Between the end of the 2016 World Series and the opening week of the 2017 baseball season, the Cardinals handed out five contracts worth more than $257 million. For the most part, those deals worth more than a quarter of a BILLION dollars have not worked out.
On November 16, on the heels of Zach Duke undergoing Tommy John surgery, St. Louis signed former Toronto reliever Brett Cecil to a four-year, $30.5 million deal. On December 8, center fielder Dexter Fowler bolted the World Champion Cubs and joined their rivals on a five-year, $82.5 million contract. On February 2, the Cardinals avoided arbitration with right-handed pitcher Carlos Martinez by giving him a five-year, $51 million deal. They continued the process of locking down their own players on opening day, when they announced Yadier Molina’s new three-year, $60 million contract. Then the next day, on April 3, the Cardinals secured the services of then third-year outfielder Stephen Piscotty with a six-year, $33.5 million contract.
Cecil’s deal is likely the worst one the Cardinals have ever given. Back in the late 90’s, they signed lefty reliever Scott Radinsky for two years and $5 million. He pitched for them once after June 26th of his first year, and had a 4.88 ERA in 44 games in STL. When Mark McGwire surprised them by retiring after the 2001 season, the Redbirds imported former Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez with a three-year, $20.75 million contract. Not only was Martinez miserable and a negative influence, but his production was awful. In two seasons, he hit .267 with 36 homers and 144 RBI, well off his career 162 game averages of .271, 27 homers and 102 RBI. They traded him, and gave Tampa a load of cash, for the final year of the contract. In ’95, Danny Jackson came from the Phillies on a three-year, $10.8 million deal, and went 4-15 with a 5.78 ERA before being dealt to San Diego in the middle of the final year of the contract. He never pitched again after that season.
In 2010, Brad Penny got $7.5 million for nine starts. In 2016, Brayan Pena was guaranteed $5 million over two years and played in nine games with thirteen at bats before being released one year into the deal. They didn’t get much out of Mike Leake’s five-year, $85 million deal (he went 16-24 with a 4.46 ERA and was traded less than two years into the deal) or Adam Kennedy (three years, $10 million; hit about .250 with five homers and 54 RBI and was released two years in).
So, there is a bad history. But none of the aforementioned busts cost more than $30 million. In part, circumstances helped prevent Piscotty from succeeding here. As his mother dealt with the ravages of ALS, Piscotty was clearly distracted, and it affected his performance. After the season, the A’s saw a talented player that they felt had a manageable contract, and made a deal for him. At the end of the day, that deal didn’t work out for the Cardinals.
When healthy, Molina and Martinez have been excellent. Martinez had a 3.64 ERA in 205 innings last season, and Molina led the team with 82 RBI and a .751 OPS last year while leading National League catchers in games and innings caught. This year, both have had unavoidable injuries. Piscotty, Martinez and Molina cover $144.5 million of the contracts handed out. The other two deals have turned into major albatrosses.
Last year, Fowler turned around a poor offensive start and had a strong year, with a .363 OBP and an .851 OPS. His defense, however, left a lot to be desired. In 2017, Fowler ranked sixteenth among seventeen qualified major league center fielders in defensive runs saved with a minus-18. Fowler’s struggles and Tommy Pham’s ascent caused the Redbird brass to move Fowler to right field. That hasn’t worked out very well. He’s 46th among 51 MLB players that have played right field for at least 100 innings. Among those that have played an inning in right, Fowler is 140th out of 145 at minus-6 DRS.
Oh, and that’s not the bad part. Fowler’s offensive drop off has been precipitous, going from an .851 OPS last year to a .574 this season. That’s last among major league right fielders with enough at bats to qualify. Fowler’s last place slugging percentage among MLB right fielders is forty percentage points behind the Mets’ Jay Bruce.
Worst of all? As Fowler plays his age 32 season, he’s due $14.5 million in salary and $2 million in signing bonus this year, next year, the year after that, and the year after THAT! Each July 1 and October 1, Fowler is due $1 million to cover his signing bonus. How would you like to be Bill DeWitt signing that check in a couple of weeks? With the $49.5 million due Fowler in his age 33, 34 and 35 seasons…along with his full no-trade clause…trading him will be almost impossible. The Cards need to find a way to make it work with Fowler.
I’m sure they’d like to with Cecil, but it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen. On Sunday in Cincinnati, Cecil walked three and allowed a run in his two innings of work. His ERA stands at 6.30 this year after last season’s 3.88. Cecil’s body language on the mound is alarming. He looks like a guy who’s already defeated when he enters the game. He doesn’t appear confident and doesn’t engender confidence in fans. Cecil’s deal is the second biggest for a reliever that wasn’t expected to close in baseball history. Only Darren O’Day’s four-year, $31 million deal in Baltimore was bigger, but he had already been with the Orioles for four years. So, among non-closer relievers that changed teams, Cecil’s deal is the biggest.
Like Fowler, Cecil has a complete no-trade clause. But even if he didn’t have it, who would want to trade for that contract even if the Cards would swallow half of it?
One of our major topics of discussion in St. Louis is about how the Cardinals should allocate their resources. Well, if they’re going to spend on other team’s free agents, they need to be better than they’ve been in the last twenty years. The spending isn’t the problem. The production of the players making the money is the problem.