While St. Louis Cardinals fans have gone into the winter each of the past several years with visions of the home team making a franchise-altering free agent signing, it seems like this time might really be different.
The Cardinals offseason approach needs to be this: Land one of the top two free agents — Bryce Harper or Manny Machado — or bust. It seems that the club is at least receiving the message, based on some of the comments team leadership has made since the 2018 season came to a close.
The problem is that there is only one Bryce Harper and he’s not going to come cheap.
St. Louis can’t afford to do what the Boston Red Sox did a few years ago when they told the world that they would not be outbid for David Price, then waited until the Cardinals and Price reached an agreement and topped it. Harper is likely to draw attention from several mega market teams including the National League Central Division rival Chicago Cubs.
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The Birds are always looking for a deal that “makes sense,” which means that it’s a relative bargain. There will be no bargain deal for Harper. Not only will John Mozeliak and company have to do the unthinkable and pay market prices, but the Cardinals need to do something they haven’t done in the past and really make an effort to woo their target.
In the past, it’s been an offer and maybe a little negotiating and, more times than not, the targeted player chooses an offer from another club and the Redbirds re-calibrate their plans. They need to bring Harper, who has tweeted in the past how much he enjoys playing in St. Louis in front of the loyal and enthusiastic fans, in to meet with Jim Edmonds, Ozzie Smith and Bob Gibson to see what it means to be a Cardinal.
They need to have him stand at home plate and show a video on the scoreboard in which stadium announcer John Ulett announces “Now batting for the St. Louis Cardinals, Bryce Harper” and then the crowd roars. Cut to a scene of Albert Pujols saying “wow” about the ovation he got during the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis and then to scenes of St. Louis winning the World Series in 2011 and 2006 and of clinching the pennant in 2013, 2011, 2006 and 2004.
When that’s all done, Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak need to take Harper into a room and tell him “We’re tired of not making the playoffs. We’re committed to winning the World Series again and to making the playoffs every year and we think you’re the guy to lead us there.”
Those things aren’t going to make Harper leave $25 million on the table. But when all else is equal, let tradition tip the scales.
Jason Heyward didn’t want to re-sign with St. Louis because he didn’t think the Cardinals were a competitive team. With the young pitching the Birds have and with Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong and Matt Carpenter around him, Harper could win in St. Louis. In fact, if the Cardinals were able to sign a second-tier free agent like Josh Donaldson or Mike Moustakas to play third base before the Harper bidding gets serious, it would send a serious signal to the rest of the division and to baseball.
St. Louis has to turn the page on its “aw shucks, we’re just a small market team” attitude. I think it did the club an immeasurable disservice in 2010 and 2011 when the team line was that the club probably couldn’t afford to sign Matt Holliday and bring back Albert Pujols. Maybe not re-signing Pujols was the right move in the long run. But claiming they couldn’t afford him sent the wrong message to other free agents.
It seemed for a short while last winter and again before the 2018 trade deadline that the Redbirds were hot and heavy after Machado. But that sentiment seemed to cool down lately, especially when Machado pronounced that hustle really isn’t his thing after embarrassing himself on national television by dogging it down to first base on a ground ball. Other teams heard the same thing, and now there’s talk that the Los Angeles Dodgers don’t really want to re-sign Machado and the New York Yankees aren’t sure he’s their kind of player.
That leaves only the Philadelphia Phillies as big market bidders likely to offer a mega contract. So, if St. Louis is looking for a surprise steal, Machado might be the way to turn.
I still have a hard time imagining the Cardinals coughing up a third of a billion bucks to sign Harper. But I can’t completely dismiss it after St. Louis was willing to take on $300 million in a trade for Giancarlo Stanton that was a done deal.
If only the player could have been convinced that Mozeliak and the rest of the St. Louis brass were serious about winning.