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How ex-Cardinals have fared after their big free agency paydays

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The Cardinals have been noted for their restraint in signing free agents and have generally avoided spending big money on less-than-premium players.

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This week in Anaheim, St. Louis Cardinals fans had the opportunity to wax nostalgic about Albert Pujols.

Anybody with a moderate understanding of his impact with the Cardinals can understand why fans enjoy to reminisce about Pujols. During his eleven seasons in St. Louis, from 2001 to 2011, Pujols was the best player in baseball by both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. Only Alex Rodriguez was particularly close: #3 among position players by both measures, Carlos Beltran, trailed Pujols by 26.8 wins on Fangraphs and 30.7 on Baseball Reference.

Over his Cardinals career, Albert Pujols was worth 81.4 fWAR. Thanks to the power of club control, through which the Cardinals initially paid Pujols the league minimum and then leveraged this to continue to pay him below market value for his services, the team paid their superstar first baseman $112.7 million (per Baseball Prospectus). And if you trust Fangraphs, Pujols was worth over $400 million in St. Louis. Even if you don't trust their calculus exactly, it's still fairly safe to assume he was a bargain.

But when Pujols hit free agency after the 2011 season, he was inevitably going to make up for lost surplus value. Although the exact terms are unknown, it was speculated at the time that the Cardinals offered Pujols a ten-year contract approaching $220 million. But in the end, by all accounts, the Angels offered more, and Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Halos.

Cardinals fans were understandably sad to see one of the franchise's greatest half-dozen (conservatively) players leave town, but there was also a sense of relief from those who recognized that the next ten years of Albert Pujols could never match the first eleven.

Albert Pujols: 10 years, $240 million plus incentives and $1 million per year for a ten year personal services contract following the playing contract

I want to be very clear about something: the demise of Albert Pujols has been exaggerated.

Pujols got off to a very poor start in Anaheim in 2012 (in April, he had a triple slash line of .217/.265/.304, good for a wRC+ of 54; for the sake of comparison, Zack Greinke had a wRC+ of 55 last season). But for the last four seasons, he has been a respectable Major League first baseman. By Fangraphs WAR, he ranks 12th among first basemen from 2012 through 2015, just behind Brandon Belt and just ahead of Mike Napoli.

And there's nothing wrong with being sandwiched between Brandon Belt and Mike Napoli. It just isn't the Albert Pujols to which Cardinals fans were accustomed to watching. Frankly, it's not the Albert Pujols that the Angels were expecting.

A great misleading Albert Pujols-with-the-Angels statistic is that through the end of last season, Pujols was paid $75 million by the Angels and has, per Fangraphs, been worth $65.4 million. So while he has not been worth the money, he has not been an unmitigated disaster in the vein of the $123 million the Angels paid to Josh Hamilton for $23.5 million in production before being essentially donated to the Texas Rangers.

But as with virtually all back-loaded contracts signed by players who are 32 when their first appearance under the contract occurs, the real damage of the deal is expected to occur in the later years. Pujols was already a shell of his peak self in his first four years in Anaheim and if his early returns in 2016 are any indication (through Wednesday's game, he has a fWAR of -0.6), the $165 million Pujols will be paid over the next six seasons should be an albatross for the Angels.

The Cardinals probably get too much credit for "showing restraint" with Pujols, since had he accepted the "hometown discount" and stayed in St. Louis for the salary he was offered, it would still be a massive overpay. But regardless, it worked out for the Cardinals. And although the Cardinals have lacked a superstar of Albert's cachet, using mostly Allen Craig and Matt Adams at first, they have been comfortably above replacement level at the position (8.8 fWAR from 2012-2015, barely trailing Pujols's 9.1 in the same period).

But Pujols is far from the only ex-Cardinal to move on to greener pastures in the 2010s.

Kyle Lohse: 3 years, $33 million

Under the revamped free agent compensation system, the first ex-Cardinal to yield a first-round pick was Kyle Lohse, who had a career season with the Cardinals in 2012 and, after an offseason in limbo, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers on a three-year deal.

Lohse was a competent, slightly above average starter for the Brewers in 2013 and 2014, pitching nearly 200 innings per season. He wasn't 2012 Kyle Lohse, but this would have been an unreasonable expectation. However, in 2015, Kyle Lohse was a disaster: in early August, he was removed from the Brewers rotation, not exactly one with a preponderance of aces, once his ERA ballooned to 6.31 to go with a 5.19 fielding-independent ERA. Although Lohse fared somewhat better in the bullpen, he was nowhere near the level of pitcher a team would want to pay $11 million.

On the whole, though, the contract was small enough that the Brewers need not feel embarrassed by it. Lohse was worth $34.1 million over the three seasons according to Fangraphs, although his surplus value probably wasn't enough to justify losing a first round pick, which the Cardinals used to draft Rob Kaminsky, later traded for Brandon Moss.

But from a Cardinals perspective, not signing Lohse opened a spot in the rotation for Shelby Miller, who outperformed Lohse in 2013 by both ERA and FIP at a fraction of the cost.

Carlos Beltran: 3 years, $45 million

Not often does a nearly 35 year-old player who just moved down the defensive spectrum sign a two-year contract which is then followed by a more lucrative, longer contract, but this is what happened after Carlos Beltran's two years in St. Louis when he signed with the New York Yankees.

Unsurprisingly, Beltran's defense, already a liability in right field during his time with the Cardinals, has hurt his value. After a lackluster offensive 2014, Beltran's bat bounced back a bit in 2015, but through two seasons in which he was paid $30 million, Carlos Beltran was worth $10.4 million. If any team can afford to lose by conventional dollars-to-WAR scorekeeping, it is the Yankees, but regardless, the contract has not been optimal.

In the case of Beltran, the Cardinals do not appear to have made much of an effort to re-sign him. With the ascent of Matt Adams in 2013 and with Oscar Taveras approaching MLB readiness, giving a qualifying offer to Carlos Beltran was very much a maneuver to acquire a first-rounder (used to select Jack Flaherty).

John Lackey: 2 years, $32 million; Jason Heyward: 8 years, $184 million with player opt-outs after years 3 and 4

Initially, the notion of John Lackey as a qualifying offer candidate seemed like a reach, but after he, while making league minimum in 2015, had his best season in nearly a decade, Lackey warranted the designation. And it seemed at first that Lackey would get a Beltran level of sincerity in offers from the Cardinals: the rotation, after all, was to already include Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez, and Lance Lynn. But when Lynn required Tommy John surgery, Lackey became a reasonable target for the Cardinals.

Jason Heyward, the Cardinals' leader in WAR in his lone season in St. Louis, was more coveted. But in the end, both Lackey and Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs.

In both cases, it is far too early to make a call on whether the contracts were good contracts. Lackey has pitched well so far, currently holding a 3.54 ERA and a 3.16 FIP, and has been worth $8.5 million already per Fangraphs. Heyward has struggled initially at the plate (he has a 63 wRC+ and has yet to hit a home run for the Cubs) and has been materially less valuable so far in 2016 than his replacement in right field for the Cardinals, Stephen Piscotty.

But if the prior three major Cardinals losses in free agency are any indication, the franchise has done well in avoiding potentially destructive contracts. Which isn't to say that there are not occasionally moments in which breaking the bank is something worth doing: it is entirely plausible, for instance, that despite his slow start, the just-entering-his-prime Jason Heyward will make the Cardinals look foolish for not upping their offer to him.

With that said, the fairly conservative approach of the Cardinals, whether it will continue to work going forward, has worked well to this point.