Cheap Seats

Cardinals blew it by not signing Harper and proved they won’t spend money on good players

The St. Louis Cardinals insisted that they were going to stick with right fielder Dexter Fowler although former National League MVP Bryce Harper was there for the taking.

It seemed impossible to pass on such an obvious fit. Yet the Birds did.

Fowler, looking every bit as helpless at the plate as he did last year when he hit .180 in between stints on the disabled list, is off to an 0-for-7 start in Grapefruit League play while Harper on Thursday finally inked the largest contract in baseball history. It’s a 13-year, $335-million pact with the Philadelphia Phillies.

That’s a ton of money, for sure. But it’s just about exactly what we thought it was going to take to ink Harper when it comes to total dollars, a price the Cardinals could afford to pay. It’s a relative bargain when you consider the fact that instead of a decade-long deal, it’s three years longer. People freak out about the outfielder being paid until he’s 39. But by adding three years to the deal, the Phillies have shrewdly lowered the annual payroll hit they’ll take. Basically, this is as if they signed Harper through age 36 with a quarter of the money deferred without interest. If Harper is still good when they get into the final stretch of this deal, it’s as if they’re getting him for free.

Consider that the Los Angeles Angels gave Albert Pujols $25 million a season eight years ago. Harper is getting $25.77 million annually, pretty good when you consider how ticket prices, television contracts and concessions have inflated in price over the past decade or so.

To put it bluntly, if the Cardinals were interesting in doing everything they could to compete, this deal was doable for them. Judging from the way Harper held out until the third week of spring training to sign, entertaining shorter deals from the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, it seems likely that the rumors the slugger didn’t want to play in Philadelphia are true. St. Louis, a place Harper expressed fondness about playing in, would have likely be an attractive option to him if the dollars were the same or even close.

I know, I know. No one is worth $335 million. But that’s in real world money, not the fantasyland where owners get a billion dollars for the right to show their games on local television or where a single beer costs $12.

Let’s face it, the best case for Fowler isn’t close to the floor for Harper’s production. Fowler is brittle, slow in the field and his bat looks downright limp these days. When he does make contact, the ball doesn’t go anywhere. People like to make a big deal out of the idea that Harper is a bad outfielder. But he looks like Willie Mays compared to Fowler these days. The fact that Harper would hit three or four times as many homers and drive in two or three times as many runs is the real difference maker between the two.

Yeah, it’s a shame the Cardinals will have to eat Fowler’s contract if they let him go. But it damages their brand and their relationship with fans to find a less than competitive team because they made a mistake and refuse to admit it.

Speaking of mistakes, there is no way the Cardinals will double down on the Marcell Ozuna trade by signing him to a contract extension, underlining the need for a corner outfielder in the future. If it wasn’t bad enough that Ozuna showed up to camp with his throwing shoulder looking as out of whack today as it did in October, he is reportedly about 25 pounds overweight. It says something about a player when he’s about to be a free agent, yet he doesn’t care enough to get in the best shape possible to play. I want to root for Ozuna. He had a resume that included a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. But that hasn’t been the guy who has shown up in St. Louis. He seems to be a player who became satisfied with himself while there was still so much to prove.

I said it a few days ago and I’ll say it again, I think this front office is on the bubble to prove that the moves it has made over the past three years weren’t a colossal waste of money. People point to the 2011 World Series championship and the 2013 pennant and think John Mozeliak is safe. But Walt Jocketty was fired before him. And before that the Cardinals fired some of the most legendary general managers in the game including Branch Rickey and Bing Devine. It’s not what have you done for me. It’s what have you done for me lately.

And over the past three years, the answer is that the team has spent a lot of money on sub par players while missing the postseason each campaign. It seemed like Harper was a rare player who could change the direction of an organization. But the Cardinals passed. Somehow, their fans are already cheering the move and proclaiming that the team can take the money it saved on Harper to make a run at Mike Trout when he’s a free agent in two years. Give me a break. If the team wasn’t moved this offseason to get off the checkbook, it’s never going to happen.