It’s 2011. Albert Pujols, the greatest Cardinal of my generation and the driving force behind 2 World Series titles, is about to become a free agent. Pujols accumulated 81.3 fWAR in his 11 years in a Cardinal uniform and was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. He had been the Rookie of the Year, won the MVP 3 times and finished 2nd 4 more (he’d have certainly won 3 more if not for Bonds and the fact that MVP voters love RBI). He had won 2 Gold Gloves and been an All-Star 10 times. He was, in every definition of the word, a Cardinal hero…and he was about to become a free agent.
Everyone knew the price for Pujols was going to be high; the obvious question was “how high would the team go in order to re-sign him?” He had to be re-signed, though, right? He was, after all, Albert Pujols. We couldn’t let him get away. Many were surprised, including Albert himself, when the team didn’t make more of a push to get him signed before his final year in a Cardinal uniform. In January, 2011, the team offered Pujols a 9 year, $198 million offer which he rejected. He became a free agent that November and in December, the team upped its offer to 10 years, $220 million. We, of course, know what happened next. The Angels swooped in with a 10 year, $254 million offer and he was gone.
As it turned out, the team didn’t miss a beat. The Cardinals installed Lance Berkman and Allen Craig at first base, won 88 games, and was 1 win away from playing in the World Series. The Angels had a good season themselves, winning 89 games, but finished 3rd in the tough AL West. Pujols played well, accumulating 3.6 fWAR but it was the lowest total of his career. And he hasn’t been even that good since. In his 4 years in Southern California, Pujols has accumulated a total of 9.1 fWAR — less than 2.3 per season. In 2003 as a Cardinal, Pujols accumulated 9.5 fWAR in that season alone. Now he’s basically a league average player.
In the 2012 amateur draft, the Cardinals had 2 compensation picks for losing Pujols to the Angels. They used those 2 picks to select Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty. Craig became a hero for the Cardinals and, when he started to slip, we traded him to the Red Sox for John Lackey. Now, does anyone think that the Cardinals would trade Wacha and Piscotty for Pujols? Would any team be so stupid as to make that deal? I guarantee that the Angels would rather have Wacha and Piscotty than Pujols.
Dave Cameron from Fangraphs does a trade value series each July where he ranks the top 50 players in baseball in terms of the trade value and then he concludes the series with the 5 players in baseball with the lowest trade value. In other words — the 5 worst contracts in baseball. In 2013 and 2014, Pujols ranked first — the worst contract in the game. This year, Pujols made it up to 5th with Cameron estimating that Pujols’s contract had $70 million in dead weight. Whether or not we agree that Pujols’s contract is the worst, or the 5th worst, or the 10th worst in baseball, it is inarguably a bad contract, one to which we should all be ecstatic the Cardinals never agreed.
This offseason the Cardinals are back in that boat, trying to decide how much to offer Jason Heyward, another free agent who will be seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. Many Cardinals’ fans, with full knowledge of how well the team has done since Pujols left and of how burdensome the contract is to the Angels, will follow the Heyward negotiations with trepidation. “$200 million for guy who hit 13 home runs last year? That’s preposterous!” But is it?
First of all, it’s not 2011. Salaries have escalated by about 7% per year in baseball over the last 4 years. So, $200 million today is equivalent to about $153 million in 2011. Second, when Pujols left for the Angels, he was already 31 years old and his last season was his worst (though still very good). He had dealt with multiple injuries to his arm and his feet and was basically relegated to first base. It was pretty obvious that he was not going to age particularly well. He would soon, undoubtedly, become a DH at least part-time and with the Cards in the NL, it didn’t make a ton of sense to carry a part-time DH on the roster. As it turns out, Pujols was only in year 4 of his 10 year deal and only played 1B 95 times last year. Down the stretch for the Angels, Chris Cron played 1B and Pujols was the DH. Formerly a very good base runner, at least for someone without blazing speed, now Pujols is frequently pinch run for. And he still has 6 years left on his deal.
Jason Heyward is a very different character. First, he just turned 26 — 5 years younger than Pujols was when he began his first season in LA. He’s an outstanding defensive outfielder and base runner. He’s easily the best defensive right fielder in the game by both UZR and DRS and the team even felt comfortable enough with Heyward in the outfield to put him in CF 10 times. Fangraphs has Heyward as the 5th best base runner in the game, adding 7 runs to the team just by stealing bases and taking the extra base on singles and doubles. So even though Heyward doesn’t hit with the power that one would like from a superstar, $200 million player — averaging just under 13 homers per year over the previous 3 seasons — he still accumulates a lot of value other ways. Once Pujols started to break down, he became basically just a slugger.
Even though he only hit 13 homers in 2015, he was still the 6th best outfielder in the game by fWAR and was the team’s most valuable player as well. Most importantly, however, many players don’t reach their peaks until they are somewhere between 27 and 30. Heyward has already hit 27 HR in the big leagues once and with his frame, 6’5″ & 245 pounds, there are a lot of reasons people think that power may return. In other words, there are a lot of reasons to believe the best is yet to come with Heyward. That simply was not realistic with the Pujols contract.
Yesterday, Craig Edwards of vivaelbirdos and fangraphs shared this via twitter:
Sure, Holliday had more homers than Heyward at his age but Heyward was still arguably a better hitter at his age than Holliday was (121 wRC+ > 116 wRC+). And Holliday didn’t provide anywhere near the defensive and base running value that Heyward provides.
So, here’s the point, the Cardinals can’t afford to hand out $200 million contracts to anyone who wants one. They must be offered judiciously. Thus, the team should offer a huge mega-contract only to players who:
- are obviously great
- are young and can provide value for a long time
- have the ability to help the team at the plate, in the field, and on the bases
- may not have yet reached their peak
- have a good injury history
- can help the team win when they’re not hitting homers
Jason Heyward meets all of those criteria. If the team is ever going to bid on the top free agent position player on the market, this is the guy to bid on. We won’t be able to go after Bryce Harper in a couple of years but we do have as good a chance as anyone of landing Heyward and should push all our chips in to get him. We have room in the budget and the team is going to get a lot more money when its big contract with Fox Sports Midwest kicks in. The dollars may be similar, in that they may both start with a 2, but this is not the Pujols contract.
Like other Cards’ fans, I’ve spent a good chunk of the last couple of days thinking about what might have been with this season. In so many ways it was such a great season — 100 wins, 1st place in the toughest division in baseball — and, yet, I’ve found myself wondering how the season would have played out if things had finished a little bit differently. As Cards’ fans, we’re tremendously spoiled. This is the first year in the last 5, for example, that the Cardinals haven’t made it to the NLCS. We’re in it every year. Not many teams can say that. If I was a fan of the Astros, Rangers or even Yankees, I could imagine that I would be able to look back on this season and realize how much my team accomplished. For all of these fans, their teams ended up pretty close to their best case scenarios. It’s disappointing for the season to end, to be sure — especially with the Astros’ collapse in game 4 of their series and the 7th inning meltdown by the Rangers’ defense in game 5 of theirs — but almost everyone has to acknowledge how great those teams’ seasons were. And the Cardinals won 100 games and it just doesn’t feel like a great season. Some of that is because we’re spoiled. And some is because it seems as though we could have accomplished much more. For example:
- What if Wainwright hadn’t gotten injured? Would the NLDS against the Cubs have turned out differently if Wainwright could’ve started game 1? We could’ve pushed Lackey to game 2 against Hendricks and then Garcia starts game 3 when he’s probably rested and not nursing a stomach virus. It’s a whole different series.
- What if Matt Holliday was healthy? He just wasn’t himself down the stretch or in the postseason. Our #3 hitter really couldn’t hit, at least not like a #3 hitter, and we were playing shorthanded as a result.
- What if Carlos Martinez hadn’t gotten hurt? Put him and Wainwright in the rotation and it’s deadly. Now, Martinez pitches game 3 and Garcia goes in 4. There’s a good argument to be made that we just didn’t have our 2 best starting pitchers in the postseason.
- What if Matt Adams was healthy? I’m not the biggest Adams fan in the world but he can certainly mash against righties and he wasn’t healthy enough to even beat out Brandon Moss or Jon Jay for the postseason roster. (Maybe it could’ve prevented Mozeliak from shipping Rob Kaminsky to Cleveland in exchange for Moss.)
- What if Randall Grichuk hadn’t kept getting hurt? Not only would he have been in contention for the Rookie of the Year, but he would have been a deadly hitter in the middle of the lineup in October. For a team that struggled to score so often this season — and again in the postseason — how much would we have been helped with a healthy Holliday, Adams, and Grichuk avaialble?
- What if Jordan Walden had been healthy? Matheny wore out Siegrist, and maybe Maness and Rosenthal, and part of the reason was that we were counting on Walden to pitch the 8th inning and get the game to Rosenthal. We certainly could have used him rather than Broxton and Cishek down the stretch and could have saved some wear-and-tear on Siegrist.
That’s a lot of what-ifs. This was a very good team that could have been an historically outstanding team and it fell short in October — when it counted most — largely due to injuries. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Instead, however, I want to look at a different set of what-ifs. Most teams, if they had to deal with all those setbacks, would not have won 100 games or finished above the Pirates and Cubs. How in the heck did that happen?
- What if Randall Grichuk, for all his injuries, hadn’t emerged as a tremendous power hitter who could play center field? Grichuk was in the Rookie of the Year race until his second injury (remember, he missed the beginning of the season with an injury as well). Grichuk had a higher ISO this year than Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt and hit the ball as hard as Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Did I mention that he can play center field? I don’t really know if he can stay healthy for 600+ plate appearances but, if he can, he might be a star.
- What if Stephen Piscotty hadn’t emerged as a no-doubt offensive impact player for the Cardinals? This is a guy who was always thought of as a pretty good prospect, but prospect analysts were always waiting on his power to emerge. Prior to this season, he never hit more than 9 HR in the minor leagues. He hit 11 in his first 87 games at Memphis this year but we’re still talking about the Pacific Coast League. He was a good AAA hitter, but not a great one. And then he was called up and very soon thereafter became a star. He hit 7 HR and 15 doubles in just 63 games. Granted, it was just half a season, but his wRC+ was 133. So was Carlos Correa’s. Manny Machado, who hit 35 HR this year, had a 134 wRC+. He performed better offensively in his 256 PA than Curtis Granderson and Schwarber did this year. And he showed he could play both outfield corners and first base. One of our biggest concerns going in to last season is what to do about 1B when facing a lefty, considering Matt Adams’s profound issues facing lefties (one HR vs. Kershaw notwithstanding). Those concerns have vanished.
- What if Carlos Martinez hadn’t emerged as an outstanding starter? There were many who were concerned that he’d never be anything more than a reliever.Those concerns aren’t there any more.
- What if Jaime Garcia’s career had been ended by injuries? I didn’t expect anything from Garcia this season or, honestly, ever. Pitchers just rarely come back from multiple shoulder injuries. And yet Garcia did, and emerged as one of the team’s best starters this year. He’s gone from a guy who almost certainly would not have had his option for 2016 picked up, to a guy whose option will definitely be picked up.
- What if Kevin Siegrist hadn’t re-emerged as a shutdown reliever? Granted, his season didn’t end too well but he inarguably had a tremendous season. He was injured most of 2014 and the team had to be unsure of whether or how much they could count on Siegrist for 2015 and he ended up becoming Matheny’s go-to guy out of the pen.
- What if Tommy Pham hadn’t emerged as a legitimate contributor? This is a guy the team always thought a lot of but he just couldn’t stay healthy. When Grichuk got hurt, they called him up just to see what would happen and he showed himself to be fearless, to be a guy who can play center field, and to be a guy who can hit the ball hard. His average exit velocity was basically the same as Goldschmidt’s.
The bottom line is that, though this season ended disappointingly, there’s a lot to look forward to next year and down the road. What do all those guys in that last segment have in common? Pham is the oldest, and he’s just 27 years old. Is there any wonder why, after the game 4 loss to the Cubs, Adam Wainwright had this to say?
The season was an unquestioned success, though we would have all liked to have finished stronger. And all signs point to the probability that next year will be even better.