Following the 2009 season, the St. Louis Cardinals signed left fielder Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract. While the Cardinals had acquired Holliday via a trade with the Oakland Athletics in July, the outfielder had reached free agency and was not a shoo-in to re-sign with the Cardinals. Ultimately, however, a deal was reached and Matt Holliday signed the most lucrative contract in St. Louis Cardinals history.
It seemed like it was just a matter of time until the Cardinals would eclipse the level they spent for Holliday. Era-defining superstar Albert Pujols was two seasons away from free agency, and while $120 million was a larger total then than it is now, it was still a fairly reasonable sum: Alex Rodriguez had inked a contract worth more than double the dollar amount of Holliday’s—twice.
But to date, the St. Louis Cardinals have never signed a player for more than Holliday’s $120 million. While St. Louis is decidedly not a major media market, consistently high ticket sales and a billion dollar television deal make the Cardinals among baseball’s most profitable teams. And because the Cardinals have not gone all-in on elite-tier free agents, the team has received criticism for relatively stagnant off-seasons.
But how much of this is credible, intellectually-founded criticism of the Cardinals organization and how much of this is fan anger? As somebody who is very much in favor of questioning those in power but who also recognizes that his attempts at rational sports observation are often stymied by the blinding irrationality of fandom, I wasn’t sure. So I looked at the off-seasons for the Cardinals, starting with 2011-12, which includes the most famous example of Cardinals financial restraint (or thriftiness, depending on your perspective), to weigh the process and results of the moves and non-moves made.
Process: Coming off a World Series championship, the undisputed player of the 2000s for the Cardinals, Albert Pujols, hit free agency, and while the Cardinals did offer the first baseman in excess of what they had offered Matt Holliday, it fell materially short of the offer submitted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Pujols went out west. The Cardinals responded with a lesser signing, Carlos Beltran, and an extension to Yadier Molina.
Results: Assuming that the Beltran signing and Molina extension were the direct result of not signing Pujols, this is one of the great wins in franchise history (and that’s not even counting Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty coming from draft picks which came as the result of losing Pujols). Beltran was worth 5.2 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement in two seasons in St. Louis and was worth $9.9 million more than his salary, per FanGraphs. The Molina extension was signed right before he went from “good catcher” to “legitimate MVP candidate”, and had the Cardinals waited until after 2012, they would have either not been able to afford him or would have paid far more than $75 million over five years.
Process: Following an underachieving regular season and an overachieving postseason by peripherals, the most significant loss for the Cardinals was that of Kyle Lohse, who had an excellent 2012 but was given a token qualifying offer and little more in order to make room for top prospect Shelby Miller in the Cardinals’ rotation. The Cardinals used this extra money to extend Adam Wainwright, sign a LOOGY (Randy Choate), and give Ty Wigginton five million dollars (he was also theoretically supposed to play baseball).
Results: Wigginton was an unmitigated disaster, making it halfway through the first year of his two-year contract, but this was more a reflection on the team’s signing quality rather than the team’s signing willingness (and even so, it wasn’t a major financial burden). Choate was sometimes good and sometimes bad, while Wainwright’s contract has been basically market value (he has been worth $1.6 million more than his salary during the first four seasons of the contract, with one more year at $19.5 million remaining). Meanwhile, the contract Lohse signed with the Milwaukee Brewers turned out to be almost exactly market value ($33.4 million in value for $33 million in salary), though the performance of Shelby Miller in 2013 made the Cardinals’ tentativeness look reasonable.
Process: The 2013 Cardinals won 97 games, but they had a replacement level shortstop, so they signed Jhonny Peralta. David Freese and to a lesser extent Jon Jay struggled, so the Cardinals traded Freese (and Fernando Salas) for Peter Bourjos, a player intended to compete with Jay for a starting position, and Randal Grichuk. Carlos Beltran left via free agency, but given his defensive struggles late in 2013 and the rise of Matt Adams (with the possibility of moving Allen Craig to right field), as well as Oscar Taveras waiting in the minors, his departure was met with a similar level of resistance as with Lohse the year before. Oh, and they also signed Mark Ellis.
Results: The 2013 team was a good team that got historically lucky to win 97 games, and the 2014 team took a significant step back (they still made the NLCS, because even a bad Cardinals team during that run was very successful), but the best player on that team was Jhonny Peralta. While Peralta was not an elite free agent, he was the second-best shortstop on the market per MLB Trade Rumors, and he easily passed Stephen Drew in retrospect. Peralta was a bargain for his first year-plus in St. Louis, all while he earned a slightly higher salary than Beltran had commanded.
Process: Following the stunning death of top prospect Oscar Taveras, a moment which haunts the organization to this day, the Cardinals made their most aggressive win-now move since trading for Matt Holliday, acquiring Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. On the free agent market, however, the Cardinals were mostly quiet, notably passing on top free agent starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Jon Lester.
Results: The Heyward trade was a pivotal move for the 2015 Cardinals—the return the Braves got from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Shelby Miller complicates analyzing the trade a bit, but it was a move that is hard to not regard as an example of the Cardinals making a risky, exciting move. And while the Cardinals were deep at starting pitcher, even with the Miller trade, it is hard not to look longingly at Lester and especially Scherzer as pitchers who would solidify the Cardinals rotation.
Process: The Cardinals entered this off-season with one major goal in mind: re-sign Jason Heyward. The Cardinals entered this off-season with another major goal in mind, a 1A by all accounts (except those that would say Heyward was 1A): sign David Price. This plan, however, failed miserably: Price was reportedly shocked when the Cardinals would not match his offer from the Boston Red Sox, and not only did Jason Heyward leave St. Louis, he left to join the arch-rival Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals signed Mike Leake, a league-average pitcher who, compared to Price or Heyward, felt like the equivalent of being given toothpaste while trick-or-treating.
Results: 2015-16 was the most convincing off-season in recent memory for the “Cardinals are cheap and/or cowards” narrative, but the restraint appears to be working pretty well. While Jason Heyward has remained excellent defensively, his plate struggles have made the contract appear to be a bust so far. David Price was good, if not great, in 2016, but struggled with injuries throughout much of 2017. The jury is still out on each, but neither would have made the difference between winning the NL Central and missing the playoffs over the last two seasons.
Process: The Cardinals entered the off-season hoping to improve in center field, so they signed the second-biggest (or biggest, depending on how seriously you think Yoenis Cespedes considered leaving the New York Mets) center fielder on the market in Dexter Fowler. Additionally, the Cardinals bolstered their bullpen with lefty Brett Cecil, and just before the 2017 season started, they signed Yadier Molina to a three-year extension worth $20 million per season.
Results: Fowler was always an average-ish player, and this is what the Cardinals paid for. Fowler was among the better players in a weak free agent class, but relative to what was possible, the Cardinals made about as big of a move as they could at a position of what they perceived to be imminent need—criticism that the Cardinals refused to sign an outfielder with superstar potential was more relevant in the previous off-season when they did not sign Heyward. Cecil was less bad than the groans at Busch Stadium might suggest, but it would be hard to pretend the contract is looking great at the moment. While Yadier Molina had a power surge, his offense was down from previous seasons—his 94 wRC+ was his second-worst since 2010. But while criticizing the wisdom of the Cecil or Molina signings is fair, they were, by definition, an example of the Cardinals spending money.
The 2015-16 off-season was undeniably an example of the Cardinals exercising caution. The Cardinals were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to keep pace with prices dictated by the bigger-market Red Sox or Cubs. The signing of Mike Leake was, at best, an uninspiring way of replacing John Lackey, and the acquisition of Jedd Gyorko, although retrospectively very productive, did not inspire much excitement at the time. Setting aside for a moment that neither of the big-ticket free agents that got away have lived up to their big paydays, it is understandable that this would reinforce criticisms of the organization for sitting on a war chest.
But these criticisms only work in a vacuum. The next off-season, the Cardinals signed the #6 free agent on the market (and #26, while losing #30 and #40), per MLB Trade Rumors. The off-season before passiveness regarding Jason Heyward became all the rage, the Cardinals traded a recent top prospect and Rookie of the Year finalist in order to make a run at the 2015 title with Heyward in the first place. The previous off-season saw the Cardinals tasked with improving a 97-win pennant winner, and they signed the next season’s best player in order to fix their biggest flaw.
None of this is to say that Cardinals ownership or management should be immune from criticism. They make mistakes (albeit fewer mistakes than most organizations), but ultimately, there has been nothing exceptional about their passivity in recent years. If the 2017-18 off-season comes and goes without the Cardinals signing anything more than a fungible back-of-the-bullpen reliever, the Cardinals will and should be criticized. But the Cardinals’ track record for aggression does not warrant giving up on the off-season before it even starts.