So here we are. Paul Goldschmidt is officially on board for 2019, but the Cardinals are still projected to finish four games behind the Cubs atop the NL Central, 92 wins to 88. I won’t claim Steamer–or any projection model, for that matter–to be gospel, but I doubt I’m alone when I say that the Cardinals are still playing catchup for all intents and purposes.
And barring another move of Goldschmidt-esque magnitude, things are going to remain that way for the foreseeable future. You probably already know where I’m heading with this.
From David Price to Jason Heyward to Giancarlo Stanton, the Cardinals have displayed a willingness to exert financial capital to attract premier talent in recent offseasons. However, reading the tea leaves from recent front offices comments (particularly as they pertain to one Bryce Harper) makes for an especially puzzling activity.
Teams are meeting with Harper this week here in Vegas. Mozeliak was asked if he has meetings scheduled with any players this week here in Vegas. He shook his head. More telling was his lengthy comments about hoping Fowler returns to 2017 form in 2019.— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) December 11, 2018
#STLCards offseason priorities now shift to improving their bullpen and adding a left-handed bench player. They still have substantial financial flexibility, but I'm told Bryce Harper is not a target.— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) December 5, 2018
The Cardinals are, at least theoretically, willing to open up the checkbooks to some extent this winter. But as far as long-term investments go, you can’t do much better than the–and it bears repeating–still only 26-year-old Harper. The difference between inking ages 26-35 and 32-41 to a 10-year deal should not be understated.
Even in the short-term, Haper offers unparalleled value consolidation. FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel forecasted a $33 million average annual salary for Harper in free agency. Or for that same cost you could sign, say, Michael Brantley, Zach Britton, and whichever middle reliever your heart desires. While Harper likely adds at least three additional wins to the 2019 Cardinals, the same can’t be said for the latter hodgepodge of mid-tier free agents.
Despite the Goldschmidt acquisition and the $14.5 million he is due next year, St. Louis’ 2019 payroll is roughly $8.5 million less than it was this past season. Over as many as 600 plate appearances, the gap in projected WAR between Jedd Gyorko and Yairo Muñoz only sits at 0.5, a number that shrinks even more minuscule in a utility infield role now that a starting infield of Goldschmidt-Wong-Carpenter-DeJong is seemingly set in stone for 2019. Simply put, Jedd Gyorko and his $13 million salary (although the Padres are footing $5 million of the bill this season according to Cots Contracts) appears destined to be traded elsewhere to a team where his value can be maximized. That brings the Cardinals payroll down more than $16 million from 2018 and some $60 million below the competitive balance tax threshold.
The Cardinals can add a generational talent in Harper, only raise their 2019 payroll by about $15 million in doing so, and then flip players like Jedd Gyorko and Jose Martínez for bullpen help and/or prospect ammunition.
Nobody can definitively say that Bryce Harper would want to come to St. Louis, but to not make an earnest, aggressive push for him in free agency has the potential to be a grave mistake. Make no mistake: the Cardinals are absolutely capable of landing Harper.