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The Cardinals were right to trust their process with Luis Robert

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Now that the mid-season prospect lists have been released, we have a better idea of what the Cards missed out on in Robert.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The season is over. That’s sad. However, the offseason is a season all on it’s own, and it hasn’t even begun yet. Qualifying offers, free agents, trades, early extensions, the rule 5 draft, arbitration, there’s just so much going on. With the exception of that month or two period between the hot stove cooling and pitchers and catchers reporting, you could say following baseball is a yearlong hobby.

Sometimes, offseason moves bleed into the regular season. Such was the case for top international amateur free agent Luis Robert this May. Due to the convoluted nature of the rules governing international amateurs (which The Red Baron spells out here), the Cards were in a unique spot to possibly be high bidders on the Cuban phenom. Going into the bidding, then-General Manager now-President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak summed up their strategy early on:

“I know the math,” general manager John Mozeliak told Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel in Milwaukee on Thursday. “I think we’ll be in the game.”

While the Cards were connected with him throughout the bidding, the White Sox ended up being the high bidders, giving him a signing bonus of $26M, including a 100% tax on the large majority of it.

The Cardinals were already over their international amateur spending limit for the period, so they would have had to pay more than $52M to outbid the White Sox, something Mozeliak indicated didn’t have the chance to do. Their final offer in the end was governed by the math, and obviously it didn’t end up producing the high bid. Another quote from Mozeliak thanks to Derrick Goold:

“It’s really hard to justify those types of dollars for any player with a lack of a proven track record. No matter how you try to equate the Cuban league or his international experience, it’s very hard to calibrate what that means to here (in the majors).

We know the Cardinals use internal metrics to quantify a prospect’s (or indeed any player’s) value. Their secret sauce. And that’s not just statistical stuff, they’re also quantifying the value of scouting observations. We know they make decisions based on it. One has to to get ahead in this industry. You don’t have nearly two decades of near-constant success by following the rest of the industry.

I can’t say what the Cardinal’s internal metrics look like. But we can ballpark a prospect’s value based on what prospects ranked similar to him on public prospect lists were worth in the past. Such a process ignores the uniqueness of a player, but I’m not a scout. I can’t tell you how unique Robert is. This at least tells us where actual scouts rank him, and an implied value based on that ranking.

To ballpark Robert’s value, we’ll lean heavily on invaluable research from ThePointofPittsburgh.com, who calculated Surplus Values for different types of players on Baseball America’s annual Top 100 list. Here’s the results:

Top prospects and surplus value

Rank Hitters Pitchers
Rank Hitters Pitchers
1-10 $73.50 $69.90
11-25 $62.00 $39.00
26-50 $38.20 $29.80
51-75 $22.40 $16.50
76-100 $20.60 $15.60

This was published 20 months ago, compared to Robert signing about four months ago. So you’d have to figure in some inflation. But this more or less means that Luis Robert was signed to somewhere in-between the average valuation for a 11-25th ranked positional player prospect and a 26th-50th ranked position player prospect.

Is that what the public scouts think of Robert? Of five outlets who released a top 100 or top 50 list mid-season, Robert’s highest ranking came courtesy of MLB pipeline, 22nd overall. That puts in him in the 11th-25th range, worth $62M. It’s near the very back of that range though. Just a slightly worse evaluation would have had him in the 26th-50th range, worth “just” $38M. Average the two but weigh the 11th-25th a little heavier and you’re at $52M, what the Cards would have had to pay just to match the White Sox offer.

With the model, it makes sense that the highest bid is for around the same as his highest ranking. Excluding the clubs that weren’t allowed to bid on his services, the highest bid is probably going to come from the team that values him the highest.

The other rankings aren’t quite as great. Baseball America (45th) and Fangraphs (37th) have him solidly in that 25-50 range, implying a $38M valuation, maybe $40M when adjusted for inflation. He wasn’t listed on Keith Law’s Top 50 at all.

He wasn’t included in Baseball Prospectus’ top 50, but he was mentioned afterwards:

From the reports we were able to compile, it seems obvious that Luis Robert is—broadly speaking—a top 50 prospect in baseball. Picking where he falls on the top 50, however, is akin to throwing a dart until we have actual stateside looks to add to our portfolio of information.

That really highlights the difficultly of the decision here. This is a pure scouting decision, as Mozeliak mentioned in the quote above. KATOH shows a lot can be gained from analyzing the minor league numbers, but there’s just a lot less data to draw from when considering players who played in the same leagues Robert’s played in.

We’d be lying if we said the Cardinals shouldn’t trust their own process here. This is an organization that has been fantastic in terms of international signings, whatever the context. Whether it’s Carlos Martinez ($1.5M), Oscar Taveras ($145,000), Alex Reyes ($950,000), Seung Hwan Oh ($5.25M), Aledmys Diaz ($8M), Randy Arozarena ($1.25M), Magneuris Sierra ($425,000), Sandy Alcantara ($125,000), or several others I’m sure I’ve left off, we can tell the Cards know what they’re doing when it comes to evaluating players who haven’t played stateside before.

A common reason given for signing Robert was the fact that he was someone who would likely be drafted first overall, had he been forced to go through the draft instead. The Cardinals don’t get to pick first overall ever, so this was a possibility to buy one.

However, in and of itself, a first overall pick isn’t on its own a special asset. In the Cardinals’ case, it represented a chance to get a high-end talent, the implication being a first overall pick has a much better chance of being a superstar.

The team is currently full of above-average to average players, to the point where it takes a great player to really move the needle. Robert’s ceiling is a great player, and the Cards had an opportunity to acquire him for just cash.

How much more likely is Robert to be an elite player than a bunch of lower dollar international signings though? The eight Cardinal international signings I listed a few paragraphs up totaled less than $20M total. Carlos Martinez is widely recognized as having some of the best stuff in the game, even if he hasn’t quite reached ace-level yet. We’ll never know how Oscar’s career would have played out, at least not without interdimensional cable. He sure did have an incredible ceiling though.

If the Cardinals agree with MLB pipeline, then they passed up the chance to pay about market rate on one top 20-25 MLB prospect. If instead they agreed with Fangraphs’, Baseball America’s, Baseball Prospectus’, and ESPN’s prospect evaluators, then they trusted their system and decided not to overpay according to a system that has allowed for so much success this century.

The logical question I’m trying to frame here becomes: Is spending a whole bunch of money on one prospect the best way to find a superstar? Even in the billion dollar business that is the modern MLB, money is limited. Dollars spent on one player can’t be spent on another. No, they can’t sign any international amateurs for more than $300,000 for a little bit, but two of those players mentioned above signed for less than that, and two others weren’t considered amateurs and thus weren’t subject to spending limits.

Even if it’s not on international players, the money not spend on Robert can be used elsewhere. At least, that’s what Mozeliak contends. Again back to the Goold piece:

“People are like, ‘You’re flushed with cash. Roll the dice.’ That’s a lot of money. That money might be redeployed elsewhere now. It will.”

Rolling the dice is a pure gamble. Poker is the more applicable game when it comes to prospects. You make all the good decisions you can, but at the end of the day it’s a probabilistic game. A good gambler only plays when he believes he has an edge. You win some, you lose some, but if you’re constantly making good plays, then in the long-term you find success. For the Cardinals to ignore their system is to give up their edge.

We haven’t even mentioned the fact that the outfield in the majors and upper minors is currently pretty crowded. While you can argue that it makes those outfielders more expendable as trade chips, overpaying isn’t the best way to amass trade chips. Better to just invest the money when you come across something that is a good bet, whatever context that comes in.

The Cards don’t shy away from big commitments. They made gigantic ones to Jason Heyward and David Price, only to be outbid by teams that aren’t exactly loving the deals they signed. These are data points that support the Cardinals’ brain trust, but they’re often the reason they’re painted as cheap. Really, they’re just really good at identifying what is and isn’t a good bet in this game, and they’re using that to inform their decisions. That they didn’t spend the money on what you wanted them to spend it on doesn’t make them cheap, and it doesn’t make them risk averse either.

So Luis Robert probably wasn’t a good bet, and spending close to $60M on a 20 year-old probably isn’t the best way to invest money into producing a high-end player. Not unless the Cards were on the very high side of those evaluating Robert, in which case they passed up on the opportunity to pay about market rate for a prospect. It sounds like that wasn’t the case though. This is how a smart organization makes decisions.