Cheap Seats

Cardinals face tough decisions as players of the future stall at big league level

There is little question that the St. Louis Cardinals are good at drafting players and getting them to the major leagues.

But can they take the next step and consistently turn their prospects into stars at the major league level?

The Redbirds are facing some tough decisions as they’ve seen a number of home-grown products stall out in their development after they get the majors. While the division rival Chicago Cubs have had several youngsters make an immediate impact after reaching the majors, it’s make or break time for several Cardinals players who haven’t hit their stride and established themselves two or three years since they made their debut in the big leagues.

It’s a no-brainer that St. Louis should lock up spectacular young starting pitcher Carlos Martinez to a long-term contract. (Although chances of that happening before the 2017 season seem to have faded. The team announced Sunday at the Winter Warm Up that it couldn’t even avoid an arbitration hearing with a one-year deal because the sides are about $300,000 apart.) The future for players including fellow starting pitcher Michael Wacha, closer Trevor Rosenthal, second baseman Kolten Wong and first baseman Matt Adams is a lot murkier.

These players are all starting to see their salaries climb dramatically because of the service time they’ve put under their belts. If the Cardinals want to keep them, now is the time to lock them up with multi-year deals. But are they worth it? The Redbirds are notoriously, let’s call it “careful,” in doling out free agent contracts, will they be willing to spend money to keep their own talent?

The trick in keeping young players is to lock them up well before they reach free agency. If they can see the light at the end of the free agency tunnel — and they’re armed with several million dollars earned through multiple trips through the arbitration process — it’s too late. Teams give their players security now in exchange for earning power they would have later if they want to retain them at reasonable prices.

Looks at Baltimore’s Manny Machado. He’s nearing free agency, and he knows he’s going to break the bank in two years. Why would he give the Orioles a break to sign with two years to go before he can potentially get a quarter-billion-dollar deal?

The choice for the Cardinals is to develop the players they draft to be productive big leaguers and then sign them to extensions — or else they’ll have to fill in the holes where they fail on the free agent market. Otherwise, the Cardinals are doomed to become a perennial rebuilder.

St. Louis does have some history of locking up its players. Unfortunately, the results aren’t great.

The Cardinals have already shelled out a five-year, $25.5-million pact to lock up Wong for a while — a move that was likely also designed to soothe Wong’s nervous nature. But the team seemingly regretted it when the tactic didn’t work and Wong continued to flop after he inked it. Previously, the Birds extended top young hitter Allen Craig — only to watch him go from an MVP candidate to a question mark in the course of a little bit more than a season.

Rosenthal is in his second year of arbitration and will receive $6.4 million this year, even though he doesn’t currently have a well-defined role, and he could become a free agent after 2018. Wacha, who made $539,000 in 2016, will likely see his salary increase six times next season. But we don’t know if he’s destined for a career as a middle reliever after a second flare up of his shoulder stress reaction or if he can return to being a 17-game winner. And then there is Adams, who the Birds have been openly trying to trade all offseason and who will get a huge raise in his first year of arbitration eligibility — even though he’s been demoted to the bench. Can the Cardinals afford the gamble of investing in those players? Can they afford not to?

They better make up their minds because Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty aren’t far behind.

While the Cardinals have openly questioned the role of Rosenthal after he lost his closer job last season, I find it very hard to believe either he or the team will be satisfied with him in a secondary role. The guy who took Rosenthal’s job, Seung-hwan Oh, is going to be a 35 in July and a free agent at the end of the upcoming season. So, are the Birds going to hitch their wagon to him over Rosenthal while paying a 26-year-old guy three times as much money to be a set-up man? Would Rosenthal’s performance suffer? He already complains that he wants to be a starter at every opportunity. Would a further demotion from the top reliever to a lesser role be too much to take? It wouldn’t be surprising if that happened that it would seriously limit Rosenthal’s short-term earning power. And it might just make him less likely to want to continue his career in St. Louis when the Cardinals have prevented him from what he sees as reaching his potential.

We’ve heard for three years now that the Cardinals couldn’t spend money on this or that player because they’re planning for the day when they have to lock up their young stars of the future. But I am starting to wonder if that day is ever going to come. Or if it should.