question: If the Cardinals had won the Price sweepstakes, or the Heyward lottery, would they have the flexibility to sign a Leake? Of course not – and they won’t have to face the budget pinch felt in the years to come by the Red Sox and the Cubs, locked into their biggest-on-the-ballclub contracts with Price and Heyward.

Such are the economics of the game today: While Price and Heyward toil, however well, for their clubs into 2020 and beyond, the Cardinals will continue to build from within, even as their payroll sheds large-but-nowhere-near-Price-or-Heyward-pricetag contracts for Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and even Wainwright.

Which reminds me of another wisecrack appropos of today’s baseball economics:

“If it weren’t for baseball,” Phyllis Diller once said, “many kids wouldn’t know what a millionaire looked like.”

Now they surely do – and the highest paid look a lot like David Price, Jason Heyward et al.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or on Twitter @JoeOstermeier