Cheap Seats

Surprise! The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t going to sign a major free agent — again

During the winter of 2014-15, one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, Max Scherzer, wanted nothing more than to sign a contract to pitch for the team he rooted for growing up, the St. Louis Cardinals.

But the Redbirds front office yawned, refusing to engage the three-time Cy Young Award winner because it was saving its money for the following year when the big lefty the team had spent years trying to trade for, David Price, hit the open market.

The Birds thought they had Price in the bag, but then the Boston Red Sox swooped in and shoved St. Louis to the pavement, making the Cardinals seem a bit foolish to put all their eggs in a basket that they couldn’t prevent from being stolen away. Oops.

The past two winters, the Redbirds refused to engage big ticket players. The speculation that the club allowed to fester was that the team was saving it’s pennies to really make a splash when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado made it to free agency. It was a perfect fit. The Cardinals lack a superstar and they have tons of payroll flexibility because of it despite foolish middling moves to sign guys like Dexter Fowler and Mike Leake, who was supposed to be some sort of consolation prize when Price went to Beantown. Yeah, they’re practically the same guy. That’s why the Birds had to pay the Seattle Mariners to take part of Leake’s contract off their hands.

Now the time has come to bid on Harper or Machado and the St. Louis front office once again says “meh... no, thanks.” Instead the fans are plied with a one-year rental of Paul Goldshmidt that leaves the team no more committed to the future than it was six months ago. Sure, the Cardinals claim that they think they can sign Goldschmidt. But they thought they could sign Jason Heyward when they traded for him in his walk year. And they thought they could land Price even though they were outbid.

Speculation has already turned to another player the Birds are known to fancy. Nolan Arenado will be a free agent at the end of the upcoming season if he doesn’t sign an extension with the Colorado Rockies first. Right.

Let’s put an end to that idea already. The New York Yankees were the favorite to sign Machado. But, after his outbursts in the National League playoffs last year, it seems that the Bronx Bombers have taken a pass on handing Machado a 10-year contract. Machado will likely end up with the Philadelphia Phillies — who seem determined to pay any price necessary to add to their talent base — or the Chicago White Sox. So, what happens with the Yankees?

They likely go nuts for Arenado, who is just as talented as Machado without all of the baggage.

That means the Cardinals dreams of sneaking in and signing one of the best players in baseball isn’t going to happen in 2020, either.

This pattern is both irritating a disturbing.

What happened to the Cardinals management group that was determined to compete every year. The one that went out and got guys like Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds? The one that pushed hard to add Scott Rolen when it already had to stars on the roster? I understand why the Cardinals didn’t want to sign Albert Pujols to a 10-year contract when he was 32 years old. But ever since Albert walked away to sign with the Los Angeles Angels, this team has shied away from every single chance it had to add another star player to anything more than a one-year commitment with the exception of keeping Yadier Molina in the fold as the face of the franchise. But even that deal was for a relatively short term and it was such a no-brainer the team simply couldn’t have gone the opposite direction. What would this team be without Yadi?

I never believed that Harper was a realistic addition for the Cardinals over the past two seasons. But it made so much sense that I talked myself into it in October. The Cardinals don’t like to sign guys who are over 30. Harper is 26. The team has an obvious need for star power and for continuity with Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna both free agents to-be. Then the rumors started to fly that Harper loves to play in St. Louis, citing his own Twitter remarks. Maybe a former MVP in his mid-20s would finally be the guy that got the Cardinals off their dime — or their billion-dollar television deal. But no.

The front office can stick to its metrics and its artificial assessment of what the price tag is for players and make things look swell on paper for the beancounters. But when talent is sold on the open market in an auction setting, the price a player is worth is what the highest bidder is willing to pay them. The Cardinals’ conservative ways have made them easy to beat because once they reach their limit, they’re out and the real contenders just swoop in like the Red Sox did with Price. If the Cardinals want to compete, they simply are going to have to start paying market prices. Regardless of their ability to afford to do so, this team just doesn’t have a willingness to do that.

So, here we are again.