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Baseball needs a salary cap — and a salary floor

Can Cardinals take advantage of slow offseason?

St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak talks about the team’s approach in a slow-to-develop offseason.
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St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak talks about the team’s approach in a slow-to-develop offseason.

Major League Baseball has reached the point where it needs a salary cap-based economic system.

Not just to control the spending of the clubs at the top of the food chain. But the ones on the bottom, too.

Such a move would help realign the outdated player compensation model that sees young stars held down from making top money in their prime and aging veterans paid based on the exploits of their past instead of what they have in store for the future.

Baseball owners have been their own worst enemy during the past three decades. Players hit the market and, while the majority of teams keep their wits about them, certain clubs (I’m looking at you Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and the pre-Bernie Madoff New York Mets) swoop in with a ridiculous offer and drive the bidding out of the stratosphere.

We hear all the time how the St. Louis Cardinals are the model franchise when it comes to building from within and controlling player costs. But what worked from 2004 until 2013 isn’t working now.

The Cardinals were forced to part with superstar Albert Pujols, who by all rights should have retired wearing the Birds on the Bat, because they didn’t want to pay him what the Halos would for his declining years. That specific case is a touchy subject with me because the Redbirds bucked tradition and paid Pujols $100 million guaranteed long before he could ever reach free agency in exchange for a couple of extra years before he could test the market.

Albert had already been paid a king’s ransom when he bolted because the Cardinals didn’t respect him enough to hand him a couple hundred million more. The result has been a disaster for the Angels as Pujols hit the wall. The Angels are still on the hook for an average of about $28 million a year for a .250 hitter with power.

Or how about the case of David Price, who wanted to be a Cardinal while the Cardinals wanted him to be a Cardinal. He infamously went to bed thinking his desire to play for St. Louis was a done deal. The Birds, allegedly, went way beyond their comfort zone to offer Price something in the neighborhood of $200 million.

But the Red Sox, who publicly issued a statement that they would outbid any other suitor for Price by plenty, did just that and St. Louis apparently balked when Price’s people came back around looking for a match. That’s another deal that turned into a disaster because Price wasn’t perfect — and Boston fans don’t stand for players who aren’t perfect.

Price won 17 games in his first year with the BoSox and logged 230 innings doing so and led the American League in batters faced. But he had a 3.99 ERA and led the American League in hits allowed, including surrendering 30 home runs, so he was often booed. Then he showed up for camp his second season with a partial tear in an elbow ligament and managed less than 75 innings pitched, winning only six games.

Then there are the countless times the Cardinals have come in second on the bidding for the free agents of their desire. Some say this is by design, and maybe it partially is. But the real fact is that St. Louis sets a limit on what it will pay for a player based on a formula that monetizes his production. And there is always a team that is willing to go overboard. It’s just a market reality.

On the other side of the coin, we have teams that are never in on the big free-agent players. The Tampa Bay Rays and similar clubs might have a short window of success every now and then. But they can’t sustain it because, as soon as their players reach free agency, they’re gone.

I have been opposed to salary caps in the past because, contrary to the cliché that says it’s the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back that is most important, for teams to be successful in putting rears in the seats and eyes on the television screen that they have to become attached to the players like St. Louis fans were to Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds. That doesn’t necessarily happen when a team is playing roster musical chairs because of an NFL style salary cap. But if owners can be creative, they can find a way that a cap-based reconfiguring of the economics of baseball rewards players during their prime years and keeps them on their original team at the same time.

It’s going to be difficult to get the players to accept a cap. The only way to do so it going to be to allow young guys to make more money in their early years. But owners need to be careful what they wish for. Right now, 27-year-old guys are playing for that mega contract when they’re 30 or 31. If they’ve already made $75 million by the time they’re 30 and there isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, will their dedication fade because there is little left, financially, to play for?

The fact that Jake Arrieta is still a free agent after pitchers and catchers have already reported to spring training and Yu Darvish took significantly less than many thought he would make on the open market are sure signs that things have changed. It’s going to be painful for players and owners to come to an agreement on how things should move forward financially. I just hope, when they do, that they do it right so all of the teams in MLB can compete every season and so fans of teams outside of the handful of financial bullies that rule the game have a chance to root for their favorite stars throughout their careers.