If I’ve judged the temperature of the virtual Cardinal Nation room correctly here, I’d say the fans lean heavily in the “yes” direction. A vocal majority of the fan base looks at this team, sees Bryce Harper still available, and wants Harper in St. Louis yesterday.
Of course, it’s not my money the team would be spending, so there should probably be an element of detachment when it comes to big contracts. There isn’t. I still have strong feelings about the Brett Cecil deal, and that’s a drop in the Harper bucket. If a 8-10 year deal for Harper goes south, someone would have to remind me that I was all for it at some point.
On paper, the Cardinals have already assembled a team that should win more than the 88 games the team won last year. They have the talent to be a division contender, and although they are usually expected to be competitive, there is a substantial difference between contending for a playoff spot and taking the division.
If the Cardinals stick with the unofficial organizational motto that “success is making the playoffs”, then Harper would go a long way to increasing the probability of punching that ticket. Adding a power lefty bat to a lineup that already includes Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong, Marcell Ozuna, and Yadier Molina could create the kind of offense fans haven’t seen in St. Louis since Pujols was running through Oquendo’s stop signs.
The baseball part of it seems like a no-brainer to me. It’s the financial side that raises concerns. It’s easy to look at the organization’s success and outside ventures and assume that they’ve got money to burn. I don’t know that to be true though. The relevant numbers aren’t made public, and I have no reason to believe that the team is hoarding cash. I also have no reason to believe that the team is raising the burn rate until it hurts either.
What I do know is that there is an interesting trend over the last three seasons worth mentioning in the context of what the team has done since 2000. Since 2000, the Cardinals have finished no higher than 7th in end-of-the-year payroll and no lower than 12th. Among the mid-market teams, they are quite possibly the very top end of what qualifies as “mid-market”. For 2016-2018, they finished 8th, 10th, and 8th respectively. The thing that makes 2016-2018 stand out is that during those three years the team added significant payroll to try to get better.
- 2016 25-man opening day payroll – $146M, 40-man EOY – $178M
- 2017 25-man opening day payroll – $148M, 40-man EOY – $183M
- 2018 25-man opening day payroll – $160M, 40-man EOY – $176M
From 2000 through 2015, they never added more than $11M during the season. I’d argue that the team has spent to try and improve during the season, and I don’t know that they get enough credit for this. However, they have a chance to spend to improve before the season even starts, and even if that means sacrificing some mid-season payroll flexibility for years to come, it’s worth a conversation or two.
The Cardinals are project to reach Opening Day with a payroll of just slightly over $153M. They’ve ended the last three season well north of there. Can they afford Harper? You do the math and tell me. I’m not saying that I KNOW that they can do it. I’m saying that there are strong indicators that they can do it.
Now back to the original question. Do the Cardinals need to spend more to win more? Yes, and there are a host of reasons why they should go all in this season.
- Yadier Molina can’t play forever, and he’s currently signed through 2020.
- Matt Carpenter is in the last guaranteed year of his current deal.
- Paul Goldschmidt could be one and done in St. Louis.
- Miles Mikolas could hit free agency after this season.
- Marcell Ozuna could hit free agency after this season.
- Michael Wacha could hit free agency after this season.
- Adam Wainwright could retire after this season.
This isn’t an emotional plea to do it for the greatest catcher in team history or to send Adam Wainwright out as a winner. This is about the stars aligning for one season with no guarantees about what comes next for many key players. Adding Harper doesn’t guarantee anything either, but then no reasonable person could say that ownership isn’t committed to getting the job done.
Opportunities to add a difference maker in his prime are rare, so unless Harper wants 10/$400M, the Arch, and an entire floor at One Cardinal Way, I see no rea….actually, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but give it all to him.