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Finishing Second in Free Agency is an Acceptable Outcome

The Cardinals seem to be developing a bit of a reputation for finishing second with free agents. That’s not all bad.

MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals have a lot of money. The Cardinals spend a lot of money. However, the amount that they have is greater than the amount they spend. We know this because the Cardinals have earnestly tried and failed to spend more money. They went after David Price and Jason Heyward, finishing second in both pursuits. The Cardinals still have a lot of money to spend and likely will spend it, but the Cardinals do not deserve scorn, nor do they deserve praise, for coming in second on free agents.

Last offseason, the Cardinals offered Jason Heyward a large amount of money, roughly $200 million, and he chose to sign with the Cubs. It might be easy to point to that signing now and say it was good that the Cardinals finished second as Heyward had a very poor year. Given that the Cubs tried to change Heyward’s swing in the spring and then he injured wrist, it is impossible to say how Heyward would have performed in St. Louis and how that might have affected the Cardinals playoff chances this past season. In any event, they finished second.

The Cardinals also offered David Price a large amount of money, roughly $200 million, but the Red Sox offered significantly more. David Price had a good, but not great year with the Red Sox. While we can’t speculate with certainty about what would have happened if Price were on the Cardinals, it is hard to believe that replacing Mike Leake with David Price on the 2016 Cardinals wouldn’t have made a meaningful impact on the Cardinals playoff chances. It would greatly increase their odds for next year, too. It seems like the Cardinals missed out by coming in second on Price. I’m not so sure.

We can trot out the “it isn’t my money so who cares how they spend it” argument, but even with enormous budgets, it is best to spend money efficiently. Free agency is the least efficient way to spend money on a baseball team in terms of acquiring talent. After this season, David Price is owed $187 million over the next six seasons, which includes an opt-out after 2018, and if the deal reaches the end, he will be 37 years old when it expires.

David Price was worth roughly his salary this season. He is likely to be worth slightly more than his salary next season, but long term contracts for players in their 30s seldom work out well, and that is doubly true for pitchers. David Price wasn’t and likely still isn’t a good investment of $200 million. The Cardinals decided he was a good investment at nearly $200 million, but not so good at $220 million with $80 million to Mike Leake as the alternative. This seems less wise.

Money spent acquiring young talent, and extending players before free agency is a much better use of money. That isn’t to say the Cardinals should ignore free agency. The contracts of Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta have worked out well. I’m still not sure that Jason Heyward won’t provide value on his deal, but look at the performances of Chris Davis and Justin Upton this year. They are in year one of big contracts and they hit with the same effectiveness that Matt Holliday did this season.

Holding to certain values in free agency is a good strategy. It ensures that you do not overpay and increases the chance of getting decent value in a market where it is extremely difficult. Is it possible the Cardinals need to change the way they create their values? Yes, and Derrick Goold did a good job of summing up those issues in his latest chat.

Here is the question (edited):

...Don't you think it would be a bit of a failure and/or misleading if the Cardinals don't sign Lourdes Gurriel? All this talk of having the capital to use and not using it is starting to erode credibility from my perspective. Yes they spent more this year on the international stage, but they seemed to be behind the curve in that department. Capital needs to be allocated either to the free agent market (paying for past performance) or development in young, high-upside potential. Either way, you need to face the reality of a bidding war at some point. Actions indicate that the FO wants a Peralta or Holiday signing ever[y] time and that isn't realistic. If a bidding war erupts for Lourdes Gurriel then they should be willing to go that much further to gain his talent and services. Will Dewitt ever come to this realization?

And here is Goold’s answer:

He has realized this. He has discussed this. The question remains whether they believe that Gurriel is the player to break from character to chase after. The Cardinals are resolutely a "data-driven" organization when it comes to decisions. Mozeliak affirmed that this month when he was asked about whether a QO on a free agent would cause the team to avoid signing that free agent. He said there's a way to make that decision: "Math." They can calculate the cost of a draft pick and what that value is and bake that into the decision on what to offer the free agent. It's very ... prescribed.

The question, and this is one Mozeliak and DeWitt have both talked about in the past year after the Price and Heyward deals-not-made, is how the Cardinals adjust their algorithms, adjust their use of these algorithms and identify and when (if ever) there is a player to pursue past that data-driven point. The player that gets them there is on the horizon. Not sure if it's Gurriel ... But it's gotta be someone.

As Goold notes, the question is not whether the team should have these values, but if how those values are created need some adjustment. I wouldn’t have offered David Price as much as the Cardinals did, but given they did offer that much to begin with, was their cap—which you should definitely have—high enough, and did they offer to the limit of that cap?

The Cardinals need to trust their evaluative process as it has proved to be very good over the last decade. However, if those evaluative processes are saying something about a player, they need to make sure that their offer is commensurate with those evaluations. Coming in second place in free agency is often a very good thing, this free agent class is not promising, and there is a ton of money out there throughout baseball. As long as the team understands and is comfortable with the altertantive, second place is fine in free agency. The Cardinals shouldn’t spend money just because they have it. They also shouldn’t shy away from players they believe can be important parts of the organization and attempt to play games to get the best bargain possible.