The St. Louis Cardinals parted ways with Walt Jocketty, who had been the club's general manager for 13 years, on October 4, 2007. As the Cardinals embarked on a GM search that included interviews of assistant GMs Chris Antonetti of Clevleand, Peter Woodfork of Arizona, and Rick Hahn of Colorado, then-assistant Cardinals GM John Mozeliak took over as the club's interim GM. A day later, Mozeliak made his first official transaction as interim GM, per then-MLB.com Cardinals beat writer Matthew Leach, and exercised a club option for the 2008 season that guaranteed closer Jason Isringhausen would be paid $8 million. On October 31, 2007, St. Louis announced that the club was removing the "interim" from his title and he would take over as the GM. The Cardinals haven't paid a reliever as much as Isringhausen's 2008 salary in the six seasons since.
For much of the Jocketty era, the Cardinals paid Isringhausen handsomely to close out victories. Perhaps it was Isringhausen's 2008 implosion that changed Mozeliak's bullpen thinking. That year, the veteran posted a 4.64 BB/9 that fed a 4.87 FIP and 5.70 ERA while notching 12 saves to seven blown saves. The Cards let Izzy walk and then showed interest to a certain degree in free-agent Proven Closers, as I recounted in my first ever front page post here at VEB:
During the 2008-2009 Hot Stove, there was a crop of closers that were seemingly the prescription for the Cardinals' 2008 fever. Izzy was allowed to leave and the Cardinals made offers to K-Rod and Brian Fuentes, offers that were nowhere near what those pitchers, respectively, would sign for in the end. Here, again, I believe that Mo did not believe even K-Rod was worth what the Mets would throw at him, in terms of money and maybe even years. I believe that he looked at the Cardinals' potential closers--Motte, Perez, Franklin, and may even McClellan--and decided that one or all of them would be able to give the team about what Fuentes would--but for far less money--and decided to roll the dice. During this same offseason, Mo let the lone 2008 bullpen bright spot, the grizzled Russ Springer, leave without so much as an offer and then signed the previously anonymous Trever Miller for peanuts. He would go on to sign Dennys Reyes for more peanuts, as well, late in the Hot Stove. In 2008, the Cardinal bullpen of Randy Flores ($1MM), Ryan Franklin ($2.25MM), Jason Isringhausen ($8MM), Kyle McClellan ($390K), Russ Springer ($3.5MM), Chris Perez ($390K), Brad Thompson ($416K), and Ron Villone ($600K) cost the team $16,546,000. In 2009, the upgraded 'pen consisted of Ryan Franklin ($2.5MM), Josh Kinney ($450K), Kyle McClellan ($411K), Trever Miller ($500K), Jason Motte ($400K), Blake Hawksworth ($400K), Dennys Reyes ($1MM), Brad Thompson ($650K), and Chris Perez ($402K) and would cost the Cardinals $6,713,000. The phrase "addition by subtraction," at least in terms of overall cost, was tailor-made for this situation. The 2009 Cardinal bullpen cost 40.57% of what the 2008 corps that caused so much heartburn was paid.
Then-manager Tony La Russa tapped Jason Motte to close out the Cardinals' opening day lead over the Pirates, but he got apple-jacked. Ultimately, veteran Ryan Franklin emerged as the closer. In 2010, it was more of the same: No security blanket. In 2011, Mozeliak remade the bullpen midseason via the Rasmus trade. Entering 2012, the Cardinals had eighth relievers on their roster that, combined, cost as much as Jonathan Papelbon, whom the Phillies had just signed to be their closer for four years at the price of $50 million.
In the seasons since, the Cardinals' philosophy hasn't changed much. Sure, there was the two-year deal to which the Cardinals agreed with then-closer Jason Motte. But Motte had two years of salary-arbitration eligibility left and the Cards were buying out those years with a $4.5 million salary in 2012 and $7.5 million in 2013, which were about on par with what the righty stood to earn if he went through arbitration—a process that tends to overvalue the save stat. Guaranteeing Motte his likely salary for 2012 and 2013 proved unwise when the closer strained missed the entirety of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery. At least the Cardinals probably had insurance on Motte's contract, I guess, even if the policy wouldn't have covered the salary the righthander earned while pitching poorly last season.
As the Motte contract expired, the Cardinals expressed interest in free-agent southpaw Andrew Miller. The rumors floating around about the Redbirds' interest in Miller caused me to wonder whether St. Louis had changed its approach to the bullpen. It turns out they haven't. The Cardinals bowed out of the Miller bidding early, if they ever actually made an offer. And given the four-year, $36 million deal he agreed to with the Yankees (rejecting a four-year, $40 million offer from the Astros), it's no surprise the Cards weren't in on Miller to the end.
The Cardinals haven't given a reliever a guaranteed four-year contract in Mozeliak's time as GM. The guaranteed three-year deal they agreed to with Randy Choate being the longest. St. Louis also hasn't paid a reliever more than Isringhausen's $8 million 2008 salary, with Motte's $7.5 million in 2014 a close second. Spending anywhere close to the offers Miller received and the contract he ultimately signed just isn't the way the Cardinals have gone about constructing a bullpen during the Mozeliak era.
The deal the Cardinals agreed to with Jordan Walden on Tuesday is much more in line with Mo's M.O.
The Cardinals acquired Walden in the November trade that sent righthanded starter Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta in exchange for Jason Heyward. Walden, who was entering his second season of arbitration eligibility, was viewed as a throw-in of sorts, a righty that would allow Carlos Martinez to move to the rotation without leaving a hole in the pen.
It's incredibly common for MLB clubs and arbitration-eligible players to agree to contracts that allow the parties to avoid an arbitration hearing. Sometimes those contracts buy out all of a player's arbitration-eligible seasons, like Motte's pre-2012 deal or Heyward's pre-2013 contract with the Braves. In the case of Walden, the Cards are buying out two arbitration-eligible seasons and getting a club option that covers a year of free agency. Jon Heyman of CBS tweeted the contract's particulars as follows:
- Signing Bonus: $350,000
- 2015: $2.5 million
- 2016: $3.5 million
- 2017 Club Option: $5.25 million ($250,000 buyout)
- Total Guaranteed: $6.6 million
The Cardinals have locked their setup man for the years to come at a reasonable contract. As Craig noted on Tuesday, MLB Trade Rumors projected Walden to earn $3 million via the arbitration process in 2015. This contract actually pays Walden less than that and only a bit more in 2016. The AAV might actually be a bit below what Walden might have received had he pitched at his career rates in 2015 and remained healthy. Which should be expected, since that 2016 salary is now guaranteed—the Cards won't be able to get out of paying Walden by non-tendering him.
While the Cards shoulder the risk of being on the hook for Walden's $3.5 million 2016 salary even if he is ineffective or injured in 2015, there is potential wisdom in this extension. As noted above, arbitration tends to overvalue saves just like the free-agent market does. As the setup man in St. Louis, Walden is the next man up should injury or ineffectiveness knock incumbent Trevor Rosenthal out of the closer job. Had the Cards gone year to year with Walden and he took over for Rosenthal, his price tag would've gotten considerably more expensive with each save he tallied.
The Walden extension is a move most Mozeliakian: A bit of risk offset by a short term, low dollars, and possible upside.