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Randy Karraker: Should the Cardinals be in the Harper Sweepstakes?

On the heels of their trade for Paul Goldschmidt and as the Cardinals and Major League baseball descend on Las Vegas for the Winter Meetings, many Redbird fans (including Chris Rongey of the Fast Lane) are adamant that the Cardinals can and should sign free agent Bryce Harper to play right field for the next ten years.  While I love the idea of getting an impact lefty bat in the lineup and know the Cardinals CAN afford a massive contract, I understand the thinking of the Cardinal front office.  If the term and price for Harper weren’t so daunting, they would be interested.  But a ten-year contract in the area of $350 million just doesn’t fit the Cardinal way.  I’ll try to break down the organization’s thinking in not getting into a bidding war for this year’s prized free agent.

  • The Cardinals have a high-priced right fielder: Yes, Dexter Fowler was awful last year.  The Cardinals are hoping a full spring under Mike Shildt and the new coaching staff will spur a rebound closer to his career offensive numbers of .262/.360/.420.  Yes, he will be 33 on opening day and he had a slash line of .180/.278/.298 last year.  They know that.  But the thought process is that 2018 was the aberration, and that he can do what he generally did in the first nine years of his career.  As you might guess, Fowler’s contract would be prohibitive to move to another team.  The Cardinals don’t want to invest $51.5 million in right field for the next three years.

 

  • With their revenues, they can’t as quickly admit mistakes like Boston, the Yankees or the Dodgers: We’ll get into team revenues in a bit, but we can all agree that those three franchises generate enough revenue to make “stupid mistakes.”  The World Champion Red Sox had a MLB high payroll of $227,398,860.  Of that, $54,979,817 was spent on Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Rusney Castillo, Allen Craig and Manny Ramirez, who weren’t even on the roster.  24% of that payroll was spent on players who didn’t play for them.  The Yankees payroll was $179,598,151.  Of that, $28,852,831, or 16%, was spent on Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Adam Warren, who were either on the DL (Ellsbury) or were retained salaries.  Same for L.A.  Seven players that weren’t on the Major League roster for the post-season made $29,166,666, or 14.6% of their nearly $200 million payroll.  The Cardinals got no or virtually no production from Mike Leake, Tyler Lyons and Greg Holland, who took up $21,200,000 of the Cardinals $163,784,311 payroll, or 12.9%.  But payroll isn’t the key here, revenue is.  Those useless contracts left the Red Sox $398 million in revenue remaining (according to Forbes revenue calculations), left the Yankees $590 million and the Dodgers $493 million.  While not a pittance, the Cardinals remaining revenue…to cover payroll for players who DID play, debt service on their stadium, insurance, employees, minor league franchises, travel (think a traveling party of about 50 at Ritz Carlton hotels for 90 nights a year) and profit…was $298 million.  So, you can see why the Cardinals have less margin for error with bad contracts than the higher revenue teams do.

 

  • They want to develop Tyler O’Neill, and the guys they have are productive: The Cardinals want to find out if O’Neill can be their opening day left fielder, replacing Marcell Ozuna in 2020.  They want to give him at bats.  He’ll see time in all three outfield spots, but most likely against lefthanders playing right field in 2019.  The Cardinals are thinking long-term with their younger players, and don’t want to stunt their growth.  So, while a hitter like Harper might be a boon in 2019, they feel like they’ll be more prepared for 2020 and beyond by developing their young players.  Patrick Karraker notes on Twitter that O’Neill turned in a 2018 at age 24 of a 1.4 WAR, .254/.303/.500, 40.1 K%, 0.4 dWAR, 6 DRS…Jose Martinez had an age 30 season of 1.5 WAR, .305/.364/.457, 17.6 K%, -2.1 dWAR, -6 DRS and Harper had an age 26 year of 1.3 WAR, .249/.393/.496, 24.3 K%, -3.2 dWAR, -26 DRS.  Last year, what the Cards already have was about as effective as Harper, for less than 1/35 of his projected 2019 salary.

 

  • They spend commensurate with other teams: There are thirteen teams that, according to Forbes, generated $300 million or more in revenue in 2017.  Of those, only two (the Nationals and Angels) spent a higher percentage of their revenue on payroll (payroll according to Spotrac.com)…

Team                                   Revenue              Payroll                 % revenue to payroll

New York Yankees           $619 M                $179,598,151     29

Los Angeles Dodgers       $522 M                $199,582,045     38

Chicago Cubs                     $457 M                $194,259,933     42

Boston Red Sox                $453 M                $227,398,860     50

San Francisco Giants       $445 M                $205,665,348     51

Houston Astros                 $347 M                $163,524,216     47

Atlanta Braves                  $336 M                $130,649,395     39

New York Mets                 $336 M                $150,187,987     44

Los Angeles Angels          $334 M                $173,784,989     52

Philadelphia Phillies         $329 M                $104,297,471     32

St Louis Cardinals            $319 M                $163,784,311     51          

Texas Rangers                   $311 M                $140,625,018     45

Washington Nationals    $311 M                $181,382,609     58

 

For their market size, the Cardinals spend way more than franchises in similar markets.  St. Louis is the 21st largest market.  The cities/markets that have MLB teams from 10-20 are Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver and Cleveland.  The Cardinals have the highest payroll of every franchise in market from #10 down, and have a higher payroll than sixteen teams from larger markets.  Each of the seven teams with higher payrolls are in the nine biggest markets.

 

  • They aren’t enamored of ten-year contracts: Harper will command a ten-year contract from some team. But as was pointed out to me by a Cardinal executive, “there’s a lot that can go wrong in the last five years of a ten-year contract.”  Indeed, the current players with ten or more-year contracts are Giancarlo Stanton, Robinson Cano, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Troy Tulowitzki.  Stanton, Cano and Tulowitzki are no longer with the teams they signed with, and none won a playoff game with the team during the contract.  Pujols and Votto have also failed to win playoff games with their teams.  Albert has seen his production drop precipitously in the back end of his deal, and Votto’s contract has prevented the Reds from being able to build around him.  It’s notable that of those five players, none of them has played in a World Series game since signing their contracts.  That’s in large part a product of teams not being able to supplement their roster because of the money allocated to one superstar.  If you have a MLB average payroll of $139 million and give Harper $35 million a year, that’s 25% of your payroll committed to one guy.  Even for the Cardinals, with a payroll nearly $164 million, Harper at $35 million a year would be 21%, which they think it too large a slice.

As the Cardinals avoid Harper, don’t think they’re holding back to sign Nolan Arenado next year.  Perhaps their approach will change, but their current number two prospect according to MLB.com is third baseman Nolan Gorman, and their number seven is third baseman Elehuris Montero.  Along with O’Neill and Harrison Bader in the bigs, their sixth, eighth, ninth and twelfth ranked prospects are outfielders…and that doesn’t include Adolis Garcia or Lane Thomas, who’s ranked 21.  I think the Cards will try to keep Goldschmidt, but I also believe they’re going to look to their system and to making deals like the ones they made for Ozuna and Goldschmidt before they commit twenty percent of their payroll or a ten-year deal to one free agent player.

I might love the idea of having the face of baseball wearing a Cardinal uniform, but I get why the franchise is reluctant to go that far to get him.  If a deal presents itself, I believe they’ll pursue it.  But if other teams are willing to commit a ten-year contract worth $400 million, I don’t see them going there.  And I do see why.