Last Spring, the Cardinals signed three veteran players to contract extensions: Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas. The moves prevented the Cardinals from having to bid for the players once they hit the open market (they did have an option on Carpenter).
So let’s see how the trio performed, comparing their preseason ZiPS projections to their actual Fangraphs WAR:
The Cardinals bid against themselves expecting to get the guys in the first column. Instead, they got the guys in the second column. If each of these players were on the open market right now, there’s no way they would get the kind of deal the Cardinals swooped in and preemptively signed them to.
This should be a wakeup call to the front office that their preferred method of doing business for 20+ years is no longer the way baseball works. In fact, ZiPS creator Dan Szymborski touched on this in a great thread yesterday:
This is no longer the case. Even poorly run teams don't really think players enter their primes at 31 or that HR/RBI uber alles. Which means that the MLBPA has to fight for their revenue pot in different ways.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 3, 2019
In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was an argument to be made for keeping a player you really wanted to hold onto off the open market. Somebody - probably the Phillies - was going to throw a crazy number at them. You would not be able to compete with that number, nor would you want to.
But that was back when just a few teams - the Cardinals included - were run by a roomful of bloodless quants. Now, every team in baseball is evaluating players using their own proprietary and yet nearly-identical algorithms.
The market used to be dumb. Now the market is smart.
In a market with this kind of efficiency, it’s to your advantage to let the market determine a player’s value. Keep in mind: The Cardinals could still have signed all three of these players for 2020 and beyond. They would be negotiating those contracts now, with the added information of their 2019 performance to help them set a more accurate, and lower price.
That’s especially true with older players, and all three of these guys are north of 30. Aging curves are not completely linear, but when guys past the age of 30 start declining, they typically keep moving in that direction. So in terms of how the market might value Goldschmidt, Carpenter or Mikolas, these were not likely just one-year blips. Sure, each of them could perform better next year. But I guarantee you their ZiPS projections (and every club’s internal projections) will have them much closer to their 2019 actuals than those preseason ZiPS numbers.
Extensions still make a ton of sense with young, cost-controlled players. We’re not talking about the kind of deals the club signed with Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and hopes to sign with Jack Flaherty. Leveraging those cost-controlled early years into a long-term deal - especially one that buys out a year or two of free agency - is still a great move.
But offering these early extensions to players in their 30s? That’s just bidding against yourself, man. And if the Cardinals have not learned their lesson, we may see the same thing play out this offseason with Yadier Molina.
Jeff Jones reported recently that Yadi may be seeking an extension to his contract, set to end after the 2020 season. Now on the one hand, Yadi is a very special case. And if you want to make the case that the Cardinals should give him whatever he wants because he’s Yadi, I’ll allow that argument.
But in a vacuum, extending even a future HoF catcher BEFORE he plays his age 37 season is unnecessarily risky. I can imagine a world where Yadi plays 120 games again in 2020 and the club decides they want him back for 2021. But I can also certainly imagine a world where it’s the end of the road. It sure would be nice to see which way 2020 breaks before committing to 2021.