The St. Louis Cardinals have not typically been major players in the free agent market since 2010. The team tends to be much more active in the trade market as Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Marcell Ozuna, and Tyler O’Neill all came to the team via trade. As a result, they are not too many options from which to choose the best free agent signing since 2010, though there are still some key players.
Lance Berkman, 2011-2012, 1 year - $8 million
Lance Berkman may have only had a short career with the Cardinals, but it was unforgettable. What may have been most surprising about the move was that he was signed to play the outfield, a position that he had not played in any capacity since 2007. It seemed crazy at the time that a slow footed 34-year-old with limited outfield experience could be a starting corner outfielder, and it was crazy. He was bad in every defensive metric and he posted -13 defensive runs saved. That’s not exactly what you are looking for in a right fielder.
The switch hitter more than made up for his glove when he stepped into the batter’s box. The former Astro posted a whopping 163 wRC+, which was the sixth best in the league (min. 250 PAs). He actually had a better wRC+ than teammates Matt Holiday and Albert Pujols. Because of this, Lance Berkman was the third most most valuable right fielder in the league with 4.7 fWAR, behind only Jose Bautista (8.1 fWAR) and Justin Upton (6.3 fWAR). This means that the Cardinals paid just $1.7 million for each unit of WAR, well below the current rate of $8-9 million per unit of WAR in free agency.
Not only did Berkman dominate the league in the regular season, but he showed up when it mattered most. The right-fielder had a 143 wRC+ in the playoffs and it was his RBI single in game six of the 2011 World Series that knotted the game at 9 apiece in the bottom of the tenth. We all know what happened after that.
Berkman was an All Star in 2011, won the Comeback Player of the Year award and finished 7th in MVP voting.
His contract extension did not go so well as he missed much of the year with an injury. Still, his 2011 heroics etched him into the memories of every Cardinals fan.
Carlos Beltran, 2012-2013, 2 years - $26 million
Carlos Beltran joined the Cardinals after the World Series winning campaign of 2011 and he helped the team remain a contender. He never reached the same heights as Lance Berkman, but he still racked up 6.1 fWAR in his two year Cardinals career. The Cardinals paid $4.3 million per unit of fWAR which made him a bargain. He hit 56 regular season home runs and 5 more in the playoffs. The switch hitter had an insane 207 wRC+ in the 2012 playoffs and the Redbirds lost in the NLCS in seven games to the eventual World Series Champion Giants. The only thing that could stop Beltran and the Cardinals that year was the Giants even year magic.
The outfielder came back the next year and helped the team compile the best record in the National League. In the playoffs, he posted a 140 wRC+ and the Cardinals lost the World Series in six games to the Red Sox.
Beltran was an All Star in both seasons in St. Louis and he participated in the home run derby in 2012 and won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2013. Like Berkman, he was not a Cardinal for very long but he made his mark in St. Louis and was a memorable player.
Jhonny Peralta, 2014-2017, 4 years - $53 million
Jhonny Peralta provided the Cardinals with some stability at the shortstop position after the team had cycled through Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, and Pete Kozma in previous years. Some eyebrows were raised when the Cardinals were willing to give such a contract to Peralta after a PED suspension, but he justified the investment. The shortstop compiled 4.6 fWAR in his first season in St. Louis and actually got some stray MVP votes. He was not as good in 2015, but he still finished the year as an above average hitter worth 2.1 fWAR. He also made the All-Star game, which, when the season was over, he did not deserve, but that made up for 2014 when he played at an All-Star level and didn’t make the game.
2016 and 2017 were not good for him, but that was to be expected when he began his four year contract at age 32. He did not hit well in the playoffs in either 2013 or 2014. Overall, the Cardinals paid $8.5 million per unit of WAR, which makes Berkman and Beltran much better investments. Still, Peralta was a solid player for two years and helped to solidify the shortstop position. His contract did not age well but he certainly outperformed it in his first two years while wearing the birds on the bat.
Seunghwan Oh, 2016 - 2017, 1 year + club option for 2017 - $5.0 million total
The Cardinals may not have a strong history of signing relievers in free agency (which will surely come up when I cover the worst signing since 2010), but Seunghwan Oh was a rare success. The ‘Final Boss’ was worth 2.6 fWAR in his first major league season making him the fifth most valuable reliever, behind only Kenley Janson, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman. That means that he was worth 2.6 fWAR while being paid just $2.5 million. That’s an unbelievable return in free agency. He also struck out almost a third of the batters he faced and finished his first year with a 1.92 ERA.
His second year did not go as well. After the Cardinals picked up their second year option on the right-hander, his ERA rose to 4.10 and he finished 2017 with an fWAR of 0.0. Unfortunately, he never made the playoffs with the Redbirds. It would have been fun to watch him shred hitters in the postseason in 2016, but the Cardinals missed out on a wild card spot by one game. In total, the Cardinals paid $1.9 million per unit of WAR.
Miles Mikolas, 2018-Present, 2 years - $15.5 million
The Miles Mikolas extension has not gone well, but the original contract that he signed when returning from Japan was an excellent one for the Cardinals. Mikolas threw over 200 innings in his first season and tallied a 4.2 fWAR on account of his strong 3.28 FIP. The ‘Lizard King’ was an All Star and finished 13th in the majors in fWAR for pitchers. He even got stray Cy Young votes.
2019 was another solid season for him, even though it was not to the same level. In 184 innings, Mikolas was worth 2.4 fWAR. He was a reliable mid-rotation innings eater. In 2019 he started two playoff games and appeared in a third while posting a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. His, and the Cardinals, playoff campaign ended with the Redbirds getting manhandled by the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals.
Over the life of his first contract, Mikolas was worth 1 WAR for every $2.3 million. His contract extension has pretty much reversed all of the excess value that he had compiled in his first two seasons, but let’s not forget about how much of a bargain his original contract was.
Best Free Agent Signing Since 2010 - Lance Berkman
There is an argument to be made for Carlos Beltran here since he was a key piece of two very competitive Cardinals teams. The fact that he had two strong seasons as opposed to only one for Berkman is also a point in his favor. However, Lance Berkman’s 2011 season was incredible, as was his playoff performance. He was one of the best players in the league and he was on a bargain contract. Besides that, Berkman’s key hit in game six is one of the most memorable moments of the team’s last World Series victory. It would have been fun to see a healthy Berkman in 2012, but he is still the choice. Beltran is a close competitor, but he comes up just short.
Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with my choice, or if I missed somebody in the list.