After the St. Louis Cardinals tried and failed to sign David Price and Jason Heyward, the two premier free agents in the Class of 2015, the club received a flurry of criticism from fans for its inaction. And on December 22, when the Cardinals signed starting pitcher Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million contract, some (myself included) worried about the deal. Yes, the Cardinals made a move, but was it a smart move?
It is, of course, far too early to determine whether or not the Mike Leake contract was a smart signing by the Cardinals. The same goes for the other two contracts the club handed out in the 2015-16 offseason: backup catcher Brayan Pena, previously of the Cincinnati Reds, and reliever Jonathan Broxton, acquired last July by the Cardinals but signed to a two-year extension in December.
But when considering the wisdom or lack of it from the Cardinals front office in signing players, it is fair to consider the club's track record. At the moment, exempting the aforementioned too-early-to-tell signings and exempting Jedd Gyorko, whose extension was not signed with the Cardinals but with the San Diego Padres, there are eight players on the current 40-man roster under either free agent contracts or club extensions.
This does not count current players who are still within their first three years, such as Kolten Wong or Randal Grichuk, nor does it count players in the salary arbitration stage of their careers, such as Trevor Rosenthal or Brandon Moss.
Here is a brief analysis of each current contract to which the Cardinals have signed players and how it compares to the typical MLB contract.
Matt Carpenter had an MVP-caliber 2013 season in which he surpassed all reasonable expectations by posting a .392 on-base percentage and exhibited surprisingly competent defense at second base, a position at which he had played a grand total of 18 innings the year before. After his big breakthrough, and following the trade of David Freese to the Angels, Carpenter was moved to his more familiar position of third base. Oh, and he also got a $52 million extension. It was a good year for Matt Carpenter.
Six years and $52 million is an absolute freaking bargain on the open market for a player coming off a 6+ WAR season. According to Fangraphs, the 6.9 WAR that Carpenter accumulated in 2013 were worth $51.1 million on the open market. But Carpenter was not on the open market: he was due to make the league minimum in 2014 and then play 2015 through 2017 at artificially low arbitration salaries.
Through the first two seasons of this contract (I'm ignoring the 2020 club option for simplicity's sake, though any club option is inherently to the benefit of the team), Carpenter has been worth $71.4 million on the open market. Seemingly this would render the contract already to be a victory, but it will be too early to know for sure until 2018 at the soonest.
If Carpenter's ability were to plummet going forward (far from a prediction, but this is a possibility with any player), it's a bad contract because the Cardinals could have gotten this same production on low-cost, one-year deals. The last two seasons have been positive and if forced to vote yay or nay on the deal, I'd vote yay, but it's simply too early to make an educated declaration on the matter.
By far the player most difficult to evaluate is Diaz, who is in the middle of a four-year contract worth $8 million. As he has yet to play with the big-league club, it has not worked out thusfar. But he only has to be worth about a win above replacement over the next two years to justify the deal. I wouldn't concern myself too much with $8 million but there is a strong possibility that this contract will end up being a negative for the team. Not an overwhelming negative, but a negative nonetheless.
In July of 2011, Jaime Garcia signed an extension through the 2015 season at a cost of $27 million which covered his three seasons of salary arbitration as well as his first year of free agency, with an additional two years of club options tacked on for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Extensions such as Garcia's are, more often than not, beneficial to the team--players take a little bit less money than they could make by reaching free agency as early as possible, but avoid the risk of a career setback preventing them from making what still amounts to life-altering money.
Jaime Garcia has been a very good pitcher when healthy, but has yet to hit 130 innings in any season since his extension began in 2012. He combined for a mere 99 innings in 2013 and 2014. But oddly, it was the extension of the contract into 2015 that may have benefited the Cardinals greatly in 2015.
Fangraphs estimates Jaime Garcia's 2015 value (during which, without an extension, he would be under a free agent contract) at $22.4 million, while making $9.25 million. The extension's club options also allowed the team to sign Garcia to an $11 million contract (technically it's $11.5 million, but $500,000 is the sunk cost of a team buyout), well below what Garcia could garner on a one-year deal as a free agent.
While the extension looked rough during Garcia's most injury-plagued years, if he is able to remain healthy throughout 2016 (and hopefully 2017), it may turn out to be very beneficial, particularly as the cost of pitching on the open market skyrockets.
In what is still the most expensive contract in club history, the Cardinals signed Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract guaranteed through 2016, with a club option for 2017. As Holliday ages and becomes more susceptible to injury and defensive mediocrity, whether or not the team would choose to pick up that option becomes more of a question mark (the 2017 option is guaranteed if Holliday finishes in the top 10 in MVP voting, something the club would assuredly do if he has that productive of a 2016 anyway).
But even if Holliday becomes a replacement level player (and he was essentially a league-average player in 2015, in easily his worst season since his rookie year of 2005), he's already been worth the contract. In fact, by straight Fangraphs projections, he became worth the contract during the 2013 season. Through 2015, he has been worth $165 million since the beginning of his contract in 2010. Even conceding that the club has had above replacement level options on the bench (2011 Allen Craig, 2012 Matt Carpenter, 2013 Allen Craig with Matt Adams at first base), the deal seems to have paid for itself already.
When the Cardinals bought out Lance Lynn's arbitration years before the 2015 season, it seemed like a no-brainer. Lynn had been a durable, steady starter and at only $22 million for what would be Lynn's three years of arbitration, it appeared that the only way the contract could not pay off would be if Lynn all of a sudden became a terrible pitcher (and he was a solidly above-average, 3.1 fWAR pitcher in 2015) or if Lynn got hurt.
Lance Lynn, of course, will miss the 2016 season with Tommy John surgery. Although his 2015 justified $22 million on the open market in one season alone, the team could have had Lynn for less during arbitration and not been on the hook for his 2016. With that said, Lynn could perform well enough in 2017 to justify the end result of the deal: while the club could have opted to not tender a contract to Lynn, they would then forfeit the right to offer him a low-cost deal the next year. It's uphill but it's not impossible for the deal to be beneficial, though a lost 2016 certainly makes that more difficult.
Of the current long-term contracts on the books for the Cardinals, none was signed at a better time for the club than that of Yadier Molina. While the team appeared to be buying high on Yadier Molina after a 2011 season in which Molina had an offensive awakening, his MVP candidate 2012 and 2013 seasons made the deal immediately look like a bargain.
The contract, signed before 2012, began in 2013 and extends through 2017 to the tune of $75 million for those five years. Including the 2012 season, this brought the club's obligation to Molina to six years and $82 million. And by Fangraphs standards, Molina has been worth $113.2 million over the last four years. And that's with the replacement player actually being the below-replacement-level Tony Cruz. Even if you were to look only at the 5/75 figure (which I wouldn't recommend, since a contract signed after 2012 would have assuredly been much more expensive than that), Molina has been worth $73.5 million since 2013 while earning $44 million.
Yeah. It's a good deal.
It's easy to forget now, but before the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract in the 2013 offseason, there were rumors that the team would pursue Stephen Drew. And that deal would've cost the Cardinals a first-round draft pick. Given their hesitance to forfeit a first-round pick for a free agent in recent years, it's entirely possible that this was what compelled the Cardinals to sign Peralta instead. And boy, was this fortunate.
Peralta was great in 2014 and although he was measurably worse in the second half of 2015 (a fact that bothers me less than most people), he has been worth $53.9 million after just two years of his contract. Remember when Jon Heyman listed Jhonny Peralta as one of his top-five disappointing winter signings?
Like Molina, the Wainwright extension came after a season which was much less fruitful than the two seasons which followed. The deal was for five years and $97.5 million, but if baking his 2013 salary into the contract, the deal was six years and $109.5 million.
Since 2013, when the contract was signed, Wainwright has been worth $92.8 million. By this approach, Wainwright needs to be worth $16.7 million to justify the deal (he can do this in 2016 by being a little bit better than a league-average pitcher).
Since 2014, Wainwright has been worth $43.7 million and would need to be worth $53.8 million through 2018 to be worth the deal by looking strictly at the five years of the contract. This is certainly within Wainwright's reach, but it is not quite the slam-dunk that viewing the contract as 6/109.5 would be.
But the terms of what Wainwright would be paid beyond 2013 would certainly escalate had the extension been negotiated after his 2nd place Cy Young 2013 rather than after his good-not-great 2012. By taking the calculated risk that Wainwright wasn't as great post-Tommy John surgery and that his 2012 was him at his new true talent, the team was able to get what, going into 2014, looked like a relative bargain.