The Cardinals can spend more money than they are currently set to spend, and thereby field a better baseball team than they have. It is no secret they have the money available. They haven’t lacked for targets. Acquiring an upgrade and then trading the average-ish player he displaces isn’t a complicated exercise — the Cardinals just did exactly that with this winter’s Ozuna-Piscotty-Grichuk shuffle. Replicating that with, say, Yu Darvish and Michael Wacha would have made the team better today, without hurting tomorrow. If one is the type of person to assign moral qualities to the budgetary habits of companies in the entertainment business (I’m not, but maybe you are), one could call the Cardinals’ contentedness to have lots of unspent payroll slack year after year shameful (me, I just call it wasteful).
Also, Mike Moustakas — a noted pretty-good baseball player — signed a contract yesterday that, even given the knowledge that his market wasn’t developing very well this year, was shockingly small. So small! It guarantees him only $6.5 million this year, and a $1 million option buyout next year. The Cardinals could have doubled that without blinking! He would have given them a great bench. The scoundrels.
Nevertheless: it makes all the sense in the world that the Cardinals didn’t sign Mike Moustakas, and there’s no good reason to be upset that they passed on the opportunity.
Here’s the thing... nobody outside of Cardinals fans (and maybe Scott Boras, but his opinions on the matter of Mike Moustakas were clearly way off) was looking at the Cardinals as a destination for Mike Moustakas. Look, here is a whole article by a respected haver of baseball thoughts re Moustakas’s market. Ctrl-F “cardinals” returns nothing. They didn’t come up. There a good and obvious reason for that: the teams that are mentioned as sensible destinations for Moustakas are ones where he would have been the new starting third baseman. But for the St. Louis Cardinals, that would not necessarily have been the case. Which brings us to Reason #1 that it’s fine Moustakas isn’t a Cardinal today:
Reason #1 - Jedd Gyorko exists
Mike Moustakas was born on September 11, 1988, in Los Angeles. 12 days later and over 2,000 miles away, Jedd Lindon Gyorko was born in Morgantown, West Virginia. Both of these tiny babies would grow into large, strong, nimble adults who play professional baseball. As of 2017, they in fact played the same position. Over the past two seasons, one of them hit .258/.324/.483, and the other hit .267/.312/.517. The former batting line pencils out to 12% above league average in total, and the latter to 13% above league average. Both men are considered below average at running the bases, and above average at third base defense. They have different backgrounds and (I assume) likes, dislikes, and personalities. But on the field, the only meaningful difference I can discern between them is that one hits right-handed and the other hits left-handed. They are simply opposite-handed versions of the same player.
In other words, it’s fine that the Cardinals didn’t sign Mike Moustakas, because the Cardinals already have Mike Moustakas.
“But!” — the alert reader interjects — “The Cardinals could platoon them, or just pick one to start and use the other to make a super-bench.” Which brings us to Reason #2:
Reason #2 - Mike Moustakas’s preferences matter
One thing I’m confident Mike Moustakas would prefer is more money. Which, for 2018, the Cardinals could easily have provided. But he’d prefer more future money, too, and that’s where things get tricky here. What Moustakas signed with Kansas City is a pillow contract — it provides him an income and place to play for 2018 (and possibly 2019), with an eye on playing well, attracting the market’s attention, and hitting the market again ASAP for a long-term deal. One thing that absolutely has to happen for a pillow contract to work is that the player has to play.
Moustakas doesn’t want to be an insurance policy. He doesn’t want to be in a timeshare. He doesn’t want to be the long side of a third-base platoon. Those things would hurt his market next time out. If he thinks those things are going to happen to him on your baseball team, he’s not going to sign a pillow contract with you. If he thinks they might happen — and if you think any promises the front office could make would survive a three-week slump with Mike Matheny in charge, well, hahahahahaha — then he’s not going to sign. Moustakas probably still thinks there’s a good chance of getting $80 million in 10 months, and he’s not crazy to think that. Signing a pillow deal with St. Louis, even for double the money he got from KC, would have endangered that.
Cue the alert reader: “So just sign him for 4/60; that’s still a good deal!” And yes, it is, which takes us to Reason #3.
Reason #3 - a bargain for its own sake is pointless
You don’t buy something you don’t need just because it was on sale. I’m extremely sympathetic to the point of view that says if an asset is undervalued (which Moustakas appears to have been here, badly) then you should just buy it and figure out what to do with it later — i.e. sign Moose, and trade whomever from the infield pile gets you the best return. The problem is that right now, as inexplicable as it seems, Moustakas’s awful market suggests that the trade markets for Jedd Gyorko, Matt Carpenter, or Kolten Wong are likely ice cold as well. Maybe you can flip one down the road, but for now, they’d just be carrying a redundant player. Unless you are somebody who actually takes pleasure in seeing the Cardinals payroll rise irrespective of whether that spending impacts the win column (which, weird), this seems like a hard outcome to root for.
It’s not that Moustakas would have no impact on the win column. If Matt Carpenter misses a bunch of t—... wait, Jose Martinez seems to be as good as Moustakas. Well, if Kolten Wong or Jedd Gyorko gets h—... hmm actually Greg Garcia’s got 2.6 fWAR in his last 547 PAs, doesn’t he. Gosh, it’s almost as if the thing we’ve all been complaining about for two years — that this team has average players falling out from between the couch cushions — is what is disincentivizing the team from spending on free agents.
Still, there are going to be some injuries at some point, which means guys like Luke Voit and Breyvic Valera getting called up and getting some playing time. Moustakas is better than them. If we take last year as an example, Voit and Alex Mejia took 173 bad-to-blah PAs between them. Over 175 PAs, Moustakas nets the team something like a half of a win more than a guy like Voit. I’d rather have that than not. And if they’re not spending any more 2018 dollars on anything else, hey, make the tiny upgrade.
But Moustakas was never going to come to the Cardinals for just 2018 dollars; St. Louis just isn’t a sensible destination for a pillow contract. Fool though I may be, I still expect post-2018 dollars to be spent on upgrades bigger than a half a win a year. To the extent a contract for a tiny upgrade gets in the way of that, I’m happy to avoid it. So if you’re out there bemoaning the Cardinals not giving Moustakas 4/60 or whatever number it would have taken to woo him away from a pillow deal, then I think we just have a fundamental disagreement about how much fun it is to watch numbers climb in the payroll column without climbing in the win column.