John Mozeliak has been long admired for, among other things, being extremely successful at not signing any really bad, long-term contracts. But the longer you look at his record, it becomes clear that this is less about Mo having some preternatural ability to see the future and more about being extremely risk-averse to any kind of free agent acquisition.
Rick Hummel at the P-D put together a listicle yesterday of the Top 5 Best and Worst signings of the Mozeliak era. I'm not going to bother to quibble with who did or did not make the list, because the most striking thing to me is the relative insignificance of both the top and bottom signings.
At the bottom, Hummel calls the one-year, $7.5 million signing of Brad Penny the worst. The rest of his bottom five is filled out with backup infielders and catchers (Mark Ellis, Ty Wiggington, Bryan Pena and Ruben Tejada). None were signed for more than two-years or more than Ellis' $5.25 million.
If these are your "busts," you've probably come as close as a front office could possibly be to not signing any bad free agent contracts. So if these were the worst of the worst, how good were the best of the best?
Hummel pegs Mo's best free agent signings as Beltran, Lohse, Berkman, Diaz and Oh - in that order.
Okay, I lied earlier when I said I wasn't going to quibble with the list, because it is ridiculous to put a list like this together... frankly at all... but it's especially egregious to do so and NOT include Matt Holliday, who produced a ridiculous amount of surplus value over the length of his deal.
I'd be willing to bet Hummel forgot about Holliday's deal altogether, because frankly, it is an outlier in Mozeliak's tenure. (And interestingly, it occurred while TLR still had some pull in the front office.) Holliday was the best free agent on the market and signed the biggest deal of the offseason. That was in 2010. Since then, the Cardinals have not even attempted anything close in the free agent market. (Or perhaps I should say they attempt to sign a big name player every offseason, but aw shucks, just miss out.)
Of Hummel's group, Berkman's 2011 season was the biggest asset. He led the team with 4.8 fWAR on a one-year, $8 million contract. Beltran's two-year, $26 million contract was the largest. He more than earned his money, producing 5.2 fWAR over those two years, but never ranked higher than 5th on the team in value.
The St. Louis Cardinals, under John Mozeliak, simply do not use the free agent market as a way to acquire top-tier talent. The upside of that is that the team is never weighed down the the kind of albatross contracts that so many clubs carry around. The downside is that we fans spend every Hot Stove season feeling generally disappointed and wondering what could have been.
Will the Cardinals sign Justin Turner? Based on precedent, I'd say it's possible but doubtful. Signing Turner at 5 years and $80-something million would not be that different (market adjusted) from the 4-year $53 million deal the club signed with Peralta in 2014. That's basically the top free agent type Mo has pursued in the post-La Russa era.
None of this is to say that the club should be frantically throwing money at free agents, particularly not in this market. It's more of just a reminder that Mo has chosen to build his clubs in a certain way, and one of those ways has been to be extremely, extremely conservative in the free agent market.
Every year, many of us hope to see Mo shop at Whole Foods, and every year he sticks to Aldi.