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The Cardinals need a new free agent game plan

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The opt-out clause is changing the free agent landscape, and the Cardinals need to adapt.

People are tired of all the Jason Heyward stuff, so here's a pic of David Price instead.
People are tired of all the Jason Heyward stuff, so here's a pic of David Price instead.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Coming into this offseason, there had been 12 contracts in major league baseball history which included an "opt-out" clause, and four of those were signed in the last two years. Already this offseason, there have been eight - a topic Ben went into more depth on yesterday.

Of the seven players who have already reached the opt-out point in a contract, six have chosen to forego the remainder of their guarantee for another run at free agency. Every one of them has netted more $$$ as a result, with an average net increase of $79.5 million.

The trend is clear. For top-tier players who reach free agency young enough to include an opt-out clause that allows a second "bite at the apple" before they reach age 32, these clauses are already de rigueur.

So what does that mean for the Cardinals?

The Cardinals as a franchise have long been very conservative about building their team through free agency, and that trend has only intensified in the Mozeliak Administration. Mike Leake's 5/$80million is the largest free agent deal the club has ever signed for a player who didn't previously play for the team, besting Jhonny Peralta's 4/$53 million. Those are hardly the deals they have built the franchise around.

Instead, the Cardinals have strongly preferred the trade-and-sign approach. Matt Holliday, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, Jim Edmonds, Mark McGwire... When the team has needed to acquire a big piece, they have almost always done so via the trade, then negotiated some kind of long-term deal.

It seems clear that's the same move the team had in mind for Jason Heyward. So, what went wrong? The short answer is, we don't know. Did Heyward really want to play for Chicago? Was he secretly wearing a Cubs jersey under his Cardinals one all last season, going home at night to play with his Anthony Rizzo Starting Lineup figures? I cannot prove this is not true.

But I do know that Eddie Vedder and the rest of the Cubs Brass signed Heyward - a player who had never played for the Cubs before - to a very creative contract, which stashed a lot of value in a deferred bonus and offered not one but TWO opt-out clauses. That is a very un-Cardinals contract.

My point is not to re-hash the Heyward unpleasantries, but to illustrate that this type of situation is going to become only more common. Given the degree to which players cash-in when they opt-out of contracts, the notion of the trade-and-sign, or even that cost-controlled players will sign an extension that buys more than a year or two of free agency, are both things of the past.

In 2010, the Cardinals signed Matt Holliday to a 7-year, $120 million deal, before his age 30 season. This was the classic framework for the long-term free agent deal: The club knows they will be overpaying for years at the end of the contract, but banks on surplus value in the early years. And Holliday, with his steady, age-defying production until just recently, has been a tremendous value.

But if a 29-year-old Matt Holliday were in the free agent market today, it's almost certain he would have insisted on an opt-out after two or three years. And 32-year-old Matt Holliday - still an All-Star player putting up 4.5 WAR per season - would certainly have opted out, likely gotten more years and surely more money guaranteed in his new deal, whether with the Cardinals or elsewhere.

The classic career arc we've seen for great players has been:  Early cost-controlled years, one big free agent contract, then a series of smaller free agent contracts for whatever remaining time they remain viable. The model going forward will look more like Zach Greinke: The cost-controlled years, a big free agent contract which they will opt out of in their early 30s, then a second, more traditional long-term deal into their garbage years.

The prevalence of opt-out deals is likely to make top-tier talent more transient than ever. For the Cardinals, who seem to value stability and maintaining a "core" of players, that's another unwelcome change. If you're trying to build a long-term strategy around a few key players in their prime, it's tough when they don't want to commit more than a few of those prime years before adjusting their salary back up to market value.

I've written before about the Cardinals standard operating procedure, how they tend to prefer certain types of deals and almost never pursue others. This new reality of opt-out clauses looks to me like a major disruption, and one that kills the trade-and-sign move that has long been an organization favorite.

This doesn't mean it's all over for the Cardinals. Like a college freshman who can no longer get girls to come to his dorm room to listen to him play guitar, or an aging point guard who can't create space with his crossover anymore, the Cardinals just need a new move.

What I'm interested to see is, how do the Cardinals adapt? They chose to mostly stand pat this offseason, and that may yet prove a viable play. But given the players whose careers will be sunsetting in the next couple seasons, and the relatively thin tier of prospects in high levels of the system, it's hard to imagine they won't need to make a major acquisition in the next couple years, or certainly by the 2018 Super Market.

Will they commit big dollars to free agents who might just make a 2-3 season cameo? Will they stubbornly hold onto their existing model of cost-certainty? I guess we'll know in a year or two.