Why Can’t the Cardinals Attract Top Talent?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Cardinals head into the offseason with a premier super-elite talent as their number-one target. They put on a good show in chasing that talent. For a while, it looks like it might happen.

Then it doesn’t. Some other team nobody counted on ends up taking the player instead.

Max Scherzer to the Nationals. David Price to the Red Sox. Jason Heyward to the Cubs.

And now, Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, apparently.

The method by which the Cardinals fell short was different this time, though. In the case of the first three players, the Cardinals got outbid financially (and yes, the Cubs’ offer to Heyward with the opt-out was potentially more lucrative; nobody could’ve predicted he’d turn into a pumpkin upon arriving in Wrigley). That’s irritating enough given that the Cardinals are a team with deep pockets and also one whose relative ranking in payroll has sunk in recent seasons.

But Stanton? This is a new one. Allegedly the Cardinals were willing to take on more of his monster contract than other suitors, but Stanton took a look at St. Louis and decided “no thanks.” He did the same with San Francisco, so it’s not as if the Cardinals were uniquely scorned.

And we’ll never know why Stanton didn’t want to play in either city, but instead for the Yankees. Given his short list, “likelihood of winning sometime soon” was probably part of it. But we’ll never know what was going through his head other than a quite correct “I have a full no-trade and the Marlins want to move me; I have all the leverage here and I’d be a fool to give it up for anything short of an ideal landing spot.”

It does beg the question, however: why isn’t St. Louis an ideal landing spot?

If it were only Stanton this offseason, it wouldn’t really be a question. But Stanton spurning St. Louis for another city fits a recent pattern: premium talent doesn’t want to play for the Cardinals long-term.

That’s something fans of the team for the last two decades aren’t used to.

Ben Godar over at Viva El Birdos did a nice job outlining this, but for most of the Tony LaRussa era, premium talent would regularly ignore the bigger-market coastal teams and settle in the Gateway City for the long term—sometimes for lesser dollars, even.

Mark McGwire had his own NTC that he waived to come to St. Louis in his walk year, then promptly re-signed at below market value. Jim Edmonds didn’t have an NTC, but happily settled in St. Louis after a trade from the Angels. Scott Rolen got unfairly run out of Philadelphia and put down roots with the Cardinals. Matt Holliday left a bad situation in Oakland in 2009 and signed a long-term extension after a midseason trade.

All of these players are Hall of Fame caliber talents (okay, maybe not Holliday; the bar for left fielders is ludicrously high. Hall of Very Good, perhaps?) Godar pointed out that perhaps all of these players weren’t attracted to St. Louis so much as they were attracted to TLR. And even if you’re a Mike Matheny defender (surely you’re not reading this blog if you are, but maybe you got here by accident?), you can certainly admit that #22 is no #10.

I have a different suggestion: perhaps the players who don’t want to settle in St. Louis long term are making that decision because they’ve seen a pattern of how the Cardinals treat their players long term. It’s a pattern that stretches back into the TLR era—but not the Walt Jocketty era, which ended after the 2007 season. It’s a John Mozeliak legacy.

Edmonds? The Cardinals decided they didn’t want to play him into the sunset of his career, and in order to accommodate his desire to play, they shipped him off to San Diego. They got David Freese in the deal so it’s not as if it didn’t work out for the Cardinals, but that has nothing to do with how Edmonds was treated on his way out. Sure, the Cardinals can say they were honoring the player’s wishes by giving him a chance to play every day closer to home, but one can just as credibly point out that the Cardinals shouldn’t have signed Edmonds into his final seasons if they weren’t willing to use him.

Rolen? The Cardinals decided they didn’t want a Hall of Fame caliber talent at the hot corner for years to come and shipped him to Toronto for Troy Glaus. Glaus was actually really good for one season before his body gave out on him, but again that has nothing to do with Rolen’s treatment. (I admit I’m doing some hand-waving here; Rolen had clashed with TLR dating back at least to the 2006 season and it’s entirely possible the club decided it couldn’t keep both personalities wholly independent of Rolen’s aging curve.)

Holliday? The Cardinals decided before 2016 was over that he wouldn’t be coming back and left their star outfielder dangling. Sure, it led to perhaps the most beautiful moment of the 2016 season, when a crippled Holliday somehow one-handed a ball over the right field fence and circled the bases with tears streaming down his cheeks, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals put an aging player out to pasture rather than letting him finish his career on his terms. Holliday deserved better treatment.

In all of these cases, one can credibly argue that the Cardinals made the right decision from a talent-on-the-field standpoint: the aging curve in MLB is brutal, and by the time a player hits free agency the first time they’re usually past their prime. By the time they hit it a second time they’re a shadow of their former selves.

But one can also credibly argue that from a basic decency standpoint, the Cardinals failed. These players committed to St. Louis, in many cases at below market value. That commitment should have been matched by an equal commitment by the Cardinals to respect the player.

It’s not just those three, though. Take a look at Mike Leake, the “We Tried” consolation prize in the David Price sweepstakes. Leake got a full no-trade clause and a 5-year deal. The Cardinals got rid of him a year and a half into the deal. Again, probably the “right” move for the Cardinals in that it saved them a few million over the next couple seasons, but one that seems kind of gross. After all, the Marlins are regularly shamed for handing out NTCs like candy after their new stadium got built, only to turn around and flip players who made a commitment to Miami.

And then there’s Dexter Fowler, last offseason’s big free agent acquisition. He also got a full NTC. He’s also allegedly unhappy in St. Louis (despite his insistence to the contrary). The Cardinals are also allegedly considering moving him. Moving two NTCs in two seasons, both less than halfway into their deals is an extremely bad look and would almost certainly throw up giant caution flags for subsequent free agents.

Let’s not forget Heyward, who when signing with Chicago said something to the effect of believing the Cubs had a brighter and more stable future than the Cardinals. Demonstrably, he was right, but one also wonders if he just wasn’t willing to settle long-term with a team that’ll look at a player’s final few years with derision and scorn, looking to extract any remaining value it can via a trade.

That same sentiment was echoed by Tommy Pham last season when the Cardinals released Jhonny Peralta: a player who clearly didn’t have it anymore, but also one whose work ethic and professionalism were respected in the clubhouse.

In fairness to the Cardinals, they aren’t alone in this practice. The Boston Red Sox are rather infamous for planting stories in the media to run vilify long-term contracts and run players out of town. Anybody remember the fried chicken and beer “scandal” that dumped Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford? Or the more recent job done on Pablo Sandoval? Or the ongoing efforts to vilify David Price?

But that’s sort of the point: the Cardinals can’t compete with the Red Sox or the Yankees when it comes to media markets—they’re always going to be a lesser light. And even if they can compete in dollars thanks to their new cable contract (and as negative as I generally am about the Cardinals, it’s reassuring that ownership wasn’t going to let money become a stumbling block when it came to Stanton), that’s demonstrably not enough or we’d be celebrating Stanton’s arrival to St. Louis rather than thinking “well I guess maybe Christian Yelich would be pretty good if we look at the WAR vs. salary surplus tables.”

The Cardinals need leadership that’s willing to commit to players over the long term—even as that long-term means absorbing some bad years. Players looking to sign long-term deals presumably factor the organization’s loyalty into their calculus. And for the last ten years the Cardinals largely haven’t demonstrated that loyalty—they’ll cut bait the minute it looks like there’s better value elsewhere.

That’s not something that’s on Mike Matheny, who for all his disqualifying traits is at least loyal to his veterans: see Adam Wainwright’s 2017 season most recently. It’s a problem with the whole organization—an obsession with extracting all possible value from a player before prematurely tossing their used-up husk on the scrap pile.

It’s a practice that’s worked pretty well from a wins and losses standpoint over the last decade, and one that might be the direction MLB is heading thanks to a greater understanding of SABR-driven actuarial tables. Regardless, if that’s the case, the Cardinals are in a ton of trouble in the long term. And we should get used to players being as mercenary as possible and turning their backs on the Gateway City in the process.

Stanton wasn’t the first. He won’t be the last, either.