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Did the Cardinals Prioritize David Price over Jason Heyward?

The Cardinals missed on David Price, but made him a substantial offer. If Price had accepted, would Heyward have been out of the picture?

I'm not a big fan of questions in the title, but it seemed to fit here
I'm not a big fan of questions in the title, but it seemed to fit here
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals were aggressive in their pursuit for David Price, essentially offering double the amount of the most money they have ever paid to a pitcher. Price eventually signed with the Red Sox for roughly $30 million more than the offer the Cardinals made, but it does raise an interesting question about the Cardinals' priorities as well as the depths of their financial resources. If the David price had accepted an offer just short of $200 million from the Cardinals, would that have meant the end of Jason Heyward's time with the Cardinals?

What follows includes significant speculation based on our current understanding of the timeline involved in David Price's negotiations as well the Cardinals finances at the moment. The basic scenario as we understand it based on information from Ken Rosenthal has the Boston Red Sox pursuing the top two pitchers on the market in Zack Greinke and David Price. Greinke meanwhile, was being pursued by the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. One or both of the west coast teams wanted answers from Greinke, but before Greinke could provide that answer, he needed to know where he stood with the Red Sox. Boston appeared to prioritize Price over Greinke. In order for Boston to give an answer to Greinke, they needed an answer for Price, accelerating the Cardinals pursuit of Price.

The Cardinals have been very aggressive in the past about making their offseason moves as early as possible after the season ends, locking up Jhonny Peralta and trading for Jason Heyward in the last two offseasons. Signing David Price was clearly a goal of the Cardinals organization given their robust offer, but none of the information we have indicates that the Cardinals were actually choosing Price over Heyward. What the above indicates is that there were factors outside of the Cardinals' power that accelerated the timeline. While The Red Sox had interest in Greinke and perhaps the Dodgers or Giants might have pursued Price, the Cardinals did not have to push forward at this juncture as they were in no danger of losing Greinke as well given their lack of apparent interest.

That Price signed first has more to do with the market for Price than the Cardinals lack of interest in Heyward, where there have been little to no rumblings about at this point. That leads to the next issue which is, if they had gotten Price, would Heyward have been outside the Cardinals pay range. Could they still have signed both? The answer to this question is a bit less solid as we do not actually know how much the Cardinals plan to spend, only that they plan to spend more.

After letting go of Steve Cishek, Peter Bourjos, and Tony Cruz and bringing in Brayan Pena, the Cardinals' guaranteed salaries plus the projected arbitration salaries of Brandon Moss, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, the Cardinals payroll is right around $121 million, just a bit short of last season's Opening Day numbers. Signing both Heyward and Price would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million per season, and that still leaves the team needing to sign another bullpen piece around $3 million or so, taking payroll to $175 million. On its face, that number seems like quite a hike and much greater than the Cardinals would be willing to do in one season. There are others who still see the scenario as possible. From Ken Rosenthal:

How this affects the current free-agent landscape remains to be seen, but the belief among some in the industry is that the Cardinals are in a flexible enough position to add a pitcher such as Price and a hitter such as free-agent right fielder Jason Heyward or first baseman Chris Davis.

Bob Nightengale said very much the same thing although offered the Cardinals might downshift from Heyward to another free agent target. Of course that does not mean the Cardinals payroll would have gone up to $175 million by signing both Price and Heyward. For one, the Cardinals view Moss as a bit of safety valve should Heyward leave. Trading Moss away if the Cardinals can sign Heyward cuts $8 million in payroll from next year.

In addition, the Cardinals have greater financial flexibility after 2016. Even if they picked up the options of Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia after next season and included all of the arbitration raises with Jon Jay the only significant departure, the Cardinals payroll without Price and Heyward would be less than $120 million. If the Cardinals were going to raise payroll with a two-year tier to get up to around $165 million in 2017 before payroll really loosens up in 2018 (just $33 million in commitments right now), they could fit both Heyward and Price onto the team in 2017.

For next season, given the amount of guaranteed money, they could have chosen to give Price and Heyward $20-$25 million total in 2016 and spread the extra $25-$30 million out over the remaining 15-17 years of the contract. This would put payroll at around $140 million for next season, a very healthy bump, but also one that could have resulted in signing the top two players on the free agent market. The Cardinals have indicated a willingness to go outside of their comfort zone for the right situation. This looks like it was one of those situations.

Signing Price likely would have made it more difficult for the Cardinals to sign Jason Heyward, but it might not have foreclosed completely that possibility. The Cardinals have considerable financial flexibility in the upcoming seasons. They very much wanted Price, and did their best to make it happen. We obviously do not know exactly what the Cardinals were thinking, but it does not seem safe to assume that the Cardinals' serious pursuit of Price meant that their desire to keep Jason Heyward has been lessened. Price's market developed quickly so they were forced to deal with Price and did not want the offseason on hold until Heyward signs. With Price now out of the picture and less interest in Greinke, the Cardinals appear primed to pursue Jason Heyward once his market develops in the coming days.