Cheap Seats

The Cardinals can surprise a lot of people this offseason by signing Bryce Harper

The St. Louis Cardinals reputation precedes them, apparently. Experts from national publications don’t even put them in the picture when it comes to considering where the top free agents in Major League Baseball will land.

No sooner has the 2018 World Series come to a close than Sports Illustrated released its top 50 list of where the best players on the move are headed. If you were hoping Bryce Harper or Manny Machado would be penciled into the Redbirds lineup, the publication suggests you aim a little bit lower.

SI thinks St. Louis is more likely where the sixth-ranked free agent on the list, Josh Donaldson, will direct his mail for the next two or three years. On its face, landing the No. 6 free agent sounds like a pretty good acquisition. But it’s the narrative that comes with the prediction that gets my goat. It suggests that instead of worrying about Donaldson’s injury issues, the Birds should be grateful for them.

“His health questions might drive his price down to where the Cardinals can afford him,” Sports Illustrated opined. St. Louis could afford Giancarlo Stanton last year and to offer David Price $200 million or so a couple of years ago. But now the Birds are back to the bargain bin? Is there any research done on these articles at all — or are they just throwing darts at a board?

Doubling down on the “damaged goods are good enough for the Redbirds” theme, SI also predicts that the Cardinals will skip on dishing out big bucks for 26-year-old lefty slugger Harper and instead opt for No. 8 on the list, former Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley, 32.

A .302 hitter with a .358 on-base percentage over the past three seasons, what could be wrong with Brantley? Well, he’s managed to average only 81 games played — exactly half a season worth — over the past three campaigns.

Picking up Donaldson and Brantley sounds like an awesome idea if it’s 2014 or 2015. But does it make any sense at all in 2019 for St. Louis to spend $25 million to $30 million on two players well past 30 who spend more time on the shelf than the Encyclopedia Britannica? If the team spent a similar amount on Harper, then at least it would get most of his prime. Donaldson and Brantley have been great players. But is there any doubt those two have already put their best days behind them?

The Cardinals already have a 32-year-old outfielder capable of batting left-handed who has crashed and burned after inking a long-term contract. Brantley had a very nice season last year after a pair of injury-marred messes. That means he’s probably going to want security of a three- or four-year deal. And how do the Birds convince a guy who has a much higher ceiling than Dexter Fowler to take less money to take Fowler’s job away from him? Is the idea that between Fowler and Brantley maybe one of them will be healthy at any given time.

I’m all for the idea of signing Donaldson — if he’s reasonable — as a complement to Harper. Or trade for Nolen Arenado and then sign Brantley as a complement. But spending too much money on second tier players, a la Fowler and Mike Leake, is the sort of tactic that plunged the Birds from a perennial playoff contender into an also-ran the past three years. They need a game changer and a leader, not another experiment. They need a pillar to build around, not another Band-Aid solution.