One Man Exits, One Man Never Arrives

Given all the things that happened on the diamond this weekend, we weren’t able yesterday to really look at the moves that happened–and didn’t happen–off the field on Saturday.  Hours after it was clear that the Cardinals had lost the Luis Robert sweepstakes, John Mozeliak traded Matt Adams to Atlanta for Juan Yepez, a 19-year-old third base prospect.  The Cards also sent cash to the Braves to help defray the $2.8 million (well, the pro-rated amount) that Big Fill-In-The-Blank was owed this season.

I have always been a pretty big Matt Adams fan, defending him against a lot of the slings and arrows that were thrown his way the last couple of years.  I know it’s a low bar to clear, but he was easily the best defensive first baseman that the club had.  He’d hit lefties a little bit better than some think, though it obviously still was a hole in his game.  I felt he had the ability to be an average to a little above-average first baseman, but it never quite came together.  Some of that is injury, some of that is just the way baseball goes.

Once the club moved Matt Carpenter to first base this offseason, Adams’s days were numbered.  Most of us were surprised when he started the season with the Cardinals.  In truth, Mozeliak did try to move him over the winter–there was a rumored deal with Kansas City that didn’t happen–but publicly said he was content having Adams as a viable bat off the bench and occasional fill-in at first.  (The less said about the idea of him playing outfield, the better.)

That works if Adams is a 33-35 year old guy who has had his shot in the big leagues.  Adams is just 28, though, and probably deserves to at least have a chance to play every day.  Once Freddie Freeman got hurt, many of us immediately thought about Atlanta as a landing place for the big guy.  (I’ll admit, the discussions a few of us had on Twitter didn’t factor in that Atlanta wouldn’t give up anything for a fill-in since they weren’t actually trying to win this year.  It’s one reason I’m terrible at trade scenarios.)  Mozeliak really gave him to Atlanta–while getting a Single-A prospect for Jim Edmonds worked out in historic fashion, it’s unlikely Yepez is going to follow the David Freese path–and that was fine.  He needed to play somewhere, but he couldn’t do that here with this roster construction.

Matt Adams did everything this team asked and did it (as far as we know) without grumbling or complaining.  He dealt with the uproar that was him in the outfield.  He pinch-hit and did what he could to help the team there.  I just wish it had worked out better for him overall, that he’d been able to establish himself enough at first that the Cards would have not been able to move Carpenter over, or at least not without sending him to a better situation than Atlanta.  Hopefully he has a great two months, builds up some value, and gets flipped to a contending team.  He went two for four last night with his first Braves long ball, so perhaps he’s on his way.

Some on Twitter suggested that Mozeliak finalized this deal on Saturday to take attention away from the fact that the club again was a runner-up on a major prize, this time Luis Robert.  That’s pretty silly in my book, one because it tied more to the timing of getting Stephen Piscotty off the DL but mainly because this wasn’t a big enough deal to push that failure off to the back burner, especially to folks that are plugged into the possibilities of this team.  Saturday was the first day that Robert could sign with a club and he wasted no time in making his decision, going with the other major competitor for his services, the White Sox.  Reports seem to differ on whether the White Sox were the top bid or not, but it seems pretty clear that they were right in the ballpark, signing Robert for $25 million after perhaps the personal touch won him over.

This post at Viva El Birdos helps outline why this was such a loss, but if you’ve read here or listened to Meet Me At Musial (especially Kyle Reis’s segments), you know all the reasons this was a perfect storm for the Cardinals.  Let’s quickly reiterate those:

–Robert was the equivalent of a top draft pick (if he didn’t go first overall this year if he was eligible, he’d have been really close) and the Cardinals never have a chance to pick that high.  Given how you get a pick like that, the plan is for them never to have that sort of draft pick and this sort of talent is never available when St. Louis gets to make its selection (save last year with Delvin Perez, but he had extenuating circumstances).

–None of the “big boys” (Chicago, Boston, New York) were in the mix for him, since they were capped at $300,000 this signing period due to overages in the past.

–The Cardinals were already over their cap for this year and are going to be unable to do much in the international market over the next couple of years.

–The international rules are changing and this is one of the last chances to flat out buy talent like Robert.

–The Cardinals will basically have no 2017 draft, what with losing their first pick due to signing Dexter Fowler and their next two picks due to the actions of Chris Correa.

–St. Louis has a lot of talent, but very little “superstar level” talent, again because there are rarely superstars around when they get a chance to pick.

–While the club would have had to pay a 100% tax to MLB since they were over their limit, the entire total of $50-$60 million would be much less than they gave Fowler this offseason.  Plus the Cardinals have often talked about “financial muscle” and the new TV contract kicks in next year.

There will never be another chance that lines up so perfectly for the Cardinals to bring in a young talent, which makes the fact that they didn’t get it done so frustrating.  Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt talked about stretching and being uncomfortable when they made a $200 million offer to David Price, an offer that looked to be successful until the last minute.  I don’t remember them saying so, but I’m sure it was the same sort of thing when they made an offer to Jason Heyward that had more guaranteed money (though a lower AAV) than the deal he took with Chicago.  Before Robert, the Cardinals also fell short on the last celebrated international signing, Lourdes Gurriel, who wound up signing with the Blue Jays for $22 million.  (Gurriel has played in only one game at High A Dunedin this year before getting hurt.)  You could go all the way back and add Albert Pujols into the list if you wanted.

When you continue to come short on bringing players in, whether it is free agents or these international prospects, a good self-evaluation should be in order.  Hopefully that’s what the club is doing.  As we continue to state, we don’t want to see them just throwing around money to throw around money.  Their smart baseball and thrifty spending habits has helped the club be successful for 20 years.  You get the feeling, from the outside looking in, that the club calculates a value and then doesn’t deviate from that high number.  They may stretch, they may get uncomfortable, but they aren’t going to risk it all and possibly hurt.  Which is a great policy from time to time, but eventually, you have to land someone like this.  Otherwise you get a lot of good, complementary players with no one to complement.

We’re a long way from the days of Mark McGwire and others who might have taken a “hometown discount” to stay in St. Louis.  Yadier Molina‘s $60 million extension and Heyward’s flight to Chicago pretty much proves that the idea of that baseball atmosphere making up for what dollars might be lacking is dead as a doornail.  To get talent to St. Louis, the club is either going to have to draft in a higher position, make trades that give up talent they may want to keep, or sign contracts that hurt.  Staying away from the extremes gets you good baseball.  It doesn’t help you have great baseball.

Again, I’m not saying they needed to win all of those bids.  While they might have had the financial resources to do that, tying up a lot of money like that really isn’t the Cardinal way.  What I am saying is that if they’d won just one of them, public opinion of their philosophy would be significantly different.  If you land Price, nobody expects you to land Heyward and you could argue that you didn’t want to spend a lot in the international market because of the big contract.  If you land Gurriel or Robert, the second place finishes on major MLB free agent talent is brushed aside as well.

There’s a lot of cynical folks out there that never thought the Cardinals would actually land Robert.  I’ll admit to being naive or optimistic enough to believe that it’d happen, because it made too much sense not too.  This really should have been a time when the Cardinals went over the top.  If nothing else, it would buy them a little better public opinion with some of those cynical folks as well as a top talent.  They didn’t, which gives more credence to what so many folks continue to say, that the Cards are more interested in looking like they are spending than actually spending.

I don’t tend to believe that ownership is lining its pockets at the expense of the fans and not trying to put the best product possible on the field.  I also realize that just because you offer a good deal doesn’t mean the player is going to take it.  While it doesn’t look like the Cardinals outbid the White Sox for Robert, even if they had Robert might have taken the Chicago deal due to other factors, such as players he knows or a comfort level with that organization.  Each one of these deals, in and of themselves, can be explained.  As a pattern, though, they are troubling.

I still believe that the Cardinals can be players for someone like Manny Machado in the next couple of years.  Perhaps these failures will give them the spur they need to get into that level where it hurts to prove that they can.  However, it’s becoming harder and harder to argue with folks that believe they’ll never be able to seal the deal.  “Coming in second” has replaced “low-hanging fruit” as the term associated with Mozeliak’s time here in St. Louis.  Unfortunately, the next opportunity to erase that mindset is probably over a year away.

What’s done is done, though.  The club has to just focus on beating the Dodgers, starting tonight.  Come back later on with a Q&A with one of my Dodger brethren!

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