In the wake of all the Giancarlo Stanton talk, there’s been a lot of talk about how St. Louis “isn’t what it once was” when it comes to a destination for various players. Free agents won’t come, folks say, because the aura and the mystique isn’t there anymore. That could somewhat be true, but let’s discuss one possibility.
The Cardinals have never been that destination.
When we talk about big names and big signings for St. Louis, who comes to mind? Jim Edmonds. Scott Rolen. Mark McGwire. Matt Holliday. What did all of those folks have in common? They were traded to St. Louis, with no recourse a la Stanton’s no-trade clause. They came to love the location, the fans, the atmosphere but if given a choice not one of them (well, OK, maybe Indiana boy Rolen) would have chosen the Cardinals on the free agent market if they’d not been baptized in baseball heaven in the first place. That was Walt Jocketty’s MO for the longest time. Get them to St. Louis and you can keep them.
The big free agents never came, though. Holliday didn’t sign an extension with the Cardinals and went to free agency, but the others were locked up before they could get away. Holliday, if you remember, didn’t exactly jump on returning to the Cardinals, not signing a deal until January to return. If the pull to St. Louis was so great, why didn’t Holliday put pen to contract much sooner, perhaps even before the end of the season like McGwire did? Now, admittedly, Holliday said around the time of his signing that he kinda had St. Louis on the mind during the free agent period, but he didn’t just drop everything so he could be a Cardinal.
As one of our regular Meet Me at Musial listeners pointed out (I broached this topic on our last show), Carlos Beltran did come to St. Louis and that’s a fair point. Beltran wasn’t the biggest fish on the market that offseason, but he was a notable name and a guy that had plenty of success even as his career was (supposedly) winding down.
Now, you could easily make the case that the “trade and keep” philosophy isn’t working out as well either. Jason Heyward never seriously entertained returning to St. Louis, it doesn’t appear, and we’ve seen this year that Juan Nicasio might be a similar story. That’s a strong argument that things aren’t maybe what they were in the first decade of this century. However, I don’t think you can point to Stanton or others as a sign that things are bad or that Mike Matheny has made it where players don’t want to come to St. Louis.
Would we still be talking about such things if David Price had just been a bit quicker to make up his mind to come to St. Louis? The stories are that he was just hours away from becoming a Cardinal before Boston went over the top with the money. Price wanted to be here, it seemed. Having a major free agent make the choice to be a Cardinal might have nipped some of this in the bud. You also have Dexter Fowler, but the competition for Fowler was a bit lesser and the Cardinals had to give him an extra year to get him to commit. It felt like St. Louis was almost a drawback that had to be overcome, which is the way many fans look at it now.
I guess I wouldn’t disagree with those folks, I just would say that it’s not a recent occurrence. It’s not because of Matheny. It’s not because they’ve missed the playoffs two years in a row, though that certainly doesn’t help. The biggest names have always been traded for or home grown. I don’t think what we are seeing now is really any huge sea change from what things have been for many a year. When you are competing against places like New York or Los Angeles, it’s going to be tough to get someone to come to the middle of the country. You have to write a check significantly larger than your competitors then, something the Cards have historically not wanted to do.
Derrick Goold also makes the point that players are coming to free agency earlier in their life span, so they are concerned with different things than they were years ago when Mike Hampton famously chose Colorado for the schools (and the hefty contract). That probably plays into it as well, but Hampton himself shows that this idea of the big name players not choosing St. Louis is not a current trend. That offseason that Hampton was being battled over was after the 2000 season, a whopping 17 years ago. (Which is so hard for me to believe because I remember that battle quite well!) Even then, fancy presentations and large dollars weren’t enough to get the prize the Cardinals wanted.
Let’s also point out that it doesn’t seem that St. Louis’s reputation as a baseball city has been affected much at all. One of the only reasons Stanton even met with the Cardinals was because, given that they share a spring training facility, he’d seen what kind of organization they were, what kind of fan support they had, their focus on winning. While he still didn’t think he’d fit in the way he wanted to, he had nothing but respect for the club if his public comments are to be believed. There are no reports, anonymously or otherwise, of players having a major issue with anything baseball-related with the Redbirds. It still seems like Baseball Heaven, it’s just that if you want something besides baseball, it could be a little lacking.
It’s fitting that the farm system was an invention of the Cardinals (or, more fairly, Branch Rickey while he ran the club) because that’s where they’ve gotten many of their best players from. They’ve also done a fine job bringing in players via trade. When it comes down to bringing in a player cold, though, that’s always been a weakness. That didn’t start in the last few years and it’s not likely to stop anytime soon, I don’t believe. It’d be nice to have a Manny Machado, but it might take trading for him and lavishing a huge extension on him before he reaches free agency (a tough task, but he’s not a Scott Boras client so it might be possible) to get him into Cardinal red. Trying to grab him or Bryce Harper or anyone else of that ilk next winter? That seems much less likely.