I’ve been saying this for weeks: I didn’t expect the Cardinals to prevail in the bidding for Luis Robert, the exciting 19-year-old outfield prospect described by one MLB team scouting director as “the best player on the planet” in a story by Jesse Sanchez at MLB.com
I didn’t expect the Cardinals to land Robert for a simple reason: They almost always finish second in high-stakes sweepstakes for elite, premium talent. Center fielder Dexter Fowler doesn’t really count; his free-agent market never intensified to drive the price up to the level of an astral plane.
Last November, the Cardinals finished second in the race to sign top Cuban infield prospect Lourdes Gurriel, who went to Toronto on a seven-year, $22 million deal. The Cards thought very highly of Gurriel, but not enough to come in with the best offer. Sigh.
The Cardinals have finished second a bunch of times, and it isn’t always a bad thing. The Cardinals have actually won by losing; they’ve avoided massive contract mistakes by coming up short in the free-agent derbies for Albert Pujols, David Price and Jason Heyward.
But Luis Robert was different. He has the talent and upside to be a franchise cornerstone for many years, and the Cardinals have no one like him. Sure, they have some talented outfield prospects, and I don’t need to do a roll call here because you know who they are. But none project as a franchise-piece player that you can build a team around.
When I asked Sanchez — who does a great job reporting on the international market — to compare Roberts to notable 19-year-old prospects of the past, he gave me two comps:
Ken Griffey Jr.
Um, not bad.
According to Sanchez, Robert agreed to a deal with the White Sox for $26 million or $27 million. The Cardinals reportedly made an aggressive offer, so we have to assume the money was fairly close.
The White Sox, who exceeded their international spending cap, will pay the MLB tax, meaning that $50 million or more was the real cost of securing Robert.
The Cardinals were in the same situation. Had they reached an agreement with Robert, the total price of the Robert investment would be doubled by the MLB-imposed tax.
For the sake of conversation, let’s say the Cardinals offered $22 million. (The specifics of their offer was not disclosed.) So that would have resulted in a $44 million outlay.
That’s a lot of money for an unproven talent that’s probably a couple of years from making it to the major leagues. Absolutely, it’s a risk. In recent years several MLB teams have come to regret their huge-dollar investments in coveted international stars or prospects.
I hate to break it to you, but there are no guarantees about ANY PLAYER when a team offers a substantial contract.
No one can guarantee that Robert will come close to living up to the “best player on the planet” hype. Or that he’ll even become an MLB All-Star. Just like no one can guarantee that a team’s hefty free-agent purchase for an established lefty reliever — price, $30.5 million — will pay off, either. Who the hell knows?
But that’s why organizations spend so much money on scouting and in setting up international baseball operations. If your baseball people are smart and confident and know what they’re doing, then you don’t hesitate to put up a ton of money to sign a prospect that you believe in.
That’s why I don’t understand the Cardinals’ caution here.
If they were willing to invest — again, this is just a guess — between $40 million and $45 million on Luis Robert, then what’s another $10 million?
The kid is no less of a risk at $40-some million than he is at $50-some million.
1) Your baseball people are convinced of his talent.
2) It’s a rare opportunity to sign a young man who could be the once-in-a-generation young talent you’ve been seeking because you don’t have a player in that category.
3) Your franchise is among the most profitable in the sport, and your revenue continues to grow, and that’s before your new $1 billion local TV deal kicks in for 2018.
4) You don’t have a first-round draft choice this year because of the “Hackgate” penalties.
5) You lost out on Gurriel and Price and Heyward and others … meaning that your financial war chest is still loaded with the kind of resources that make it possible and feasible to do anything that you want to do.
6) You are known and praised for being a prudent, pragmatic baseball operation — an approach that actually makes it much easier and palatable to go all-in on a Luis Robert, simply because you haven’t squandered fortunes on incredibly impulsive, hideously stupid, contracts that have choked your long-term payroll.
7) You had no problem giving a setup reliever (Brett Cecil) $30.5 million, but have sticker shock over spending $50 million for a potential franchise-foundation player? Yeah, “potential” doesn’t mean that the player will develop as expected. But again: There is no such thing as a performance guarantee.
8) You’ve made a bunch of smart, economically sound investments in the international market. Most are cost-saver type deals that have a chance for success. Which, once again, is another reason why it would have been fine to push big and sign this kid. Your organization did a good job saving money along the way, and when you save a bunch of money, you have more flexibility to pursue the most prestigious prospect out there.
9) This wasn’t a free-for-all competition for Robert. Many of the traditional MLB high-roller franchises had to sit this one out because of hard international spending restrictions placed on them. The Cardinals faced relatively modest competition for this player. They had to take advantage of the unique circumstances.
Some of you will say that the Cardinals didn’t need to invest so heavily in Luis Robert when they have a bunch of outfield prospects such as Aroldis Garcia, Mags Sierra, Harrison Bader, etc.
To that I repeat the point: If the Cardinals don’t think they needed to go get Luis Robert because they have a surplus of young outfielders, then why were they willing to offer Robert as much money as they did? Again … if — hypothetically — you were willing to go to $40 million or more on Robert, then you weren’t letting your outfield “surplus” figure into your thinking or your bidding.
This was a missed opportunity for the Cardinals.
Maybe Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak will regret it in a few years.
Or maybe Robert goes bust and DeWitt and Mozeliak will be relieved and grateful that he signed with the White Sox.
But we know that the Cardinals scouted Robert, met with Robert, wanted Robert, bid aggressively on Robert, and could afford any amount necessary to get Robert signed.
And they were an also-ran in the contest.
What’s the point of wasting time and money to scout Robert if you weren’t prepared or committed to going all the way and getting him signed even if it takes you out of your comfort zone?
Why even enter the game unless you go hard for the win?
Thanks for reading …