It may sound like a crazy idea for the St. Louis Cardinals to sign one of the top two free agents on the market, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, to a contract that figures to be in the one-third of a billion dollars range.
The home team has never doled out half that much money to a player before. But might doing so actually be the team’s sanest possible option this winter?
Some Redbirds fans have argued that, instead of backing up a dump truck full of money at the front door of one of the two free agent standouts, the team ought to make a play for Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt.
On paper, Goldschmidt is a better hitter than either Harper or Machado. By all accounts, he’s also the easiest to get along with of the three. So why not just trade some of the Birds’ pitching depth to the rebuilding D-Backs and call it a day?
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Well, Goldschmidt will be a free agent at the end of the 2019 season. So, is it really such a good idea that the Cardinals give up the likes of Carlos Martinez and Jack Flaherty to rent Goldschmidt for one year? If St. Louis plans to keep him, you can bet the annual rate is going to be in the same ballpark as it would be for the two mega free agents. The problem is that Goldie is several years older than Harper or Machado. At 31, you can bet he’s going to want a six or seven-year contract that will cover him for the rest of his prime and then some. Is it smarter to pay a guy who is 25 or 26 for 10 years or a guy who is 31 for six or seven?
But the money isn’t even the scary part of a Goldschmidt trade. What if he doesn’t take the cash from the Cardinals? It could be devastating to St. Louis to lose two of its top young pitchers (and I would bet that a couple other players would have to be thrown in, too because every team from the Tampa Bay Rays to the big spending Boston Red Sox has been rumored to be interested in the All-Star first baseman) to watch Goldschmidt leave as a free agent like Jason Heyward did. There will be no bargain deal here. He’s not the sort of player who is going to fall through the cracks in the market.
It’s a similar situation for Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado. He’s controllable through 2019 — and after that it will be a bear to try to hang on to him.
Another crazier scenario than signing Harper or Machado would be if the Cardinals overpaid (again) for a mediocre second-tier free agent a la Mike Leake or Dexter Fowler. These are guys the Redbirds fell back to after more established and productive options fell through. But, while St. Louis got a steal in Miles Mikolas, it got what it paid for by signing more questionable players in other cases. I’ve always said that I am less concerned about the concept of paying a prime player prime player rates than I am about paying a sub-.500 pitcher and a .250 hitter with 12 home run power $60 million for four years. Those guys kill you when they fall off even a little bit. If a .300 hitter with 40 home run power suddenly drops to become a .280 hitter with 30 home runs, you’re going to be OK. When that .250 hitter becomes a .230 hitter with a .280 on-base percentage and six or seven homers, you’ve got a big problem.
The guy that really scares me this offseason is Josh Donaldson, a player the Cardinals have been in love with for years. The problem is that he’s 33 years old and missed the vast majority of last season with injuries. Yeah, he was great a couple of years ago. And it’s easy to fall in love with the player he used to be as opposed to the player he’s been lately. But his age is against him now.
It’s not that I am against Donaldson becoming a Cardinal. I would LOVE to see him bounce back in St. Louis. But I think it’s crazy if the Birds make him the centerpiece of their off-season plans. If they signed Harper to play right field and then signed Donaldson to play third base as a complimentary player — think Lance Berkman complementing Albert Pujols in 2011 — that would be great and could really put St. Louis over the top if it pans out. But if the team only signed Donaldson and he’s hurt again, it might as well have done nothing at all.
Spending another $60 million on a player who doesn’t help is only going to decrease the likelihood that the club will have the financial flexibility to acquire a game changer.
So, the Cardinals could gamble away several of their best prospects on a trade for a pending free agent, spend another $60 million on a player they will eventually regret acquiring while squandering another opportunity to make the playoffs or they could go out and get a proven, young impact player — while hanging on to all their prospects — and make a huge positive shift in the direction of the team.
So, which is the crazy choice?